When it comes to my family, I’m definitely not alone in my love of food. You might remember me raving about my biggest brother’s restaurant standard food and his homemade breakfast pizza, which is a bit of a hint of his foodie fondness. My other bro is another big fan, I’m just yet to blog on his exploits. Needless to say, when we decided to mark biggest bro’s 40th birthday we knew it would involve the f word (by that I clearly mean food, not the other one!).
Since we’re scattered across the country, we had to agree on a rough area, so we decided on middle brother’s neck of the woods. He lives in Maidenhead which puts him in a great place for access to London but also some of the little pockets of chef-y goodness like Bray, Heston Blumenthal’s stomping ground, and Marlow, which seems to have become Tom Kerridge’s manor. And that’s before you even get to any of the lesser known culinary geniuses about the place. So plenty of choice.
I left big bro’ in charge of planning and after much deliberation, he decided on The Coach in Marlow. Just down the road from Tom Kerridge’s Hand and Flowers (a two Michelin starred pretty-as-a-picture pub restaurant), The Coach is from the same team but with head chef Nick Beardshaw at the helm. It’s a pretty little place, as are most of the places in the middle of Marlow, and pleasantly understated.
Before we started with anything else, let me get this out of the way. You can’t book at The Coach. It offers tables as well as bar stools overlooking the open kitchen for you to enjoy a slightly casual, relaxed meal, but you can’t reserve any of them – the whole place operates on a first-come-first-served basis.
I don’t know the exact reason behind this, whether it’s to keep it casual or to give people a chance to pop in without the months’ wait you’d get at the Hand and Flowers, but it’s something you need to bear in mind when you’re planning to eat here ie don’t plan to arrive at 7pm and be sat down by 7.30pm. I guess if you get there early and there’s just two of you, there’s a chance that could happen, but if it’s busy and there’s more of you (say, six like we were), be prepared for a bit of a wait.
With the potential wait in mind, there’s a little area where diners can enjoy a cocktail or one of their many gin and tonic combos. Don’t try to go ‘off menu’ when it comes to a cocktail though, as they don’t do this (yes, we tried).
Something The Coach does offer, though, is the ability to “keep up to date with all major news and sporting events” on an array of TVs that sit above the bar plus one on the wall in the waiting room. I have to say, I found this a bit bizarre and slightly distracting as we chatted away before dinner under the fluorescent glare of a live football match.
A little word of warning – just remember when you hit those delicious cocktails and G&Ts that you could be waiting for your table for some time, so go steady. We were kindly brought The Coach’s version of pork scratchings to nibble on while we waited – almost more like prawn crackers than scratchings, but something to munch on and soak up some of the alcohol. However, it’s probably still wise to pace yourself, both for your wallet and your sobriety’s sake.
We sat down about two hours after we arrived which, to be fair, isn’t unreasonable considering there were six of us and it was a Friday night. The Coach offers a selection of small plates, kind of British tapas, although each are presented as dishes in their own right. They’re divided into meat, no meat, and sweet. Nice and simple, and a great concept for a family like ours that likes to pass food around and compare notes.
As you can imagine, the combination of food-love, a big celebration, and a few cocktails down the hatch meant we didn’t hold back when it came to the food. So get ready for a bit of a catalogue of dishes that our gang worked our way through.
First up, we went for a salmon scotch egg with sorrel beurre blanc (top left), then (going clockwise) steak tartare with fried quail egg and rye cracker, duck liver parfait with fig and cherry chutney and the Coach burger with smoked brisket and mozzarella.
The scotch egg was a great variation on a pub classic, with the right balance of crispy outside and soft yet substantial middle. The steak tartare was, as you can see, beautifully presented and just how tartare should be – simple yet perfectly seasoned so you can really taste the meat. For me, the parfait was more like a mousse, though tasted great and was well complemented by the sweet chutney, and the burger – despite being a bit difficult to share – was another classic, well executed.
The whole stuffed rotisserie quail was not only impressive in appearance, but in taste, with its delicate slightly gamey taste emphasised by the stuffing it was filled with. Despite our love of meat, we also tried the rotisserie beetroot with feta, apple and horseradish.
Remember when you used to have chunks of apple with chunks of cheese as a child? This sort of reminded me of this, but far more delicate and more complex, with a mixture of tastes as well as textures, from the sweet beetroot to citrusy apple and soft feta to other, more crunchy, elements on the plate.
When we picked the smoked ox tongue with crispy cheek and sauce gribiche, none of us really knew what to expect, and were pleasantly surprised to get this lovely dish appear before us. Despite reading like it would be the main event on the plate, the tongue itself seemed to take more of a bit part, while centre stage was the crispy cheek formed into a neat croquette.
One of my favourites was the fillet of sea bream with toasted cucumber and crab ravioli. I mean, look, how pretty is that! This is what I mean by the dishes resembling full-on main courses, despite being smaller to allow you to have more than one.
Elegant, delicate and imaginative, this dish had it all for me. Soft fish, perfectly cooked, topped with a beautiful piece of ravioli cooked to just the right texture, with the toasted cucumber coated in sesame seeds resembling an upmarket prawn toast. Oh, and all meticulously presented on the plate, as you can see.
Still on the fish, we tried the fish fritter of the day with tartare sauce. Yep, fish and chips. Simple but again, well done. Another classic crowd pleaser was the chicken kiev with peas and mint sitting in a little boat of gem lettuce.
After spending the evening staring at The Coach’s Iberico ham sat on the bar, we couldn’t resist its call. I’ve got to confess, as excited as I was, it wasn’t my favourite. I’m a massive lover of fat (Mr M and I fell in love over our love of the fat on lamb chops, but that’s a different story) but there was just a bit too much of it on this for me. To Iberico purists, this is probably sacrilege, I know, but hey, I’m just telling the truth.
Try as I might, I didn’t quite manage to keep up with all the dishes so somehow I missed a snap of the mushroom ‘risotto’ Claude Bosi which turned out to be one of our faves, despite coming in the second wave of orders. It’s a risotto without rice which, according to Trip Advisor, seems to have left some people disappointed in the past, but for me it proved to be another intriguing take on a classic.
There was also the steak and blue cheese ‘demi’ pie that again, you’ll just have to imagine. And let’s not forget the sides of The Coach chips with bearnaise, rotisserie pomme boulangere, and buttered Hispi cabbage which was a firm favourite with all of us.
You’re probably wondering how much we actually ate on our night at The Coach, but I’d like to remind you that there were six of us tucking into each of these dishes so that’s, what, a mouthful of each? Needless to say, this is me getting my excuse in early for our decision to order a few dishes from the sweet menu, as well as a bit of cheese.
As you can see, I was too slow to prevent one of my fellow food-lovers from snaffling a mouthful of the banana custard with dates and honeycomb before I could photograph it, so try to imagine it as another perfectly-presented dish rather than the slightly-violated dessert you see here. Continuing on the theme of taking classics and slightly adapting them, you’ll notice it’s unlike any banana custard you had as a kid, but a much more refined offering of soft banana cream adorned with dried banana, nuts and honeycomb.
The lemon tart (always a winner in my book) was left in its classic form and served with a tangy raspberry sorbet, while the Lincolnshire Poacher, served with crackers and grapes in an unexpectedly simple way compared to some of the courses, was allowed to stand alone as a last bastion of simplicity.
And there you go. Obviously (if you know me) we teamed our banquet with some rather nice bottles of wine and were some of the last to leave The Coach that night. The bill wasn’t small, I have to say, but on close analysis the following morning, that was due to our rather excessive drinks bill rather than the food.
All in all, we had a great time. I probably wouldn’t rush back to The Coach in a big group, given the no-booking rule and all that brings, but if I was in a twosome and in the area, I’d consider popping in again, and would definitely recommend it as somewhere to try at least once.
For somewhere with such a big name behind it, it’s got a low-key, casual atmosphere and a nice balance of classic dishes with all the twists and attention to detail that you’d expect from somewhere that’s a bit of a cut above. For food alone, too, it’s not bad value. Just beware how much of a bill you rack up while you’re waiting.
While I might not be dashing back to The Coach the next moment I have free, it has done something that I think maybe is one of its hidden aims, and that’s to whet my appetite for the Hand and Flowers. If this is what this team can do in the Hand & Flowers’ more casual relative, what does the big brother offer? Watch this space!
We paid in full for our meal and drinks at The Coach. They didn’t know I was a blogger.