Ten years ago, I went for lunch at the newly-opened Hand and Flowers in Marlow, almost by accident. Blown away by the unexpected quality of Tom Kerridge's cooking, and the geniality of his wife Beth, then handling front of house, I gushed all over the Kerridges with a rave. "Give them their own show" was my – not entirely serious – final line.
Since then, the Hand and Flowers has blossomed from brilliant local to Michelin-garlanded Mecca for food pilgrims. And its affable chef/patron has indeed been given his own show, plus another the BBC had lying around which used to belong to Michel Roux Jnr. Long gone are the days when Marlow locals could nip into the H&F for a pint and a snack; six-month waits for a table are the norm now. So in opening their second pub, just down the road from the Hand and Flowers, the Kerridges have very deliberately given their neighbours something back.
The Coach doesn't take bookings. There isn't even a phone number on the website. You're meant to just rock up and hope for the best. Which is super if you happen to be in downtown Marlow, but not so handy if you're making a special trip down the M40.
Arriving at a cautious 12.15pm on a midweek lunchtime, we find every table already taken. Mind you, there aren't that many tables. This place, like the new-look Tom Kerridge himself, is much smaller than you're expecting. A narrow sliver of a room, arranged around a shiny L-shaped pewter bar, is edged with around a dozen small tables, at which diners perch snugly side by side.
The effect is more tapas bar than lounge bar, down to the open kitchen, rotisserie and counter seating at the bar. As we dive for the last two stools, we get a full-beam welcome from the barman; Kerridge's staff, led by head chef Nick Beardshaw, have clearly been taking grinning lessons from the Guvnor.
We're seated at the pass, so we get a chance to see the dishes as they leave the kitchen, which sure beats the old laminated menu. Whole quail, roasted to a lacquered shine and stuffed with sausage meat; mussels in a creamy stout broth foamed like the head on a pint of Guinness; a dainty, bite-sized burger. Modestly sized, low on garnishes, high on polish: this is tapas-style eating applied to trad Brit-French dishes.
Take the crispy pig's head with piccalilli, which despite the trencherman promise of the description, is almost Japanese in its restraint – a crisp, panko-crumbed croquette holding a swoony dice of pork cheek, garnished by a thin wand of brittle crackling. The promised piccalilli comes deconstructed into a shaving of cauliflower, sweated onion, and a dab of mustard emulsion. Fine, but I can almost hear the voice of Charles Campion from MasterChef – one of the few food shows Kerridge hasn't yet colonised – moaning "Don't call it piccalilli if you're not going to give us PROPER PICCALILLI".
Scotch egg (which is listed on the 'no meat' side of the menu, with the confusing caveat, 'contains meat') is another precision-tooled, panko-crusted morsel, made with smoked haddock and black pudding rather than pork, wrapped around a quail's egg whose vivid yolk flows liquid gold.
There's an almost Nordic spareness to venison chilli, deeply, lip-stickingly savoury under a creamy rice foam sprinkled with shaved dark chocolate. Toasted wild rice adds addictive crunch to every bite. Fish fritter of the day is gone in five bites, but they're terrific bites, the beer-battered cod falling into big, milky flakes. Chips, herb-dusted and hefty as potato wedges, with Béarnaise sauce for dipping, deliver proper triple-cooked crunch. They're so good we order a second bowl; not the sort of behaviour carb-shunning Kerridge 2.0 would encourage.
So much else on the menu sounds wonderful – chicken Kiev with maple-glazed squash; rotisserie pomme boulangère; suet-crusted steak and ale pie. As do the breakfast dishes; the Coach serves food all day. The aim is clearly to become a hub, rather than a special occasion treat.
There's a short but sweet wine list, and most of our fellow diners are diving into that, rather than the draft beers. Flat-screen TVs are mounted at eye height, as though to say, "Look, it IS a pub, honest", though they're tuned in, mysteriously, to BBC Parliament, giving us the unique experience of eating pickles while looking at Eric Pickles.
We end with a straightforwardly good rhubarb crumble, and a hot chocolate tart which cleverly combines melting-middle indulgence with the snap of a crisp base. That ability to balance technical finesse with the instinct to satisfy is what connects The Coach to its illustrious forebear. It may not become a place of pilgrimage in the same way, but in a town being colonised by the usual chains, it is certainly going to make some new converts.
3 West Street, Marlow, Buckinghamshire. Around £30 a head for three courses, before wine and serviceReuse content