Larger but no less atmospheric than the Crown, the Hind’s Head traces its history to the 15th century. Heavy, dark beams, a hand-carved bar and a hammered-brass fireplace hood create the most convivial dining conditions. If there were still any doubt that gastropubs can compete with the best restaurants in the world, the Hind’s Head proved that wrong by winning its first Michelin star earlier this year.
Travelling with a chef, you soon realize that menus are decorative and you’re told: “The kitchen would like to cook for you” – an offer you always accept. A plate of devils on horseback and Scotch eggs appear first. I’ve never tasted better versions. The piping-hot prunes have absorbed some of the fat from the smoky bacon and the lightly breaded, toasty Scotch eggs are wrapped in a mantle of tender, spicy sausage surrounding a core of oozing quail egg yolk. Dammann says, “I feel bad for the cook. Peeling lightly poached quail eggs is the worst job in the kitchen.” His appetite overcomes his empathy, and we finish every one before moving on to a plate of soused mackerel, a dish so classic it was probably on the menu 600 years ago.
This relaxed approach to fine dining is also evident at the only Michelin-starred pub right in London, the Harwood Arms, where Oliver sends us on a mission the next day. At bare wooden tables chic families carry on animated conversations in French, Italian and posh English. A statuesque blonde leading a tangle of whippets chats with a friend at the bar. We’re joined by Steve Pooley, Oliver’s former head chef at Fifteen and a good friend and culinary soul brother of Dammann’s.
While they catch up, we pull warm bread out of a cotton bag and slather it with fresh-churned butter. The kitchen sends out treacle-cured smoked salmon, salty and slightly caramelized, with a sweet, citrusy lusciousness. There’s a rich belly of Middlewhite pork, a rare breed renowned for it’s delicious flavour, rolled into a pinwheel of earthy, intense blood sausage. “Britain has the best pork,” Dammann concedes, and it’s hard not to agree that the U.K.’s high animal-welfare standards show in the quality of the meat. That knowledge is what motivates Dammann to work closely with farmers in Quebec who raise animals to the same, and even higher, standards.
Of course, great food doesn’t need a Michelin star to legitimize it, Oliver tells me as he describes our next stop, a celebrated neighbourhood spot in Islington, “Great food that comes from the area, cooked that day by dudes that just love to cook. Under those circumstances you can have the best food of your life.” Since opening in 2003, the Anchor and Hope has consistently drawn crowds, and we bide our time in the pub waiting for a table – despite the fact that we’re dining with Warren Flett, the pub’s head chef and another one who counts Jamie Oliver as a mentor. John Relihan, chef at Oliver’s restaurant Barbacoa, also joins us.
The chefs trade war stories about cooking turkey lungs and cleaning calves testicles. Flett tells a story about his days with Dammann at Fifteen, when the mother of one of the new cooks came in: “We served fish en papillotte,” he recalls “and when the server brought the empty plate back to the kitchen, Jamie asked, ‘Where’s the bag?’ The waitress just looked stunned and said, ‘She ate it.’”
When seated for dinner, we sip intense duck broth from vintage tea cups and eat salad spiked with snails and bacon. We slather foie gras parfait on thick toast and smush a boozy prune on top. There’s lamb neck that’s been braising for seven hours, and goat curry with yogurt raita. It’s an eclectic take on pub grub: traditional British dishes alongside French classics with a few adopted Indian favourites to spice things up.