What do you do when you have mastered snail porridge, parsnip cereal and nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice-cream in the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal's three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray? You go to the pub, that's what.
James Faulks went to the Anchor and Hope before opening Magdalen near London Bridge, while Dominic Chapman serves up potted crab and ox tongue (as two separate dishes, mind) at Michael Parkinson's pub, The Royal Oak near Maidenhead. Meanwhile, long-term Blumenthal kitchen-mate Garrey Dawson turns out Lancashire hotpots and treacle tarts at Blumenthal's own pub, The Hinds Head. Now, along with business partner Adam Dorrien-Smith, Emily Watkins – another ex-Fat Duck chef – has sought solace in a pub. And what a cute little pub.
The Kingham Plough in Oxfordshire is fat of beam and roaring of fire, with real ale on tap, real locals on the wooden benches and hessian-covered stools in the bar. There are Scotch eggs and chips on the blackboard menu, steak and kidney pie on special, and pig's ears to take home for the dog (try getting those at the Fat Duck).
The sisal flooring leads up a few steps to a dimly lit barn of a dining-room, and up more stairs to a handful of charmingly decorated rooms. Adding to the pastoral reverie is a printed menu that lays out its devotion to local suppliers, growers and foragers. The exemplary Daylesford Farm Shop is half a mile away, and Alex ("cheese-making is the new rock'*'roll") James has a farm nearby.
The cooking is quite subversive, disguising its sophisticated technique with a rustic simplicity. Some of it is what it is, and a pork pie (£2) from the bar menu is well-constructed but over-scorched, with a dollop of good, tangy chutney. At the same time, a "warm autumn root-vegetable salad" (£5) is a surprisingly small, pretty little thing of divinely wobbly, sweet and earthy beetroot jelly with a small garniture of baby carrots, beetroots and turnips. It's hard to reconcile the two dishes as coming from the same kitchen.
Most of the main courses are slow-cooked, another feature of the post-Blumenthal "radical/traditional" cooking. So, the fillet of Hereford beef, served with the Fat Duck's famous triple-cooked chips, a salad and horseradish and mustard butter (£14), is cooked " sous-vide" in a water bath at 65.5C until medium-rare throughout, then finished in a hot pan. What is gained by this precision is a uniform tenderness and depth of flavour, but what is lost is any crustiness or sizzle. I am not convinced it wouldn't be better to just bung the steak on a grill.
The slow cooking works well for leg of wild rabbit (£14), a devilishly difficult meat to cook. Boned and stuffed with a mix of wild mushrooms and served with leafy greens on a silky, nutty purée of Jerusalem artichoke, it is a happy blend of the rustic and refined.
A concise, pleasing and mainly French wine list contains a lightly spicy 2005 Santenay (£20) that rubs along well with most things on the menu.
Cheeses are a further highlight, with five farmhouse cheeses all sourced from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire for £6. The best is Kingham Green, a beautifully textured, tangy, tomme-like cheese made by local hero Roger Crudge.
The place abounds with good intentions, high ethics and great produce, but the cooking is still uneven (a treacle tart is as scorched as the pork pie) and the local staff are friendly but stretched.
Prices are low – ridiculously so – and I can't see how they can be making any money, especially when so many diners drink beer throughout the meal, or stick to pork pie and chips in the cosy bar.
Watkins herself seems a chef in transition, caught between the precision and control of modern fine-dining, and the desire to build a local-food culture and with it, a personal style. If it's any help, I think we need the latter more than the former.
1-9 Stay home and cook
10-11 Needs help
13 Pleasant enough
15 Very good
16 Capable of greatness
17 Special, can't wait to go back
18 Highly honourable
19 Unique and memorable
20 As good as it gets
Second helpings: Speed to more ploughs
Kimbolton Road, Bolnhurst, Bedfordshire, tel: 01234 376 274
Martin and Jayne Lee took over this village pub in 2005. Martin's training (Raymond Blanc, Marc Veyrat) shows in dishes such as his terrine of confit duck
The Old Plow
Flowers Bottom Lane, Speen, Buckinghamshire, tel: 01494 488 300
Jay Kay and Jeremy Irons are fans of this converted 17th-century pub, where the food runs from wild boar paté to sea bass with prawns and mussels
The Plough Inn
Fadmoor, Yorkshire, tel: 01751 431 515
A typical country-pub welcome awaits in this North Yorkshire favourite, with its beamed ceilings, open fires, real ales, pan-seared scallops with black pudding, and slow-roasted shank of lamb