The Hand & Flowers doesn’t look like the best pub in the world.
It stands beside a busy road on the outskirts of Marlow, west of London. With its white walls, red roof and colorful hanging flowers, it’s a pretty, yet unexceptional place.
What sets it apart from thousands of other country inns is the food of chef Tom Kerridge, the only pub landlord to hold two Michelin stars, an accolade normally reserved for fine restaurants such as Le Gavroche and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
The accolade sets the Hand & Flowers alongside Noma, in Copenhagen, the establishment that has held the title of World’s Best Restaurant for the past three years. If sharing two-star status with Noma has gone to Kerridge’s head, it doesn’t show.
“Great British pubs pushing forward in the Michelin guide is fantastic,” says Kerridge, 38, beefy arms folded as he sits for an interview at the Hand & Flowers.
“We’re trying to shake that tag in Great Britain that it’s a place where food is rubbish. I’d worked in Michelin-star restaurants pretty much my whole career -- but I’m not really a Michelin star kind of a guy.
“Michelin-starred restaurants have always had this aura, especially in the 1990s, of starched tablecloths and having to order expensive wines. That’s not Michelin’s fault: It’s just the restaurants where the chefs were cooking.
“And that didn’t necessarily make me feel comfortable as a person to go to these restaurants. On a day off as a chef, you work really hard and you want to go somewhere where you actually enjoy the atmosphere.”
The Hand & Flowers serves a range of beers alongside fancy wines and cocktails. It’s the price list that is particularly refreshing for diners used to some of the dizzy prices charged in some two-star establishments.
The set lunch is 15 pounds ($23.81) for two courses, 19.50 pounds for three. When I visited, the menu was Crown Prince pumpkin soup with pickled walnut and blue-cheese gougere; salt- baked beef cheek with mustard mash and beer-pickled shallot; toasted rice fool with mango sorbet and toffee sauce.
Rebecca Burr, who edits Michelin’s Great Britain and Ireland guide, and “Eating Out in Pubs,” says she has been watching Kerridge develop as a chef with a distinct personality who knows how to marry ingredients perfectly. He is afraid neither of simplicity nor of employing modern techniques.
“We’re looking for best in each category,” she says in a telephone interview. “You’re not going to get all the bits and pieces you will get in a Mayfair restaurant with an army of waiters, but they more than do their best at the Hand & Flowers, and they are particularly friendly. Food in pubs has been transformed since we started the pub guide nine years.”
Kerridge is matter-of-fact about how he won his second star, putting it down to sustained labor over the years.
“It’s a life-changing achievement and we didn’t expect it,” he says. “We’ve just tried to get better every day over the eight years we’ve been here. It shows that with a load of hard work, and reinvestment of all the money, and a love and a passion for food: Everyone can achieve it. It’s great.”
Don’t go thinking all the food is simple. Starters may include blowtorched Scottish scallop with warm roast chicken bouillon, morels, nasturtium and apple (15 pounds); or for a main you might choose lobster-baked hake with Hand & Flowers carrot, pumpkin seeds and lardo, for 25 pounds and 50 pence.
Kerridge serves rustic French dishes alongside seasonal British food. His culinary debt is as much to pub cuisine as haute cuisine. If you go expecting the fireworks to be found at some two-star restaurants, you may be disappointed.
If you are looking for honest, unfussy dishes made with great ingredients, a lot of care and a bit of humility, you may be very happy.
Hand & Flowers, 126 West Street, Marlow, SL7 2BP. Information: http://www.thehandandflowers.co.uk/ or +44-1628-482277.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art and Warwick Thompson on London theater.
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