Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Worth the Trip? Bray and its Three Michelin Stars


Three Michelin stars - in Michelin's red book for restaurants and hotels this means that the restaurant offers "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey" - is something that many restaurants aspire to.
There aren't many in the world and in the 2012 Michelin Guide there are four in the UK, two in London and two in one small village in Berkshire, Bray.

I am most interested in the restaurants in Bray purely for the reason that this is the part of the world from which I hail from. Bray is a small village with a cricket green, a church and a plethora of pubs (or they used to be pubs) sat against the banks of the Thames and hemmed in by the larger, and far from enticing, town of Maidenhead, which is where I spent my formative years. The restaurants in question are The Waterside Inn, which as its name alludes to sits at the edge of the Thames, and The Fat Duck which as far as I know does not have a duck roaming the premises fat or otherwise. The signature dishes of these restaurants are Flan d'escargots en habit vert and Bacon and egg ice cream respectively. Straight away you can see there is a difference in approach to the restaurants. The Waterside produces classic French dishes in the nouvelle cuisine style whilst The Fat Duck is experimental food (Blumenthal has a lab to create his dishes).

The Fat Duck
Attribution: Oast House Archive
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The Fat Duck used to be The Ring o'Bells pub, a nice establishment a few doors down from the Hinds Head Hotel into which we would stop as we made our way through the village's pubs to The Crown at the other end of the High Street. The ex and I popped in there not long after it had opened when it was more of a French bistro than it currently is. A second visit saw a change towards molecular gastronomy. I think I waved away the 'smell' that was part of my sensory journey and as memory served me did not enjoy any of it, but then I had no idea what I had walked into and what I was supposed to do. Still, it is not my 'cup of tea' and at £180 per head it is a very expensive cuppa.
The Waterside Inn
Attribution: Nancy
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I have been lucky enough to dine, just the once, at The Waterside Inn and was treated to divine French cuisine with no experimentation in sight. Beautifully presented, exquisitely tasting and in a wonderful setting with views of the river this is what I think of as fine dining. This probably means I am old-fashioned and behind the times but I'll take classic French cuisine over weird food combinations any day of the week. The tasting menu at The Waterside Inn is a slightly less expensive experience at £152.50 for a 6 course taster menu.

St Michael's Church, Bray
If the budget does not stretch to 3 Michelin Star dining there are other pubs/restaurants in the village of Bray that will be more suitable to the pocket. Of course, you can always take a packed lunch and stroll along the Thames as I did on my last visit and feed the ducks and swans your crusts at Bray Lock. Whether or not you  enter the Michelin starred restaurants or not, Bray and the stretch of Thames between Windsor and Henley is definitely worth a special journey.

Bray is more than just the village of Bray with the parish encompassing some pretty little hamlets including Holyport, Oakley Green and Bray Wick (Braywick). The village became immortalised in the satirical poem/song The Vicar of Bray which related the twists and turns of the vicar's ecclesiastical leanings during the period of England's history when the denomination of your Christianity was of import in keeping your job and position.



Bray has lost little of its charm and on a summer's day a walk through the village and along the towpath towards Windsor you will see the quintessentially English Bray Lock sat on its little island (Parting Eyot). Just beyond, towards Windsor is Oakley Court and Bray Studios, home to the Hammer Horror films and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, whilst in the opposite direction you can make your way along the Thames past Maidenhead and on to Cookham, Bourne End, Marlow and Henley. On a sunny summer's day there are few better places to be.

Brunel's Sounding Arch
On the Thames towards Maidenhead

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