They didn't tell me when I rang up to book that I could choose between economy and business- class dining. Naturally, if they had, I would have opted for the latter, but when, seconds after boarding the good flight Hinds Head, we were whisked to the upper level, it felt like a free upgrade.
The trouble is, Heston Blumenthal's enterprise, 27 metres (as I walked them) from The Fat Duck, doesn't profit from this two-tier system. Downstairs is a glorious English pub; upstairs, the restaurant feels like a reunion for the East Devon Conservative Association. It's impossible to eat here without being acutely sensitive to a kind of classist stratification; but even if you can overcome a sense of guilt at being separated from the proles down below, the stilted atmosphere up here in the restaurant will soon make you wish you were among them.
Low roof beams are fine, but the floor plan is such that on a less than fully booked weekend afternoon, everyone can hear what everyone else is saying. This is Bray, I know, but the effect of such a mis-arrangement is that everyone whispers, which is worse than disconcerting. It's scary, forbidding. It feels like we're in a viper's cesspit and – worse – everyone is conspiring against us. That's what this is – a conspiracy!
Every approaching waiter seems suddenly to come from beyond enemy lines; each bit of food a missive from a terrifying insurgent. Here comes the duck and smoked guinea fowl terrine with spiced apples, delicious at £9.50 with perfect, earthenware-deserving hotness on the fruit. The meat is dazzlingly smooth and strong on the top of the mouth, and evidently laced with rock salt, which, come to think of it, looks like polonium-210.
The main courses offer a suspicious sop to pescatarians with cod that is "line-caught" – but the rascal still died, of course, and that doesn't forgive the appalling absence of a veggie option. Oxtail and kidney pudding (£16.95) looks least likely of the few remainders to land me in radiation therapy, and chomping into its ribbons of juicy flesh, and perfect little sub-globules of ravishable kidney, this might be the best such pudding this side of Vladivostok.
My companion has a pea and ham soup that tastes of pea and ham, the Ronseal approach to starter school. Then a venison cheeseburger, beautifully cooked, but idiotically served on a tiny wooden board. The thing about plates is that they're useful for putting things on. This titchy piece of oak might be aesthetically pleasing and part of the master plan, but it's a bugger to eat off.
Now she has sherry-poached peaches with vanilla ice cream and raspberries: the Ronseal approach to dessert. It tastes of sherry, peaches, vanilla, and raspberries, but not powerfully of any. Her three courses are unexceptional at £27.50.
The whispers won't relent. I guess that if they wanted to do for me, I'm probably dying already, so I go for the chocolate wine "slush" with millionaire shortbread at £7.95. I made this dish myself when I was 12, calculating that two nice things added together make a double-nice thing, but of course they don't, they really don't, not even if served with a flamboyant, chilled Dime bar. The "slush" is a tangy purple foam, whose flavour evolves from cocoa to bad claret with each mouthful. It's forced rather than forceful.
We head away from this pseudo-Soviet enterprise (a disgraceful way to treat a chef as good as Clive Dixon, by the way), and back into the gorgeous pub beneath, with its pungent ales and an outstanding Dindarello dessert wine for £6.95. Suddenly, it's a blissful afternoon, and if you're not one of the 8,460 or so who live in Bray, do take a walk to the river after. You'll note that all the cars have alloy wheels and the cricket club is probably the oldest anywhere.
The only nuisance is when a band of merry numpties, fully attired in their Pimm's O'Clock uniforms, come in and demand a garden. The bar staff straight-facedly say that there's a pub 20 minutes down the road. By now, we're in on the conspiracy ourselves, which I wouldn't have predicted when I first heard those whispers.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Hinds Head High Street, Bray, Berkshire, tel: 01628 626 151 Lunch and dinner daily. About £140 for lunch for two, including drinks
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010.' www.hardens.comReuse content