Albert Roux once said that pubs should be “the bistros of England”; well, his wish has come true. Chefs looking for an affordable way to run their own businesses have transformed old boozers the length and breadth of Britain, and some have even managed to collect a Michelin star en route.
One such is Simon Bonwick, whose resolutely classic French cooking has brightened the Thames Valley’s gastronomic scene for the past 15 years or so – first at The Black Boys Inn, Hurley, then at Henley’s Three Tuns, and now at The Crown, Burchetts Green. His first star came last year.
It is no more than he deserves. The bar of the pretty village pub may be haunted (by “a small bearded man with a pony”, according to the website), but it is the ghosts of gastronomic heavyweights like Fernand Point, from Vienne, and Lyon’s formidable Eugénie Brazier that seem to stalk the kitchen.
If they did (and you will find pictures of both above the bar), they would only have Bonwick for company: a self-avowed “soloist”, he cooks 20 covers on his own at each service, with several of his nine children front of house. Should you secure one of the blackboard-listed “haggle wines” at a generous discount, one of them may whisper, “Don’t tell Dad”.
Lunch started with seared scallops as amply proportioned as La Mère Brazier herself, dressed with vibrant, verdant pesto. Then, silky, rich rillettes of wild boar and possibly the finest tranche of turbot I have ever eaten, cooked à la Lyonnaise, its skin slathered in crisp onions and snipped chives, its flesh faintly translucent within. And next a splendid rosy chunk of Challans duck resting happily on a sticky sauce studded with fresh morels, its diced sautéed innards adding depth and savour. “Dad’s flapjack” and truffled Brie rounded off a pitch-perfect meal.
As Bonwick will tell you, running a proper restaurant in a pub is not easy. James Durrant, whose Plough Inn at Longparish was justly named The Good Food Guide’s Pub of the Year in 2013, had to shut up shop last year, unable to attract enough weekday trade.
Hampshire’s loss is London’s gain. Newly installed at The Game Bird, in the clubby Stafford hotel, St James’s, Durrant’s menu is a delight, featuring British produce cooked with intelligence and precision: fallow deer from the Rhug Estate chopped into a tartare and dabbed with charcoal-spiked mayonnaise, nasturtium leaves and wafer-thin croutons adding a peppery, piquant crunch; or a faultless steak-and-ale suet pudding drenched in a rich gravy.
And there is the eponymous “game bird”: beautifully cooked pigeon, sliced and tossed with roast parsnips and cabbage, its braised leg in a consommé alongside. Fernand Point famously opined that “a good meal must be as harmonious as a symphony and as well-constructed as a Norman cathedral”; by that measure, Bonwick and Durrant deserve degrees in both music and architecture.