The Olde Bell in Hurley, the pretty linear village on the banks of the Thames between Maidenhead and Henley, boasts a distinguished history dating back to the 12th century. Originally the guesthouse of the Benedictine Priory, the sanctus bell of which still hangs over the main door, it became renowned in later centuries as a staging inn on the London to Oxford route.
In 1688, it was the site of Lord Lovelace’s successful plot to oust James II in the Glorious Revolution. During the Second World War, guests included Churchill and Eisenhower who held secret meetings nearby.
More recently, the Olde Bell, with its accommodation and function rooms opposite, has gained a good local reputation for weddings and conferences. Accolades have also been showered on it, for instance The Times best ten UK pub gardens 2010, Daily Mail Hot 50 in 2009, and Vogue UK secret addresses in 2008.
Attention has also focused on Ilse Crawford’s design of the 60 cover restaurant which attempts, with limited success, to combine old with new: the original wooden paneling has been painted olive green; mock gas lamps and antler chandeliers give side and overhead lighting, and large wooden tables – some in booths – are furnished with an eclectic range of chairs, some traditional – long benches covered with tapestry – and others stylishly modern. This mixture might prove too indigestible for some diners.
However, The Olde Bell has yet to attract serious attention for the quality of its food. Happily, this is beginning to change with a new team the kitchen. Executive Chef Warren Geraghty’s (Left) CV includes experience at the Michelin starred Chez Nico and Pied a Terre, as well as Richard Neat’s eponymous restaurant in Cannes, and the celebrated restaurant West in Vancouver. New Head Chef James Ferguson trained under Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett. Jason Farr, the new Pastry Chef, specialized in desserts at Rules. All three also have experience in the kitchens of L’ Escargot in Soho.
This impressive collective experience is expressed in a menu which embraces seasonal, locally sourced ingredients with wild and foraged food, which has become a passion of Warren Geraghty. There is no attempt to emulate the style of their mentors, although James Ferguson’s experience with Fergus Henderson’s nose to tail eating is seen in the unusual cuts of meat and fish, while desserts include some updated versions of the traditional British classics, a trademark of Rules.
The structure of the menu, which is constantly evolving, comprises nine starters ranging from £4.95 to £7.10; eight mains from £14.80 to £22.50; and eight desserts, £6.00 to £6.50. Portions are very generous indeed, with main courses garnished with vegetables, obviating the need for side dishes at £3.50 each. A selection of British cheeses is also offered: £8.50 for four, £11.50 for six. For all courses, excellence of provenance, purity of flavour and simplicity of presentation are paramount. Moreover, as the menu states, components of certain dishes might change during service if the chef so decides.
fine –dining –guide visited the Olde Bell on a midweek evening in late March 2011. Serving local – or at least English – produce also applies to mineral water, as we were clearly told that the Italian brand requested was not served. We were offered Tufapure sparkling water from Somerset instead!
A starter of shellfish bisque, made with large brown crabs, was outstanding in its intense flavour, smooth consistency and velvety creaminess. This labour intensive dish – I can imagine the pounding, flambéing, stirring and sieving that went into its preparation – outshone other versions I have tasted in Michelin restaurants. The accompanying cheese straws had a nutty bite that worked well with the soup.
A generous slice of pressed ham hock and duck confit terrine combined two well flavoured meats but was rather dense in texture. A layer of savoy cabbage partly relieved this, although the overall impression was one of heaviness. However, crunchy piccalilli, well balanced in its acidity and sweetness, provided the ideal foil to the protein.
Pan fried duck livers were well timed, being soft and tender. Toasted hazelnuts added a welcome crunch whilst the poached hen’s egg and a veal based jus added further richness. Wild mustard leaves gave the dish colour and a gentle fragrance.
A star main course comprised slow cooked ox cheeks, unctuously delicious with a melting texture. The richness was balanced by a light broth, lifted in intensity with home smoked oysters. New potatoes and radishes – an inspired addition – provided earthy contrasting tastes and textures to the soft meat, whilst horseradish grass was a colourful garnish.
A flavoursome organic pork chop retained its succulence through careful timing in cooking. Grilled radicchio, which had a pleasingly bitter – sweet edge, was another usual vegetable garnish that worked. A side dish of pureed potatoes was light, smooth and creamy, whilst roasted Chantenay carrots retained a delicate crunch.
Diners should be warned that the large portions of the starters and main courses should satisfy the heartiest of appetites. In order to sample the desserts we declined the richer, no doubt delicious, options like treacle tart with clotted cream and blood orange trifle, for the lighter alternatives.
Vanilla pannacotta, well flavoured with a correct degree of wobble, came with poached apple pieces which helped to offset the richness of the cream. Lime ice cream, unusual in itself, added a surprising citrus lift to the dish.
Pineapple upside down cake proved amazingly light, its caramelized fruit topping being balanced by a tangy yogurt ice cream
The carafe of Fleurie 2008 at £23.50 which we drank with the meal came from a connoisseur’s wine list selected by sommelier Nigel Sutcliffe and General Manager Alan Dooley. Listed usefully by ascending price rather than region, it offers reds from £17, whites from £16.50. The list of sweet lines, although expensive, is particularly impressive, with a surprising level of depth which includes Austrian eiswein.
Other aspects of the meal – the home made bread, good coffee and attentive, knowledgeable service of Arkadius, our waiter, all added to the experience and helped to detract from the dubious décor. Overall, the new team should be applauded in its quest to elevate the food standards of the Olde Bell. Whilst the summer months will also bring the attractions of al fresco dining of roasts and salads from the week end Summer Kitchen, the success of their new venture will ultimately be judged on the consistency of the dishes coming from the restaurant. From the evidence so far, there is much potential here, an essential pre requisite for success in this highly competitive part of the Thames Valley.