Simon Bonwick has made a welcome and timely return to East Berkshire, taking over at The Crown in Burchetts Green in the autumn of 2013.
Living locally, we have followed his career, enjoying meals at the food led pubs where he has been head chef. He first made his name less than three miles away at the Black Boys Inn, Hurley, where his modern British cooking attracted diners from Maidenhead, Henley, Marlow and beyond. In the highly selective Good Food Guide of 2007 it was named Berkshire Newcomer of the Year, earning a mark of 5/10 which it retained for the next two years. During this time it was also awarded a prestigious Bib Gourmand by Michelin for its good cuisine and value for money. We ate there several times enjoying his accomplished cooking. Fish and game dishes were particular strengths, so it was little surprise when we learnt he had won the title Game Master 2009, beating several Michelin starred chefs with his dish of steamed mallard breast with white truffle dumplings and root vegetable bouillon. The competition, in association with Restaurant Magazine, rewarded for the best game dish in the country. Our only regret was we didn’t have the opportunity to try it!
A move to the Three Tuns in Henley earned Simon another 5/10 in the 2011 Good Food Guide, followed by another short tenure at the Half Moon in Cuxham, Oxfordshire, where, had the stay been longer, he would have received similar or higher acclaim. Anyone who could serve stuffed pig’s trotter as he did in Henley, or “Assiette aux trois saveurs,” a veritable tour de force of meat and game cookery at Cuxham, was deserving of the highest praise.
Now, after a period of private service, he has come to revive the fortunes of The Crown at Burchett’s Green, a quintessentially English village in the heart of the Berkshire Green Belt. The Crown has had checkered history in its food offering in recent years, with highs and lows. Our abiding memory from over ten years ago – since when it has changed hands at least three times – was being served raspberry sorbet which was white and tasteless, and given a knife which still bore the smell of raw garlic. Not impressive, although another meal under new ownership some time later partly restored our faith.
On hearing of Simon’s arrival, we were keen to visit. Whilst the exterior remains unchanged, the low ceilinged, oak beamed dining area has been given a lift. The freshly painted walls are decorated with food based prints. Wall lighting, which is not dimmed to ridiculously low levels so diners cannot see the food, gives a bright, comforting warmth. Scrubbed pine tables and a newly varnished wooden floor complete the fresh, rustic feel.
Given the plethora of high end, fine dining restaurants in the area, Simon’s aim is not to compete at that level – although we are confident he could easily hold his own if he did. Rather, a more home-style menu, including the resurrection of some British classics, is being offered in more relaxed surroundings. Not that there is any compromise regarding the essentials of impeccably sourced, mainly British seasonal ingredients, harmonious combinations of taste and texture, and accurate cooking based on classical techniques.
The Winter Food menu includes four starters (from £3 to £8) and five mains (£12 to £15) and five desserts at £6 each. Whilst desserts feature British classics such as hot apple crumble, other courses are more adventurous: consider, for instance, Madam St Agnes recipe for brined Savoie cheese, Mr Farley’s beetroot salad with goat’s curd, or Truffle polenta, squash pickle and slated chestnut. Specials such as venison and pigeon pie with rowan, or and wild mushroom risotto with truffle offer enticing alternatives.
Our meal started with a dish of a soused herring which tasted and looked nothing like the standard version. Here the fish fillets were enhanced by a marinade lifted by the addition of acacia honey and yuzu which gave a gentle sweet and citric balance. Thickly sliced radish added a contrasting lively crunch, whilst delicately arranged micro leaves gave a fresh, decorative finish. Invention, skill and artistry were all shown in this simple starter.
Next, a delectable tranche of foie gras was sauted to produce a caramelised crust and soft, melting interior. Resting on a slice of toasted brioche, it was accompanied by chestnuts, baby onions and puy lentils in a rich wine based sauce. Here was a dish of luxurious and humble ingredients, which maximised the flavours of both through fast and long slow cooking. The Riesling, Schloss Vollrads Riesling, Kabinett Feinherb, Rheingau, 2008, was elegant with touch a sweetness – a fine match for the food.
It was pleasing to see the main course featured Dexter beef, from a small, once rare breed. Cooked medium rare to enhance its dark, well-marbled qualities, the soft, flavoursome meat was garnished with trompette de la mort and porcini mushrooms, the heady fragrance of which complemented the meat perfectly. Mashed potato added substance and a light jus bought the dish together without overwhelming the main elements. The Pinot Noir wine which accompanied the dish, Gevrey Chambertin 1er cru, Cote de Nuits, Domain Perrot-Minot, 2007, was subtle and satisfying, with a nice nose of berry bruit and balanced acrossthe palate.
Three desserts, two English classics and the third French, were greedily consumed.
Hot toffee apple crumble had a rich buttery topping of exemplary texture. The generous Bramley apple filling struck the right balance of sweetness and sharpness whilst vanilla ice cream was velvety smooth and well flavoured.
Lemon Possett blended cream, lemon juice and caster sugar into a tangy, thick but not over sweet dessert. It was given a little twist with the addition of violets crystals and flaked almonds for contrasting texture. A beautifully crisp palmier finished the dish perfectly.
St Emilion chocolate pot was rich, dense, dark and fruity. Again, the balance of this dessert was well judged, with the cognac not overwhelming the chocolate taste. Simply served in white porcelain, it did full justice to the classic French recipe.
Overall, this was an accomplished meal, with thoughtful, well executed dishes devoid of superfluous flourishes. The wines were chosen from a select list, combining fine and rare wines with more accessible house wines. The young man who served us was friendly, efficient and well informed
In conversation with Simon afterwards, our view of him as a highly skilled, passionate chef who clearly loves his craft was fully confirmed. An air of eccentricity pervades his persona, being fuelled by his encyclopedic knowledge of the food, wine and restaurant world. This also makes it a joy share our thoughts with him. Burchetts Green clearly needs a chef of his calibre and we wish him every success in his new venture. Fine Dining Guide will follow his progress with interest.