Pub grub, Heston-style: The Crown at Bray

Pub grub, Heston-style: The Crown at Bray

by Tom Shingler 15 February 2017

It might not be listed in the Michelin Guide, but Heston Blumenthal’s little pub serves up fish and chips, burgers and Sunday roasts with the same attention to detail you’d find on The Fat Duck menu. Tom Shingler finds out more from head chef Matt Larcombe.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

‘We’ve just tasted our way through thirty pork pies to see which one we should include on our ploughman’s – none of them were good enough, so we’re going to be trying thirty more over the next few weeks.’ It’s hard to imagine a pub chef with standards these high, but then Matt Larcombe isn’t a normal pub chef; he runs the kitchen at Heston Blumenthal’s The Crown at Bray, just round the corner from The Fat Duck.

While it doesn’t have the stars, the worldwide acclaim or the dry ice and levitating pillows that grace The Fat Duck’s dining room every night, it does serve some of the best pub food in the UK. As part of The Fat Duck Group, the chefs there have access to some seriously high tech experimental and development kitchens (which happen to be literally next door) to hone their recipes. You might walk into The Crown expecting a classic British pub, but one look at the menu will tell you it’s so much more.

Matt has been head chef at The Crown for two and a half years and before that spent three years as its sous chef, not long after Heston bought it in 2010. ‘It’s such a great feeling to be part of The Fat Duck Group,’ he says. ‘Everyone is always so respectful towards each other; it’s like no company I’ve ever worked for before.’

Matt Larcombe
Head chef Matt Larcombe has been at the helm of The Crown for nearly three years
The Crown
The pub was bought by Heston Blumenthal and made part of The Fat Duck Group in 2010

There are always going to be certain assumptions about a Heston-owned pub; are the pints served in floating glasses with a side of pork scratching ice cream? Do you have to book months in advance for a multi-course tasting menu that riffs on pub favourites? The answer, it turns out, is no. The Crown is, at its core, a classic British pub; just with a few little frissons going on behind the scenes.

‘We have everything you want to find when you go to a local pub,’ explains Matt. ‘We serve burgers, fish and chips, jelly and ice cream and are where the locals in Bray come to have a few pints, a sandwich for lunch or a meal at the weekends. Of course, we get our fair share of destination diners too – especially at the weekend – but it’s the locals who come back again and again that we’re really focused on. We have a discount scheme for people living in the area and hold lots of events, village fetes and wine tastings every year. We really want to give back to the community and be involved with it as much as possible.’

The Crown
The kitchen might be small, but Matt and his team of chefs put the same practices seen in Heston's other restaurants into everything they cook
Heston burger
Even the burger is precision engineered to be just the right height for eating, with every element carefully considered

Of course, if it serves food and it’s owned by Heston Blumenthal, then there’s going to be some serious work going into the menu. Matt gets full access to all the research, testing and experiments that go through The Fat Duck’s development kitchen, so if the team has perfected a recipe for, say, an onion gravy, they can share it out across the group. This means the same methods are used in The Crown, Dinner, The Hind’s Head, The Perfectionists’ Café and The Fat Duck.

‘If a car company spent time and money developing an amazing windscreen wiper that never broke, then they’d start fitting it to their whole range of cars,’ says Matt. ‘That’s what we’re like with recipes here. We have lots of pub classics on the menu, but it’s the development behind each element that makes them stand out. For example, we serve sausages and mash, but we make the mash in the same way as they do at Dinner – blanching the potatoes at 72°C to set the starch, then cooking them at 95°C, then putting them through a ricer and an extra fine sieve, then whizzing them up in a Kenwood until the starch breaks down, then adding butter and finally some milk. It takes time to make it in that way but it means we have the best mash at the end of it all, and it’s that approach to cooking which I think sets us apart from all other pubs in the UK.’

The Fat Duck is a world-class experience and The Hind’s Head has a Michelin star, but we want to be a place where everyone can come, whether they want one course, a few pints or a sandwich at lunchtime.

Matt Larcombe

The Crown
The pub is a favourite with the residents of Bray, who see the pub as their local
The Crown
Every dish on the menu is made the best it can possibly be before it's put on sale, with countless tasting sessions in the development kitchen

The mashed potato is just one of dozens of examples Matt rolls off where the results of intense testing, tasting and developing have made their way onto The Crown’s menu. The batter for the fish and chips is squirted through a siphon gun for extra crunch (which also features on the menu at The Perfectionists’ Café), the beef for Sunday roasts is seared, blowtorched then cooked overnight as it was in Heston’s book In Search of Perfection and everything is tasted time and time again, often with The Fat Duck’s head chef Jonny Lake and Dinner’s executive chef Ashley Palmer-Watts offering their opinions. For a charming yet unassuming sixteenth century pub (with a tiny kitchen and surprisingly large garden), among the wooden beams and roaring open fire, there’s some seriously decent food being served. So why isn’t Matt aiming for a Michelin star?

‘If it happens it happens, but we’re not really looking for one. I think everyone is quite happy at the level we’re at – The Fat Duck is a world-class experience and The Hind’s Head has a Michelin star, but we want to be a place where everyone can come, whether they want one course, a few pints or a sandwich at lunchtime. It’s almost like having three tiers of places to eat in Bray.’

However, just because Matt is happy with how the pub is doing, that doesn’t mean he isn’t constantly changing and improving the menu. It’s a constant evolution process – the batter for the fish and chips has changed six times since he started working there five years ago – and while the service might be more relaxed than that at The Hind’s Head or The Fat Duck down the road, the cooking always has to be top notch. ‘You never know when Heston’s going to come in for dinner, so you have to cook every dish like you’re cooking it for him. You know that the one time you don’t make sure everything is perfect, it’ll end up landing on his table.’ Perhaps it’s this attitude, combined with the immense research behind every element on the plate, that makes The Crown not just a pub – but something more.

The Crown
The sixteenth century pub retains all its charm and character, with open fires and low wooden beams adding to the cosiness