Monday, 16 April 2012

The Crown, Bray

A couple of weeks ago our lovely friend Stealth came to stay for the weekend. Originally I was planning to finish Sunday dinner by attempting to recreate Heston Blumenthal's Banana Eton Mess. Caramelised banana, hazelnut praline, lime cream, what's not to like? Well, according to some of these reviews on the Waitrose website, quite a few things.... Slightly deterred I decided to leave it to the professionals, and so booked a table for Monday lunch at the Crown in Bray.

The second pub Heston now owns in the little Berkshire village (read about our visit to the Hind's Head here) The Crown seems the most informal of all his dining venues. Rickety and ramshackle in the best possible way I was pleased to see, (despite the blue skies and budding branches there was still a nip in the air) not one but two open fires roaring away as we arrived for our meal.

As seems to be an all too common theme on this blog, we were all feeling a little tender from the night before and were sorely in need of some proper pub grub to ease our aching heads and soothe our grumbling bellies. Gingerly sipping on lime and soda and sparkling water we may not have have been up to giving local ales the sampling they deserved, but we didn't let ourselves down when it came to sampling the food.

This is a proper menu full of things you want to eat. From the carbohydrate hug of pies, macaroni and burgers through to refined fish dishes, steaks and a sharing section featuring chilli and cornbread and cheese fondue. It's all decently priced too, with a set lunch and early evening menu ( two courses £12 or three for £15), being particularly good value.

Stealth's pork pie; no matter how much pretty veg and symmetrical blobs of pickle you use to jazz things up a good pie ultimately it comes down to jelly, lard and fatty, well seasoned, pork. Luckily all three were present and correct. A simple, fine beginning.

My leeks with taleggio and hazelnut crumble was a little more refined, but no less tasty for it. The leeks had been gently cooked before being smothered in melted cheese and a decent handful of herby, nutty, citrussy crumbs for a wonderful, crunchy contrast. The sort of dish whose simplicity and flavour makes you look at humble alliums in a new light. 

The Ewing's potted rabbit. This was excellent; the rabbit was potted with a decent amount of smoky fat that melted into the warm, crunchy toast, and was strewn with shards of crunchy sea salt and garlicky chives. The sweet chutney helped cut through the rich meatiness, and, had we been up to it, would have paired nicely with a good, hoppy pint of bitter. 

Now that's what I call a pie. Part two of Stealth's pie double-header; a beautifully burnished suet carapace, cradling chunks of steak and a rich ale gravy, nestled on a bed of smooth and fluffy potato. Not a dish for the faint-hearted, the pastry still managed to be beautifully light and crisp, the meat soft and tender.

Sometimes only fish 'n' chips will do. Usually this is the Ewing's default comfort food, I tend to favour a greasy burger, but on this occasion crispy batter, fluffy potatoes and a side order of minted peas was just the ticket. Although eating off a wooden plank never fills my heart with joy, it was so good I was soon distracted by slathering the flaky fish and crispy chips in tangy tartare sauce and chasing it all down with forkfuls of sweet pea.

The Ewing's hake with Jerusalem artichoke puree and kale. This was a pleasant plate of food, but lacked any real excitement. The fish was well cooked, the artichoke light and creamy and the whole thing topped with a giant, crispy shrimp, but overall I found it a bit bland and boring; as beige as the puree it sat on.

A far better jerusalem artichoke showing came from the pail of triple cooked wedges. These were crispy and salty on the outside, nutty and sweet within. A much underrated tuber.

Pudding time. Luckily they had the, by now fabled, Banana Eton Mess on the menu; trouble was every one wanted it. Where's the fun in eating your pudding if you can't reach over to swipe a mouthful of someone else's? After hearing us squabbling over who was going to order what the waitress reappeared to let us know there was a special Rhubarb Eton Mess on the menu; problem solved.

Stealth ended up choosing the rhubarb version, and wasn't disappointed. Strips of the dried fruit joined little cubes of poached rhubarb, heaps of whipped cream and little buttons of meringue. If that wasn't enough the lily was well and truly gilded with the shards of sweet honeycomb scattered on top. I love rhubarb and the sharpness of the fruit was the perfect foil for the sweet cream and meringue mixture.

The Ewing's Banana Mess, well worth the wait. There was a saltiness from the praline, but it was kept nicely in check by the sweet banana puree and lime-spiked cream. Slices of fresh banana and more mini meringues provided contrast and crunch. A proper pudding.

Although tempted by the two messes on the menu I was swayed by the Earl Gray panna cotta with lemon crumble. Although not the biggest fan of drinking Earl Gray tea I love the gently perfumed flavour in cakes and deserts, and this was no exception. The panna cotta was perfectly, barely set and gently slumped into the buttery shortbread crumbs as I prodded my spoon into it. The astringency of candied lemon peel set off the richness perfectly.

Our lunch at the Crown was a perfect piece of Middle England, in the best possible way. Good food, good service, good company and lovely surroundings. For those who equate Heston with crazy kitchen theatrics and crazy prices the Crown kitchen remains firmly down to earth, producing modest and delicious food with a bill to match.

After finishing our pots of tea and squeezing in a final home made chocolate chip cookie we staggered, sated down the lane to Monkey Island, an Agatha Christie-esque hotel situated down on the river bank. Here we spent the remainder of our afternoon enjoying the  dregs of Spring sunshine, waving at the boats sailing by and to attempting to avoid attack by the resident peacock. Perfect.

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