26 Aug 2010

Crowning Bray’s King

THREE months ago, ‘Heston Blooming Marvellous’ (as Giles Denney of St. Ives Road describes celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal in his missive to The Maidenhead Advertiser) acquired Bray’s boozer, ‘The Crown’.

Despite Denney’s lament over subsequent ‘slightly’ higher food prices but richly priced Rioja, I caught the diesel belching train towards Ulrika Jonsson’s favourite pub on what felt like the year’s dampest day.
Even in repugnant weather, simultaneously weak but glaring lighting rendered the space uninviting. Formed of three houses whose three doors remain, a miscellany of pictures, heavy-handedly bolted to the 14th century walls, record how one had been a bicycle shop.
As my friend and I clinked halves of local IPA (one of few examples of local produce), a bar fly reminisced about the ‘good old days of lock-ins’. Clearly he was concerned that under Blumenthal’s tenure, this would become a holding pen in which Fat Duck diners could rev-up their anticipations, then four hour hours later, return, poorer, for a post mortem.
From my observations, The Crown remains a pub in genre in the sense that tankards are available if required. There’s also Dom Pérignon for £200 plus service, and, aside from the sarnies, an enthusiastically priced carte. Hatefully, you must pay for a ‘side’ of bread and butter, billed as ‘organic bread and unpasteurised Welsh butter’. Until today, I hadn’t considered Cymru for the quality of its golden churn.
Avoiding two dishes featuring unseasonal asparagus, I started with a cheerful ‘trug’ of crunchy vegetables. Wrapped in gingham, this comprised long cross sections of carrot, halved baby peppers, linen white cauliflower, clean tasting fennel but notably timid radishes. These arrived with an unforgivably chilly bagna càuda which took on the colour of bile under our re-wired orange-bulbed carriage light. Regardless of the càuda’s coolness, I liked my starter’s rustically presented healthfulness.
To get to the freezing loos with their edgy taps, you must venture to the courtyard outside where a prodigious vine expands as vigorously as the Blumenthal brand. I recall entering a door marked gents and coming back through the ladies – although I apparently looked no different. Staff later mentioned that an order for garden furniture had just preceded the deluge; parasols limply pressed the glass of a decorative phone box.
Served on the bone and carefully cooked, my whole lemon sole with potted shrimps, cucumber and dill proved delicious for the first four mouthfuls. However the reality of having to eat another 30 relentlessly similar bites to rid it from my plate proved a tedious prospect. Sides of thick fries, which, weirdly, improved as they cooled, seemed modelled, not unpleasantly, on those at Burger King. Although faultlessly steamed, broccoli was needlessly smothered by a lagoon of butter - odd considering our earlier supplement for a small spread.
Although sweet, saline and served in almost polished shells, my friend’s Devon mussels came in shallow china, cooling quicker than a conventional pot.
As I wiped my mouth on a tea towel, the sleuth of a manager glided by, demanding to know why I had photographed the food of Ashley Palmer-Watts. On hearing my first name from my friend, he later returned to blatantly ask for my surname. I hope he likes Google’s results.
On the subject of Scotch eggs, a staple at the Hind’s Head but not available here, the manager boasted that Blumenthal’s were better than those of chef, Dominic Chapman, (ex Hind’s Head, now Royal Oak). The paranoid manager explained that his bosses were better because he substituted a quail’s egg for a hen’s. ‘So it’s a different ratio of meat to egg?’ I enquired. ‘No, he said. Just that there’s more egg to the meat.’
Finally, panna cotta – that bland dame of puddings – was tarted-up with vanilla flecks and a ‘soup’ of mandarin, thyme and blueberries. The result approximated a deconstructed smoothie and proved curiously unsatisfying.
Few people, beside the Rioja drenched Mr. Denny, have written on Blumenthal’s Crown. Even his PR claims to be too busy prepping the press on how he will serve lunch at Knightsbridge’s ‘Dinner’ to give it a glance.
Incidentally, Mr. Denny ends his letter just a little damply: ‘Perhaps I’ll venture into their establishment once again or perhaps I may prefer a trip down the M4 and experience the true Heston Services experience and save a few pounds.’
Politics aside, I doubt there’s much more I can be bothered to write, which begs the question, aside from a desire to be a mealtime megalomaniac, what possessed Blumenthal to buy and marginally polish the locals’ pub?
Actually, thanks to the research of my hack dining companion, I believe I know the reason, and rather look forward to you finding it out... (Update, 31.8.2010 - Guardian article)
The Crown Inn - High Street, Bray, Maidenhead. SL6 2AH