Padstow is famously known as PadStein, thanks to the proliferation of eateries owned there by Rick Stein, the TV chef who seems to know a thing or two about fish.
Tom Kerridge opened The Hand and Flowers in Marlow in 2003.
12 years later, it is renowned as the only pub in England to have been awarded 2 Michelin stars, and is so popular that you have to carve TOM on your left wrist with ox’s blood, and H&F on the right, just to reserve a table for 3:30 on a Monday afternoon in 6 months time.
Now, the good middle-class burghers of genteel Marlow-on-Thames are not huge fans of body art, and wouldn’t stoop so low just for a bit of Tom’s pub grub and a pint.
The answer? Open up another pub in Marlow. With no booking policy, so you can just walk in and enjoy some decent nosh without all that planning malarkey. Keeps everyone happy. Well, everyone in Marlow. Not so great if you travel up from Padstow for lunch and the place is rammed by 12:15.
Gill, my lovely missus, treated me to a meal at The Hand and Flowers a couple of years ago. Marriage is all about give-and-take, I’m told, so I thought it would be worth a few matrimonial brownie points to take her for lunch at The Coach.
On a glorious, sunny Friday in February, we turned up at The Coach, outside its inconspicuous looking facade in the town’s West Street. At 11:30, just to be safe. The strategy was to grab a coffee, check out the menu and decide if it was worth staying around…there are plenty of other good options for a decent bit of lunch in Marlow. If you believe Trip Advisor.
We beat the rush…but only just. Welcomed by several of the friendly young crew, we were given the option of sitting at a more conventional – and slightly too cosy – table, or in some slightly barber-shop looking high swivel chairs at the bar. Good to be different, right, so we went for the bar stools.
And even better, we were at the far end overlooking the kitchen, the team prepping away in anticipation of a busy lunch service, lamb loins churning away slowly on the gleaming new rotisserie, and Tom’s lieutenant Nick Beardshaw doing something clever with a piece of offal – or was it shellfish? – right in front of us.
We were hooked. The welcome, the way the pub has been fitted out, the service for coffee and a birthday Bloody Mary, and a quick glance through the menu and we were going nowhere for a couple of hours. Screw those Johnny-come-latelies from Padstow, or Henley, or just round the corner.
The concept at The Coach is great food – presumably inspired by Tom and executed by Nick and the team – served in small portions. Not quite tapas, but certainly not a conventional 3 course meal. And it’s all the better for it, to my 5-weeks-in-Australia overfed belly way of thinking.
The unfussy lunch and dinner menu is split into Meat, No Meat and Sweet sections. Simples, eh?
The Nice Man Behind The Bar was patient with us. First up, we ordered just a pukka Caesar salad (£4) and potted Cornish crab with a cucumber chutney (£7.50). The chutney punched way above its sweet yet acidic weight, and elevated the crab in the same way that Beth has probably helped Tom to achieve all he has over the last 12 years.
We were getting into the swing of this and wanted more. All the food is freshly cooked as ordered and, with the place now rocking, Nick was pulling at the strings of the kitchen brigade like a master puppeteer. But in a sotto voce non-shouty way, as different from a certain Mr Ramsey as a Russian dissident is to Vladimir Putin.
So be patient and don’t go to The Coach if you’re looking for a quick sarnie and a couple of pickled onions in your 25 minute lunch break. Immerse yourself in the experience and let the culinary juices work their magic.
Another bonus of sitting at the bar, by the kitchen, was seeing all the dishes roll off the metaphorical conveyor belt, moulding your thinking about what to have next.
Gill went for the Chicken Kiev with maple glazed squash (£12), I liked the look – and sound – of the venison chilli with toasted rice cream, red wine and chocolate.
Ding dong, to plagiarise dear old Lesley Phillips. The richness and depth of flavour in the chilli, combined with the crunchy texture of the rice cream and the subtle chocolate, nearly had me falling off the barber’s chair.
Rounding off the birthday treat with a rather nice Spiced Plum Fool with brandy ice cream, we were sated. Well, nearly. We could have had more but – damn it – we had to leave room for the birthday cake with Gill’s Mum & Dad on the way home. And the birthday buns with Gill’s sister after that.
We would both like to have tried everything on the menu. Really. It was hard to step away from the crispy pig’s head with piccalilli. Or the rotisserie beetroot with goat’s cheese, horseradish and apple. Some of our bar-stool neighbours were eulogising over the The Coach Burger with Lincolnshire Poacher. And the lady next to me almost had her own When Harry Met Sally moment with the Brixham Plaice, brown shrimp and Calcot onion.
So next time we go to Kerridge-on-Thames – or whatever Marlow soon becomes known as, when Tom inevitably expands his empire à la Rick – we’ll get there early again, to make sure we get some more barber’s chairs.
Actually, they’re open for breakfast. Perhaps we’ll make a day of it, grazing our way through the entire breakfast and lunch menu, like vultures picking lazily over their prey.
Thanks, Tom. Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Nice Man Behind The Bar. Gill had a great birthday lunch, thanks to The Coach. And my wrists are tattoo-free.
(photos courtesy of The Hand and Flowers and The Coach websites)