When Heston Blumenthal bought his second pub The Crown in 2010, a few disgruntled locals of the gastro-hamlet of Bray expressed their irritation. There were puffed out cheeks and the waving of fists. It’s not as if Bray is bulging with boozers, and Heston already owned The Hinds Head, a fine tavern in its own right and a kind of overspill for guests of the local restaurant, The Fat Duck.
Understandably, the inhabitants wished to hold onto their local ale house; where prices are reasonable and local ales celebrated; the quaint, cosy 16th century inn where men chew the fat and can escape the wife. Rumour has it that randy Charles II would often call into The Crown for a drink when visiting his mistress, the “Protestant whore” Nell Gwynn, at Holyport.
Dipsomaniacs who seek their old watering hole will find, since the celebrity chef acquisition, that not a great deal has altered. A toasty, informal setting with simplistic decor, traditional ‘pubby’ furnishings, and the framed oil paintings of bass and carp remain housed, while minor adjustments to the menu will be noticeable to the travelling gastro-adventurers.
Head Chef Nick Galer transfers much of what is celebrated about Blumenthal and is committed to the importance of quality and seasonal ingredients. Before joining The Crown, Galer worked at the Michelin-starred The Goose in Oxfordshire and Crazy Bear Farm in Stadhampton (winner of ‘Best Heavy Hog’ (Gloucestershire Old Spot) by The Chertsey Agricultural Association).
Good blokey grub is exemplified by the Potted Rabbit with grilled bread and baby cornichons. But why can’t we call them ‘gherkins’? It’s the food porn of Elmer Fudd. Poor old Buggs has been shot, skinned and shredded. He’s rich and gamey, and easily spreadable. He’s as highly gratifying as any lunchtime snack. Albarino (Casal Caeiro, Spain 2009) is the ideal white to accompany and swish about during a leisurely lunchtime schism.
Other taste-bud-smackers from the menu include traditional ‘Pub Menu’ staples: Steak and Ale Pie, Char-grilled Hereford Sirloin, and a Montgomery Cheddar (or Stitchleton blue cheese from Nottinghamshire) Ploughman’s Lunch. That always reminds me of the Tommy Cooper line: “I had a ploughman’s lunch the other day; he wasn’t very pleased about it.”
James Montgomery’s cheddar is the best in the world, and I’d fight you on that. He’s a champion cheesemaker. His is the most welcoming, pleasurably cheesy, mastication of dairy delight. The Ploughman’s is the perfect plate in which to express this world-beating cheese. Living up to all praise, Montgomery’s Cheddar is sharp and subtly nutty. Elsewhere on the plate – leaning between the cheese and a genetically modified tomato on steroids – is a baguette to boat the salad and cheese. A few slices of honey-glazed smoked ham were amiss, but with the quality of ingredients on display, it’s a lunch to fill any ploughman’s belly.
Saliva-dripping descriptions from the desserts menu are enough to throw you into hyperventilating fits: an incredibly good banana Eton Mess with lime and hazlenuts, and, if I had the space, I’d follow-up with Vanilla Cream, Clementines, Mandarin & Thyme. All smack you with saccharine indiscipline, and are all very reasonably priced under £6.00.
Less than 100 metres down the road is Blumenthal’s first pub purchase, The Hinds Head – another gastro-temple (and possibly purveyors of the worlds’ finest Scotch egg). Prices are more economical at The Crown but the food is no less scrutinised or considered.
Often the forgotten sibling of the Blumenthal/Bray trio, The Crown has managed to sustain happy locals while agilely cultivating a fine seasonally-led menu with equalling quality to that of its elder tavern brother.
There’s no generic carbon menu or comparison crossover between the two, and The Crown is able to stand resolute and as an individual – underneath the Blumenthal portfolio – knowing in its own right that the food is traditional and contains the workings to satisfy both local and travelling gourmets.
The Crown at Bray, High Street Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 2AH. Tel. 01628 621 936. Website.