Heston Blumenthal is known for experimental cooking at the Fat Duck, in Bray, and for historical British dishes at his London restaurant, Dinner.
How about pub grub?
That’s what he serves at The Crown, the 16th-century coaching inn he bought in 2010. It’s just down the road from the Fat Duck, which holds three Michelin stars, and from the Hinds Head, where the chef has won another star.
On television, Blumenthal once created a public house inside a supersized pie. Things are simpler at the Crown, where you’re more likely to see locals drinking beer than hear gourmets discussing gastronomy. Yet among the inn’s low-beamed ceilings and open fires, the food is very good.
Nick Galer is in charge of the kitchen, so don’t expect to see Blumenthal cooking, although he does oversee the menu.
You can even get fish & chips to go. I’d rather stay. The Crown’s website repeats the rumor that Charles II would drop by when visiting his mistress Nell Gwyn in the neighboring village of Holyport. Maybe she fancied a takeaway.
The menu is accessible in terms of prices and dishes. It’s British and the style is traditional, only with better ingredients than you might expect. Starters cost 6 pounds ($9.80) to 9 pounds, and most mains are 14 pounds to 18 pounds.
“I want to keep the Crown at Bray as a traditional village pub,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “It’s important that the village has somewhere that you can just pop in for a pint and chew the cud or a steak sandwich. Or come in for a great simple lunch or dinner, or even join in on one of the quiz nights.”
Among the starters, caramelized lamb sweetbreads with roast onion puree and lamb sauce (7.25 pounds) are the closest to a restaurant-style dish. While rich, the modest portions mean there’s no need to worry about over-indulging. Whole crispy cauliflower, cheese sauce and Henderson’s relish is served in a crunchy breadcrumb coating. Or there’s a pork-and-beef hot dog with fine flavor and a loose texture, bought in from a company called Big Apple Hot Dogs.
Among the mains, the roast turkey (with all the trimmings) served before Christmas was an ethically bred bronze bird from Caldecott Farm via butcher Aubrey Allen. The turkeys are allowed to waddle around and grow at leisure, much like myself. The difference in flavor between this and a budget bird is as great as that between an English summer strawberry and a winter import.
There was also one of the finest Christmas puddings I’ve tasted: Moist, boozy and packed with fruit.
There are no tablecloths, and the service is as friendly and willing as you’d expect from a good rural pub. The waitress is happy to find answers to your questions rather than interrupting your meal with too much information.
The Crown is about an hour from London in a beautiful setting, five minutes from the river Thames and near the Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn.
(The Fat Duck costs 195 pounds for the food -- if you can get a table -- and the wine pairings can run to hundreds of pounds.)
If you live in London, you might not think a trip to the Crown worth it for the food alone. You can eat so well in the capital, you don’t need to travel anywhere.
For a day in the country, it’s a treat.
The Bloomberg Questions
How much? About 30-35 pounds for three courses.
Sound level? It’s a busy pub -- 70 decibels.
Inside tip? I prefer the bar area over the dining room.
Special feature? Famous owner, pub prices.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes.
The Crown, High Street, Bray, SL6 2AH. Information: http://www.thecrownatbray.com/ or +44-1628-621-936.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)