Hind's Head Hotel, Bray, Berkshire

Heston Blumenthal is best known for his outlandish culinary creations at the Fat Duck in Bray, so why has he opened a place next door selling pub grub?
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Back in 1995, the chef Heston Blumenthal bought a 450-year-old pub in the centre of Bray and turned it into a simple bistro serving up basic French provincial cooking. Later, he went molecular, and then stellar. Now it's a rare occasion when there isn't some TV reporter outside The Fat Duck waffling on about the three Michelin stars/best restaurant in the world/sardines on toast ice cream/molecular gastronomy/place of worship/£97 per person.

Back in 1995, the chef Heston Blumenthal bought a 450-year-old pub in the centre of Bray and turned it into a simple bistro serving up basic French provincial cooking. Later, he went molecular, and then stellar. Now it's a rare occasion when there isn't some TV reporter outside The Fat Duck waffling on about the three Michelin stars/best restaurant in the world/sardines on toast ice cream/molecular gastronomy/place of worship/£97 per person.

It's still a very fine restaurant and he is a bloody good cook, but it's now perilously close to being an intellectual exercise instead of a meal. So I was overjoyed to hear that 10 years later, he has bought another local pub and turned it into... a local pub.

The Hind's Head is only 35 steps along from the Fat Duck, but spiritually, it couldn't be further away. It's the sort of pub you dream about when you close your eyes, and think of England. It's the whole Tudor inn kit and kaboodle, with mind-your-head ceilings, sturdy oak bar, handsome wooden panelling, exposed beams, leather porters' chairs, parquet flooring, a line of good beer on tap (IPA, Abbots, etc), and a scattering of locals who look as if they were born standing at the bar.

Mind you, locals in Bray are a far cry from yokels. Go through to the main dining-room, and you'll find your fair share of tweedy gents with walking sticks, looking in dismay at a raucous group of Londoners who are bubblier than the fizz they're pouring down their necks. It's a plain, unremarkable dining-room in which the waiters wear jeans and open neck shirts, the carpet is drear, the tables are unclothed, and the napkins are paper.

The menu, however, is a joy. I want it all: the potted shrimps with watercress salad, soused herrings with beetroot and horseradish, Gloucester Old Spot sausages with mash, oxtail and kidney pudding and steak sandwich with charred onions and watercress. And I want the banana Eton mess AND the sherry trifle.

You don't always get what you want, but at least I can have half a dozen Colchester Rock oysters (£9), opened to order with briny juices intact, and served on crushed ice with a little pot of shallot vinegar, a muslin-wrapped half lemon and a basket of brown bread. With a pepper grinder and a glass of NZ Moreton Estate Sauvignon Blanc (£8.25 a glass) close to hand, I'm as happy as a clam. The oysters are cold, flinty and shamelessly delicious, their flavour a siren call that tempts the appetite closer until it crashes on the rocks.

Chef Dominic Chapman, who cooked at the Fat Duck, has taken a few liberties with good old pea and ham soup (£4.95). Instead of a sludgy gloop of dried peas flecked with token ham shreds, this is a fresh lawn-clipping green, enriched with cream, studded with fresh peas and chunks of noble ham, and whisked to a frothy finish. It tastes of peas, pure and simple.

Chapman manages to rework the pub classics without too much deconstruction or desecration. So an oxtail and kidney pudding (£14), is a small and beautifully formed igloo of flavour. Lancashire hotpot (£13.50) comes in its own miniature cast-iron cooking pot with a thatched roof of golden-brown potato slices protecting a steamy, stewy mess of lamb chunks, bacon and even the odd oyster, as was done when oysters were cheap.

If I were to keep with things as they were done, I'd have to order a pint of bitter, but tradition can go jump. Instead, an untraditional, ripe, full Rioja Riserva 1999 from Conde de Valdemar (£28) shakes its little flamenco skirt at down-home Lancashire.

Blumenthalites will rejoice at the sight of the famous triple-cooked chunky chips that are available as a side order for £4, with their double-crunchy exteriors and steamy, fluffy interiors.

There are puddings, and proper ones, as you would expect. A thin wedge of treacle tart (£4.50) is very much in keeping with the rest of the meal; it's sweetness complemented by a scoop of reassuringly unadventurous, whiter-than-white milk ice cream. The only thing missing here is a sense of mine host in the room. Wait staff are competent but cool, doing what needs to be done without ever exceeding their job descriptions.

The Hind's Head is not at all about three Michelin stars/best restaurant in the world/sardines on toast ice cream/place of worship/£97 per person. It is Jane Grigson's Guide to British Cookery brought to life, restored, refined, and redefined. In 1984, while full of dire warnings on the loss of a genuine and splendid British cuisine, Mrs Grigson was perceptive enough to not only note the presence of chefs who in spite of mass temptation insisted on cooking real food, but to wonder "perhaps our best regional cookery is still in the future?"

The irony is that the world is now full of gung-ho young chefs desperately trying to emulate the science-based gastronomy of people such as Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Juan Mari Arzak and Pierre Gagnaire. In the meantime, Blumenthal himself has gone back to our roots and done a local pub, and a great one. Go now, before they start to play funny buggers with the ice cream.

15 Hind's Head Hotel High Street, Bray, Berkshire, tel: 01628 626 151. Lunch served daily, dinner Monday to Saturday. Around £85 for dinner for two, including wine and service

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 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: More great British pub food

The Star Inn Harome, Helmsley, Yorkshire, tel: 01439 770 397 The good produce of Yorkshire couldn't be in better hands than those of Andrew Penn, chef and co-owner of this charming, whitewashed, thatch-roofed, flag-floored 14th-century inn. This is pub grub with a Michelin pedigree, from the dressed Whitby crab to braised oxtail in Cropton Two Pints, and Nawton-bred Middle White pig casserole. There's even a "Posh Ploughman's" for the upwardly mobile farm hand.

Bell at Sapperton Sapperton, Gloucestershire, tel: 01285 760 298 Inside this handsome Cotswold stone inn is a welcoming and rustic space with wooden furniture, log fires and exposed stone walls. Chef Ivan Reid is known for his adventurous modern European cooking, but he also has a neat way of reinventing English classics. Ergo, the black pudding terrine with boiled bacon and poached egg, roasted loin of Old Spot pork with Devon blue cheese crust, and grilled Cornish sardines with warm potato salad.

Anchor and Hope 36 The Cut, London SE1, tel: 020 7928 9898 You can't book, you might have to share a table, and the wine glasses are clunky. If you can cope with all that, your reward is unpretentious, earthy food at a great price. Chefs Harry Lester and Jonathan Jones glorify English cooking without being silly or sentimental. Expect crab on toast, lamb neck hot pot, duck hearts on toast, rabbit with wild garlic, and huge Bakewell tarts cooling by the open kitchen.

Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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