Rosalind Sack discovers an evocative lunch to remember at the new Hawkyns restaurant at The Crown in Old Amersham…
When was the last time you ate really good fish and chips? On holiday in Padstow last summer, perhaps huddled on a bench with your children playfully fighting for the last scrap at the bottom of the vinegar-soaked cone?
It’s these memories, these emotional connections, that Ross Bott is hoping to evoke with his food. Head Chef at Atul Kochhar’s new Hawkyns restaurant at The Crown in Old Amersham, Ross – who has worked alongside Pierre Koffman at the three Michelin star La Tante Claire at The Berkley and Adam Simmonds at Marlow’s Danesfield House – is serving what, on the face of it, appears to be age-old English classics.
Don’t be deceived. Behind the somewhat innocuous descriptions on the menu, lie altogether more modern dishes, with one or two surprises and quirks – much like Ross himself, who makes no secret of the fact that he’s setting his sights on a Michelin star .
Ross doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy of having a ‘story’ behind every dish, besides, he says, ‘It ends up being your story, not the customer’s story.’ Instead, he merely wants to hint at an emotional connection, and prompt a nod, a smile, a flash of recognition with his food – whether that’s through the meticulously constructed flavour, the texture, even the aroma.
Which brings me back to fish and chips. His version is a deconstructed dish – a concept that has been attempted by countless Masterchef contestants to varying degrees of mediocrity. Yet Ross’ works. It really works. The initial aroma of the dish immediately takes you to visions of driving home from the chip shop with a paper bag full of goodies, fighting the urge to tear back the paper and dive in. The cod was moist and bursting with flavour, Ross’ innovative take on mushy peas and tartare sauce were smooth and refined, while the battered scraps added that devilish crunch.
I don’t want to leap too far ahead without mentioning the starters. I chose wood pigeon, and again, the aroma immediately made me take a deep breath and smile. The wood pigeon was perfectly pink in the middle, and served with richly flavoured puy lentils together with salsify and charred ale onions, which were subtly smoky and full of depth. My partner chose seared scallops with carrot and vanilla puree, candied carrot and scallop crisps – which were meaty, fresh and earthy.
Ross takes his cue from the weather, not just in serving seasonal produce, but also in terms of the way he flavours each dish. On a warm, spring day he will keep his dishes on the lighter, fresher side, on a colder more drizzly day, he may choose to nudge up the intensity on the smoke or the spice.
A new addition to his collection of starters is Ross’ homage to two very English ingredients, asparagus and wild garlic. I’m loathed to write too much about this dish – it simply needs tasting. Suffice to say they were the most beautiful spears of asparagus I’ve ever tasted and leek ash is a surprising revelation!
Alongside the fish and chips main, I also ordered the rump of lamb salad. Discard any notion of salads being where you sacrifice depth of flavour for healthy brownie points. The black olive and anchovy crumb scattered throughout the leaves ensured that every mouthful was buzzing with intensity (Ross, you should bottle and sell this stuff!) while the miniature Jersey royals were also alive with flavour. The lamb was melt in the mouth soft and the wild garlic pesto finished it beautifully.
We chose a trio of desserts to complete our leisurely lunch – purely for research purposes! I quickly devoured the blood orange parfait with scorched meringue and yoghurt parfait, while the moist almond cake with mascarpone crème pâtissière, fine chocolate crumb and amaretto gel was as moreish and naughty as it sounds. My partner’s favourite was the wonderfully gooey roasted marshmallow with poached rhubarb and rhubarb ice cream – which immediately evoked childhood memories of buying paper bags of rhubarb and custard sweets from the corner shop. This dish may have been playful and sweet, but childish it certainly wasn’t.
Setting up opposite a well-established local favourite like Artichoke restaurant could throw up its challenges, but I believe Ross and Atul have pitched Hawkyns perfectly. Reflecting the Scandi elements of its decor, Ross has created a dining experience that is modern and stylish without being overly fussy. It’s charming, authentic and makes you smile… just like, well, particularly good fish and chips.