Friday, January 25, 2008

Windsor and Bray

After three nights at a suburban business hotel about 10 minutes outside of Reading, we escaped to spend the weekend in Windsor. Our hotel, the Harte and Garter, which is a combination of two 14th century hotels, had just undergone a renovation and wore a new palette of pale blue-greys, rich browns, and silver printed wallpaper in combination with its historic dark wood, sparkling bevelled glass, and plaster mouldings. The effect was one of relaxed, unpretentious glamour.

Our second floor room had two sets of french doors opening onto a narrow wrought iron balcony overlooking Windsor castle and the bustling street scene below, which was great except that one set of doors was in the bathroom and required us to sacrifice either modesty or the view. Despite that and the single glazing, we loved our room. The British should really try the benefits of the second pane, not just for warmth, but noise reduction. How could we have guessed that all those cardigan wearing, umbrella toting, tea drinking, sensibly shod Brits would turn into such loudmouthed hooligans after a Saturday night down the pub?

One of the best things about tacking a couple of days vacation to the end of a business trip is finding ourselves in places we'd never have imagined being. A cross Atlantic flight to spend a weekend in Windsor England in the middle of January would probably not have occurred to us, but I loved everything about it. For one thing, we didn't realize that Berkshire county was a mecca of fine dining and a site of culinary pilgrimage. The tiny village of Bray just a few km outside of Windsor has two three star Michelin restaurants and a gastro pub noted by Michelin and claimed as one of the best in Britain. Heston Blumenthal, the mad scientist, alchemist chef who runs the legendary Fat Duck restaurant where he serves molecularized, atomized, and reconfigured food a la Jetsons meets haute cuisine, also owns the more prosaic Hinds Head Hotel, an 18th century pub committed to traditional British food cooked with local ingredients and served simply. We were torn between the experimental and the traditional, but tradition won out (not least because the Fat Duck tasting menu with wine comes in at a little over 200 British pounds per person and we thought that a meal at that price requires at least a few months of anticipation and possibly temporary insanity).

Our evening at the Hinds Head Hotel was great. Dropped off by taxi in the dark and the rain, we stepped hastily through the front door and right into what seemed the archetype of a British pub--low, timber-beamed ceilings, worn wooden floor, gleaming warm wood panelling, substantial fireplaces, and a bunch of locals at the bar. We were ushered by an extremely young bartender, who looked as though he were playing hookey from Eton college, to our simple wooden table in the adjoining dining room where the pale walls reflected the glow of candelight and mullioned windows looked out on the village. The restaurant was full of happy couples and groups pleased with their good sense at eschewing the avante garde for historic comfort food and saving enough for cab fare back to London.

And so, to our meal. To begin, I had the rabbit and bacon terrine, rustic and coarse textured, served with tiny cornichons and toasted bread. I could live on this. N had the goat cheese tart hidden under a chiffonade of something green (it was gone before I could move my fork across the table. Our wine was a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. As a main course N had the Rump steak (yes steak, not roast) cooked perfectly medium rare and served with a decadent bone marrow sauce. I had the Lancashire hot pot made with lamb. Originally, the hot pot would've included oysters, once a cheap source of protein for the working classes, our waiter explained, and as homage to the original dish a single oyster was baked in. Just writing about that that succulent baked oyster awakens cravings. As tradition dictates, the accompaniment to my hot pot was stewed red cabbage, which looked beautiful with an added side order of broccoli with anchovies and almonds.

For dessert (or should I say pudding?) we were heartbroken to learn that the quaking pudding (click here for desciption and recipe) that chef Blumethal had patiently adapted from a 1660 cookbook was sold out for the evening! Alas. But we calmed ourselves down, N with a glass of Oban and me with a Calvados XO. After much debate with my overfull stomach I gave up on the local cheese platter and chose instead the Eccles Cake, a decadent little confection of currants and raisins stuffed into puff pastry. Unfortunately, I learned too late that it should really have been accompanied by a slice of the very Lancashire cheese I had passed up. N had the treacle sponge, which was the sweet epitome of a sticky steamed pudding. We left feeling content and full but not quite missing the irony that we'd paid the equivalent of a dinner at Susur in Toronto for the chance to eat what centuries before had been the everyday food of the working classes served in a charming, but entirely homely setting.

Other meals of note included dinner at Gilbey's in Eton, a local favourite, and fully booked on a Saturday night. We stopped by earlier in the day and were lucky to get a 6:00 dinner reservation at a coveted table in the front window with a promise to vacate in time for the 8:15 reservation. As a bonus, our early dinner meant we could order from the early evening prix fixe dinner menu available just until 7:00. We also had several cream teas, one at the much photographed Crooked House of Windsor and one at a little antique shop with a couple of tables tucked inside. Unfortunately, we don't think we have experienced the ultimate tea time and will just have to keep trying until we do.

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