You might have noticed there’s been a wee bit of a blogging break of late. I had all the most diligent plans in the world to write while we were on a merry jaunt around Europe but instead concentrated on rest, relaxation and eating ALL the food I could find in France, Italy and Switzerland. So apologies, but I’ve got plenty to keep you occupied now I’m back to reality and am starting off with a bit of a special one.
With our epic trip down to Tuscany already planned for the second half of September and start of October, when it came to deciding what to do for our fifth wedding anniversary back in August, we decided to keep it a bit low-key. Consequently, rather than a swanky trip abroad or a hotel break with Michelin-starred dining, we tootled off on another camper van adventure down the road to the Chilterns, not worrying too much about where we’d eat and fairly confident there’d be a nice gastropub nearby for a quiet, dog-friendly dinner.
A quick google a few days before and we realised despite our initial thoughts that where we ate didn’t matter, we’d managed to choose a campsite just ten minutes from somewhere really rather good. The Mash Inn in Radnage might look and sound like just another chocolate box little pub, but it’s far, far more.
A quick look at the website and you can soon see this isn’t somewhere you’ll be calling in for a pint and a pie. Formerly The Three Horseshoes, The Mash Inn refers to itself as a ’boutique inn’ or a ‘restaurant with rooms’. Named one of the top 20 places for foodies in The Times, featured in the Good Food Guide 2018, and having scored a load of glowing reviews from top critics, it certainly has taken the food world by storm. No wonder with Chef Jon Parry in the kitchen. He started his career at Tom Aikens in Chelsea, moving to renowned gastropub The Bull & Last in North London before moving on to work for Adam Byatt at his acclaimed restaurant in Clapham, Trinity.
Add those kind of impressive credentials the fact everything is cooked in an open kitchen over a bespoke wood-fire grill, the fact they have one, bookable dog-friendly table and the location just a 10-minute walk from where we’d parked the trusty camper, and it was clearly destiny for our anniversary celebration.
The front of the building still has a pub feel and is home to the bar as well as to our table, nicely tucked out of the way of other diners so we could enjoy dinner without fear of our four-legged friend annoying them. Through the slightly more modern restaurant is the gorgeous garden where you can enjoy a pre-dinner drink and feast your eyes on The Mash Inn’s vibrant kitchen garden, where staff can be spotted picking fresh herbs and vegetables ready for diners’ dishes.
As tempted as we were by the Tasting Menu, rather reasonably priced at £55 a head, we decided to keep it simple and go a la carte, nibbling on edamame beans and some homemade bread as we made our choices. As you probably know by now, restraint isn’t exactly our strong point so despite our valiant attempts not to go crazy, we ended up ordering three starters to share.
The first was homemade burrata, Mirabelle plum and umeboshi. An oozing puddle of light creaminess, contrasted with the tiny sweet Mirabelle plums, pickled umeboshi and fresh herbs undoubtedly plucked from the garden just moments before.
Our second starter, Palourde Clams with vermouth and creme fraiche, whisked us away from our hamlet in the heart of the Chilterns right to the sea, stunning in their simplicity and boasting a freshness I imagine can only be the result of some serious hunting for a top-notch supplier.
Third was Anglo-Nubian goat ham and black lime. It’s no secret Parry is a keen forager and likes to pickle, bottle and cure stuff himself, so I’m fairly sure this may have been cured by his own fair hand. If not, it was another triumph of sourcing, strong in taste but supple and melt in the mouth.
The food may be the stuff of a top restaurant but owner Nick Mash is keen to keep a far less formal atmosphere. To that end, it’s not just accepted – but actively encouraged – to wander from your table into the kitchen and watch the chefs taming the flames of the open fire to cook your dinner. It may resemble a brutish medieval torture chamber, but closer inspection reveals a precise operation that clearly requires a high level of skill.
Jon Parry wasn’t working on the night we visited, but his team certainly appeared to have no trouble stepping into the breach to not only tame those flames, but hone them into a finely-tuned heat source to cook anything from meat to monkfish to perfection.
Mr M opted for the Galloway Sirloin, served with bone marrow, charred onion and duck fat chips. Part of his international steak sampling ambition, he was confident this would be a winner and wasn’t disappointed. There’s something about open fire that cooks meat beautifully, melting any fat into sumptuous, silky loveliness and allowing the flavour of the meat (well-sourced of course) to sing out like a diva in full song. Add to that the richness of bone marrow slathered on top, the sweetness of the charred onion and crisp, light duck fat chips. A classic dish pimped up to the max.
Keen to see how other dishes fared over the fiery flames, I went for marinated cod with sunflower and salty fingers. It had a slightly more Asian feel that was a huge contrast to the sirloin, but worked well. For me, Jamie’s steak won the contest between the two, but I can’t fault my fish at all. I just think I favour the bolder flavours of meat, especially when given the full fire treatment.
We added a side of hispi cabbage with tallow to our meal which for me was a real hit. Who’d have thought simple cabbage could be so good? Yet again, an innocuous classic turned into something rather special in our little Chiltern hideaway.
As we moved on to dessert, I was unable to resist the Rapeseed Oil Ice cream. Not because I’m necessarily a huge fan of Rapeseed Oil Ice Cream – indeed I’ve never had it before. More out of curiosity I guess. Like my cod, I was fascinated and bemused by such a new taste, though it didn’t quite elicit my trademark ‘shoulder-shrug’ of food-induced happiness that Mr M always looks out for.
His pud, however, did just that. Grilled apricot, Hunza tart and a generous jug of Laceys cream. The tart itself was sweet and tasted of sunshine, the Hunza apricots lending a slightly caramel flavour. That sweetness was tempered by the simple addition of a timeless favourite – a glug of decent cream. Like the main courses before, simple, tried and tested flavour combinations but somehow ‘on crack’ – elevating it to levels far beyond the norm.
We finished the evening feeling like we truly had had an experience somewhere slightly off the beaten track. I imagine the longer The Mash Inn is going, the more accolades it will receive and that hidden gem feeling (hackneyed phrase I know, but it really is) will soon disappear. Indeed, apparently the cost of the tasting menu has already risen from £45 to £55 (don’t get me wrong – that’s still incredibly reasonable) and they’re taking bookings up to three months in advance. But hey, who’s going to begrudge success. Certainly not me. I just hope when we make it back our little corner’s still waiting for us – dog and all!
We paid in full at The Mash Inn. They didn’t know I was a blogger. Brandy, however, did receive a complimentary pig’s ear of her own!