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The Three Horseshoes, Bennett End
QUALITY chefs are scurrying out to the Chilterns like there's a plague upon London. The view seems to be that the provinces are now the place for aspiring chefs to make their names and their fortunes, a la Blanc and Blumenthal.
Certainly the last couple of years have seen an influx of chefs who've left the bright lights to bring haute cuisine to a little country pub. The newest arrived in November, Simon Crawshaw.
At 35, Simon decided that a life spent cooking at The Connaught, Chez Nico, Garroche, and the Sloane Club, plus cooking for the Queen and for the Maharajah of Jaipur in India, has prepared him for one thing: a little pub of his own in the most tucked away spot in Bucks, The Three Horseshoes at Bennett End between Radnage and Stokenchurch.
He also thinks these parts are the ideal place to bring up his young family.
But I worry about Simon. Will people really trek out here in the dark of winter to eat, even though the food is great? Winter lunches when you can sit by the open fire, yes; summer evenings, certainly, with the gorgeous views over the garden and beyond. But winter nights? I hope so. It's worth the effort.
This is a charming ancient inn in a pretty hamlet which looks like it's been rooted here since time began. It has a pretty garden with a big duck pond in which a red telephone box is half submerged, a truly quirky sight with idyllic Chiltern hills beyond.
We braved a frosty night to drive down narrow single-file lanes to Bennett End to suss it out (and yes, there are less hazardous routes. For directions, ring 01494 483273).
Simon's idea is to provide quality food for every occasion, whether you want a simple but rather special sandwich, a light lunch or supper, or a celebratory meal with fine wine and all the stops pulled out. It's all made fresh in the kitchen and the menu changes almost daily.
Simon put together a selection of dishes for us to try, and if he was aiming to impress, he succeeded. This chef is an ace.
The day's amuse bouche was a quenelle of smoked salmon and poached salmon mousse sitting in a dainty puddle of gazpacho which fair tingled with flavour.
Then we tried a little portion of smoked ham hock terrine, which comes with a caper and gherkin dressing a rich dish to brighten any winter evening.
Plaice got an unusual treatment which worked splendidly: a fillet covered with Cornish crab crust then fried, and served on spinach with a smooth red pepper velout, giving what is sometimes a light dish a definite air of sophistication with its mix of flavours and textures.
Simon's roast rump of lamb was one of the best I've tasted. He says he takes great care in sourcing his ingredients and they're local where possible. This was tender and flavoursome and beautifully cooked, served with potato rosti, baked cherry tomatoes and puy lentil jus.
Dessert lovers won't be disappointed. They're all made on the premises, including fab ices and sorbets. We had a tasting of lemon posset with raspberries (a dream), apple and caramelised rhubarb crumble (wish I could make it like that), and bitter choc tart with sorbet and ice cream, and they were all superb.
With most restaurants, the la carte option is the most expensive while the set menu is cheaper. Here, Simon's set menu (£25.50 for three courses, £18.50 for two) is where he sets out to give you a taste of the high life. The la carte is a small selection of simpler dishes home made soup (£3.50); grilled salmon and tiger prawns, steak, or braised oxtails (£8.50-£12.50); and desserts including a selection of ice creams and sorbets (£4.50).