Amersham in Buckinghamshire may only be a direct 45 minutes from London Marylebone by rail, yet its beautiful old town is a world away from all the hustle and bustle, with characterful shops, fine restaurants and modernised, boutique coaching inns like The Crown making it a relaxing weekend destination without the effort of travelling far.
Having been a regular of The Crown since my school days, where my mother and I would enjoy tea and cake whilst sitting on the very sofa Carrie (Andie MacDowell) hid behind in the Richard Curtis 1990’s smash British film Four Weddings and a Funeral, it’s fascinating to see how the once cosy lounge has been transformed into the trendy, minimalist Hawkyns Restaurant, operated by the Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar. Presided over by Head Chef Ross Bott, it’s already attracting serious foodies who are both stunned to hear that Kochhar has ditched the masala dani (spice rack) for this latest venture, whilst being intrigued to experience his own unique take on British food. Where once guests might have stayed just a night at The Crown and dined over the road at The Artichoke, they are now stopping a couple and dining both there and Hawkyns; both restaurants offering sufficiently different styles of cookery and ambiance to warrant an extended stay.
My stylish Courtyard Suite was a great showcase for the hotel’s bold reinvention of Old-English design by Isle Crawford, with whitewashed walls and stylish stark furniture emphasising the high vaulted ceiling and dark beams, while touches of cosy sheepskin, woollen blankets, a rocking chair and a free-standing roll top bath offered the comforting elements that make you want to spend time here. A four-poster king-size bed, an en-suite complete with rain forest shower and White Company toiletries, a complimentary drinks tray with snacks, and a fantastic speaker system for listening to music made me unwind just fine, and that was before the massage.
Another justification of staying longer is of course the Red House Spa, located in a striking glass fronted detached property adjacent to The Crown’s outbuildings. With a wide range of luxury beauty therapies using Guinot and Anne Semonin, fitness and yoga classes, and a brand new gym which hotel residents are granted complimentary access to during off peak hours, it’s a smart new addition that elevates The Crown to sanctuary status. I booked in for an hour long body massage (why bother getting undressed for less?) and my therapist Tammy saw to it that I not only thoroughly relaxed but that my tense muscles got an unloosening that I am still benefiting from a fortnight later.
The hotel bar, also styled in The Crown’s trademark Old English-come Nordic minimalism, is just the spot for an aperitif, although my dad felt the need to have a firm word with the member of staff who decided to get the Brasso out and polish the beer pump handles, thus ruining his glass of wine with chemical odours strong enough to justify her having to open the window and let a draught exacerbate his complaint. Both gripes were swiftly dealt with by the manager in charge, however, and we settled down to read the scaled down weekday market menu with great interest, items such as beef Wellington, the BBQ Jacob’s Ladder of Beef and whole lemon sole being reserved for Friday and Saturday evenings.
That said, there was still plenty to appeal and, after being shown to the atmospheric low-beamed Hawkyns Restaurant with its dark wood floors and bare tables, dressed with nothing more than flickering candles, ancient-looking cutlery and pewter side plates, we were soon delighted with some fine rustic bread and an amuse-bouche of mushroom velouté. My starter of English goats cheese mousse with beetroot and avocado followed shortly; a simple, earthy opening course with chunks of salt-baked beetroot served fridge-cold rather than warm as I had been anticipating, but which, when coupled with the silky avocado purée and a mild, tangy room-temperature goats cheese that was firm not light, it proved a dish which showcased three seemingly timid ingredients and surprised the diner with differing temperatures and textures.
An intense, vibrant espuma of seasonal British asparagus and wild garlic from The Crown’s small kitchen garden was a welcome surprise course, not least because the atmosphere in the dining room made us all want to linger a while. Surrounded by happy customers who were clearly enjoying the quality of the food, (which in all honesty could never be described as rustic), without any of the stiffness of fine dining, where the service in the bar area had appeared a little haphazard, the restaurant staff were attentive, friendly and knowledgeable and Sous-Chef Poppy Watson did a commendable job of holding the fort on Head Chef Ross Bott’s night off.
It’s a long time since I was excited by fish and chips yet I knew not to expect anything ordinary when I ordered the Hawkyn’s version. Sure enough it featured sous-vide cod, a smear of the smoothest pea purée, a rich, unctuous tartare sauce packed with capers and cornichons, and topped with a generous scattering of batter bits that almost resembled rice crispies. The batter pieces added a joyful texture when coupled with the ultra soft and just-flaking fish, and the sweetness of the peas, the salty triple cooked chips and the acidic tartare sauce proved a fine tribute to the long and happy marriage of fish and chips, whilst allowing the cod a chance to speak for itself by refraining to drown it in a heavy, greasy batter. Some twists on modern classics made me want to lunge at the chef with a butter knife, but not this one.
By the time we arrived at dessert I had all but forgotten Atul Kochhar’s reputation as a spice guru, which is probably the greatest compliment I can pay Hawkyns. The finale was a warm almond sponge cake with all the intense flavour of marzipan I so enjoy, served with rich mascarpone crème pâtissière, a dense boulder-style chocolate crumb for both texture and cocoa bitterness, and dots of an intoxicating amaretto gel. My husband was meanwhile making When Harry Met Sally groans over his oozing chocolate fondant with salted caramel ice cream, so I recommend you reserve a table here on your first night, for you (and your other half) will struggle to find a more satisfying meal in all Old Amersham.
Hawkyns Restaurant at The Crown in Amersham, 16 High St, Amersham, Buckinghamshire HP7 0DH. For more information visit the website.