A rustic adventure – precision and primeval in perfect harmony
· Experimental diners keen to explore a different culinary experience
· Fans of the rustic eating phenomenon
· Lovers of local produce
· Couples craving a long, slow, cosy dinner
· Anyone who respects attention to detail
Any restaurant located on the very site where Hugh Grant and Andy McDowell filmed their first encounters in Four Weddings and Funeral should deliver a quintessentially English eating experience. And as you walk into The Crown Inn on Amersham High Street everything suggests that these expectations will be met in spades. The low black roof beams, dark wood floors and flickering candles created an atmosphere of old world England in the heart of this very pretty village in Buckinghamshire. Then you notice the slightly battered metal side plates, the scored and tarnished cutlery, and the handmade pottery on diners’ tables and it becomes clear that this restaurant is not what it seems. In fact Hawkyns is a rather wonderful surprise. Established by renowned twice Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar, and run by Head Chef Ross Bott, it’s a totally different take on the English cuisine, twisting traditional dishes and local produce through rustic flavours, textures and ingredients that make dishes not just special but unique.
Bott describes his approach as ‘Viking-inspired’ British fayre – an almost medieval take on our national cuisine. It sounds odd but it just works brilliantly and when you understand the concept you start to realise how cleverly and thoughtfully it’s been woven into the menu. Everything balances modern British cooking with a twist that you don’t expect and can’t quite fathom because it’s so ancient and unexpected you have to take a second glance to check you’ve read it right. Hay mayonnaise; charred ale onions; leek ash – it feels like the ingredients have been foraged that morning from the woods round the village. The whole thing becomes an adventure and you realise that you’re going to be exploring new tastes and textures that others may never have considered.
What makes the whole experience work is Bott’s commitment to his vision. He utterly believes in what he’s doing and he’s taken his story beyond the kitchen and into the front of house. From the aprons worn by the waiting staff, to the matching bread bags and the crockery exclusively made for the restaurant, he knows that from start to finish his Nordic/English rustic fusion has to completely envelop you before you can be let out in the real world again.
Cured Smoked Salmon sounds basic but at Hawkyns it’s very different. Two small fillets of Loch Duart salmon, one blowtorched and charred, one home-smoked, all accompanied by a selection of garnishes that range from the obvious by sensible chopped shallots to the frankly startling hay mayonnaise – a homemade mayonnaise infused with charred local hay, sitting like a black puddle on the plate but offering a smoky cream that elevates the mellow and buttery salmon to an entirely different level. The British traditionalism of the fish with the almost caveman-like mayo showing how the two strands of Bott’s thinking connect to create something new and different without killing the dish.
Scallops are cooked to perfection. Browned and buttery on the outside whilst retaining their soft centres. They are accompanied by leeks delivered three ways – as a smooth puree, a smart terrine and a burnt ash, that offers more in the way of texture than flavour. The use of leeks in such variety shows another of Bott’s fastidious obsessions – the need to extrapolate numerous options from a single ingredient. Again, it’s everywhere across the menu but you need to know to look for it or it could pass you by.
Hawkyns Fish and Chips is a very different take on the one of our national favourites. A pristine piece of white cod, barrel-rolled into a perfect cylinder and smothered in pea puree and tartare sauce. What makes the dish so unusual is the use of scraps instead of batter – hundreds of rice crispy-sized salt and vinegar flavour fried nuggets of joy that bring a rustic edge to the immaculate fish beneath. It’s a fun twist and the individual elements are well thought through but the dish as a whole ends up very heavily seasoned and perhaps the scraps don’t need to pack quite such a punch as they tend to overtake the rest of the flavours a little.
BBQ Jacob’s Ladder of Beef is slow cooked to a level that makes it almost impossible to touch without causing a tidal wave of bovine flesh cascading down onto the plate. The flavour is gentle and not US-in its style and the sauce isn’t too thick. The accompaniment of mash is a safe play but it’s the charred onions that really lift the dish. With their stems still intact they look likely to have been foraged just hours before and it’s yet another clever nod to Bott’s medieval vision. As a dish, it’s an obvious item to have on a menu so driven by its primeval roots and its feels very right to order it in a place where rustic is the essence of everything you touch, see, smell and taste. It’s a very fitting signature dish.
Triple Cooked Chips are a staple in these venues and accompanied by béarnaise sauce they tick a box but Truffle Macaroni Cheese is an unexpected star of the main course. No stodge, no heft, just perfectly judged balance of ingredients. So often this simple dish is murdered by an overflow of truffle flavour that kills off everything else on offer but not here. Hawkyns has this absolutely right.
After such an experience of new ideas and flavours, desserts should be a fittingly similar close. The menu looks enticing and yet again its clear to see the thus far unbroken line of rustic charm spearing its way through everything to create too many choices. But the end products are not quite up to the spectacular levels of the starter and the main. Bott’s ideas are solid in theory but the delivery isn’t quite at the level of what came before. There is nothing wrong here – nothing poor and nothing below par but when you set a bar as high as Hawkyns does on the first two rounds, the finale needs to maintain and this doesn’t quite get there.
Six Doughnuts – two with pear, two with chocolate, and two with apple are served in an iron flat bottomed dish and look reasonably substantial but are all dough and no go. Fillings are sparse and the whole dish needs uplifting. It’s a little inelegant and it jars against what came before.
Chocolate Tart comes with blackberry ice cream. The combination works well. The richness of the chocolate is softened by the light melting ice cream. It’s set off well with fresh jewels of blackberry but it isn’t enough to make it a fitting end to what has been a unique meal. It’s by no means a let-down but it doesn’t quite stack up against the starters and the main.
Value for money
Hawkyns is not a cheap night out if you go for the a la carte option. Starters range from £9-£14 and mains from £16-24. A meal for two with wine and service should come in at around £120. During the week it offers a choice of dishes comprising some of the most popular items from the full menu. It costs £25 for two courses or £29 for three. It’s a good deal given you’re still getting access to some of the most popular dishes in the house.
On the face of it, Hawkyns looks like standard British fine dining but once you look under the hood it becomes something rather special. The way Bott and his team blend two ends of a very long timeline together and smash modern British into medieval ingredients, flavours and textures makes for a unique eating experience. The way that extends out into the front of house and touches everything from the staff clothing to the cutlery and crockery speaks volumes about how much everyone cares about the story behind the food.
It’s not for those who want a simple meal but it is somewhere to find a new approach to the rustic side of eating and chance to understand what it means to eat food designed by someone who has a laser like focus on bringing a distinct vision to life. Go and experience it.
Hawkyns Restaurant, The Crown Inn, 16 High Street, Amersham, HP7 0DH
01494 721 541