Mike Bullard is a little bit fed up of chicken wings. He says it affectionately and with a smile on his face, because they’ve been there with him from the very start. But after a few years of frying them virtually non-stop, he’s happy for them to play a slightly smaller role in his rather lovely restaurant.
Mike is owner of the The Butcher’s Social, a bar and restaurant comfortably nestled slap-bang in the middle of the picturesque town of Henley-in-Arden. It’s had one hell of a journey, starting life as a pop-up in an old butcher’s shop in Harborne in Birmingham, where Mike won people’s hearts with wooden tables, a chipboard bar and kitchen and yes, the chicken wings. Salted caramel to be precise.
Fast forward a few years and he’s now the proud owner of the recently-refurbished, rather expansive restaurant in affluent Henley. In some ways, it’s about as far as you can get from chipboard. In others, the little things that made The Butcher’s Social so popular in its early days are still there. The chicken wings, for one, who proudly roost on a menu of their own. The casual feel, despite the historic backdrop and chic decor. And the friendly service that sees Mike’s partner Emma greet regulars by name while the big man himself can be spotted sitting down for five minutes to check on an elderly punter who isn’t feeling so good.
We sit in the bar area at the front, which on a Wednesday lunchtime is packed with regulars, from ladies lunching to small groups, couples and the odd business meeting or working lunch. If there was ever any concern that coming out of the metropolis of Birmingham to somewhere in the ‘sticks’ would make it hard to attract people, that’s long gone. We also took a sneak peek at the restaurant further back in the building – a light, modern airy space that simultaneously has a sexy feel thanks to shiny wood, and a mixture of deep ochre and blue upholstery and panelling. Undoubtedly a great setting on a bustley Friday or Saturday night.
Back at the other end, we tucked into a corner looking out onto Henley High Street and got stuck in. Drinks-wise you can choose from a bucketload of different gins (or just the tonic if, like me, you are making some vague attempt to reduce your alcohol intake). There are craft beers, lagers, wine and all the usuals, so whether you’re going light and summer or heavier for the winter days, they’ve pretty much thought of everything.
The same goes for the food. There’s the full menu stacked out with seasonal dishes, ‘small plates’, 35-day dry-aged steaks, and dishes ‘From the Land’ and ‘From the Sea’. It’s hearty yet refined, taking classic flavours but reminding you that this is not just another country gastropub but somewhere with a bit more depth and story behind it. An Express Menu with a slimmed-down selection appeared to prove popular with the ladies who don’t really want lunch, just gin, as well as people in a bit of a rush, but clearly we were here to go the whole hog.
And then there’s the wings. After a brief moment of distress that they might have stopped doing them and I’d missed out on these legendary creations, I realised they have their very own menu. They need to really, when there are six different types (no wonder Mike’s had enough). You can order half a kilo or a kilo so whether you’re after a starter, a main, a bar snack or a sharer, the world is your oyster.
We decided to have wings in lieu of starters and while half a kilo along could have sufficed, when you’re faced with options like Salted Caramel, Honeycomb & Bacon, Black Bean, Ginger, Soy and Honey, or Marmite, Bacon and Crispy Wild Rice, there’s no way you’re going to simply order one. Unless you’re weak. And then I can’t be your friend.
We opted for half a kilo with American Franks Hot Sauce, and another half with Jalapeno, Lime & Coriander. I’d probably have gone all out for the Salted Caramel and Marmite varieties, but apparently marriage is all about compromise…
If your only experience of chicken wings is those cremated, tastless crunchy things you get in all the worst pubs, stop right there. These are what chicken wings are all about. Big, plump buggers, moist inside but crunchy on the outside. The Jalapeno, Lime & Coriander worked perfectly with the crispy saltiness of the wings themselves. If you order them, eat them first because when they’re hot and crispy it’s the perfect combination of flavour and texture.
The Franks hot sauce version are a completely different world. Drenched in hot sauce, their crispiness is less noticeable, though still there underneath the fiery layer of sauce, which itself I found the right balance of sour, spice and sweet. If good old KFC hadn’t already appropriated the phrase ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’, it would be well suited to these. If you are a knife and fork queen or king and don’t want to get your hands dirty then beware – these are about getting your hands dirty, folks. And that we did.
Really, we could have stopped there. Half a kilo of wings each is a generous starter, to say the least. But we weren’t just here for the dirty wings. We were here to try the full-bore restaurant menu. With dishes like Glazed Duck Breast, Roast Rack of Lamb or Fillet of Cornish Cod, why wouldn’t you. And that’s before you get to the range of steaks, complete with a selection of sides and sauces.
Obviously it was this that attracted Jamie’s eye in the same way Alicia Silverstone did to his 15-year-old self (yes, her of Clueless fame). As tempted as he was by the 8oz Onglet, he couldn’t help but stay faithful to the Ribeye, which came perfectly cooked and complete with slightly crispy kale and fried onions. He even bravely eschewed the options of triple-cooked chips, skin-on French fries or mash with garlic crisps and sage and instead went for a beetroot, smoked burrata and caper salad.
This was a triumph. It sounds almost summery but thanks to the smokeyness of the burrata had a Bonfire Night feel perfect for the autumnal day we visited. As with all the best dishes, simplicity is king here – fresh flavours, contrasted well, along with a mixture of colours and textures aimed to please the eye as well as the mouth.
As good as his steak was, my Pan Fried Fillet of Brill trumped it completely. I can’t say I’ve had brill that many times in my life, but if it’s always like this it’s my new favourite fish. Another plate that would please an artist’s eye as much as a food critic’s cakehole, the texture firm and the taste sweet. It came with fish mousse, roast Roscoff onion, butternut squash and hen of the woods – a rainbow of both flavour and texture. The onion was gorgeously sweet, the butternut squash smooth and light and the fish mousse a salty, creamy taste of the sea.
It was the sauce that won my heart though. A little pot of liquid bliss that Emma wouldn’t divulge the exact details of, but something to do with great stock, shallot, and other loveliness cooked down for days, not hours. It’s that kind of love that makes dishes sing, and sing that brill jolly well did.
We washed it all down with a few different glasses of red from the wine list – including a rather lovely Pinotage that worked perfectly with the steak. In some ways I wish we hadn’t had both of those portions of wings. Because then we might have been able to fit in the glazed figs, or whisky and chocolate cremeux, or even a selection of cheese from across the country.
Instead we had to admit defeat and resort to coffee instead. A quick tour of the restaurant from Mike, along with his chat about his plans for The Butcher’s Social (he’s not done folks – nowhere near), and before we knew it we’d been there for a good three hours. It’s that kind of place. You can imagine spending a whole summer’s day in the garden, dining on fish and burrata, or cosying up for a decadent dinner on a spring evening, or indeed settling in for a winter warmer when it’s bitter outside but oh-so-sweet in every way indoors.
I know I’m raving and I don’t care. These days there seems to be such a hard, defined line between casual dining and more formal fine dining that you find yourself constantly having to choose between the two. Here, you really do feel like you can do both and it doesn’t jar at all. It’s not often in the same meal that you can seamlessly switch from tearing chicken wings apart like an extra on Vikings to tucking into a complex fish dish that hits the spot on more levels that a kid’s Saturday night on an Xbox. But here you can, and you’ll enjoy every second of it.
I was originally invited to The Butcher’s Social on a Friday or Saturday night to see the restaurant in full weekend flow but I’m kind of glad I’ve also been able to see it in its other natural habitat, having effortlessly switched from trendy Birmingham to high-end Henley and somehow transformed itself from a pop-up to a prize venue without losing its heart and soul.
That said, one visit has me a bit hooked so I don’t think it’ll be long before we’re back for a weekend dinner. And then again to check out all the great stuff Mike has planned. Often the key to a good place is its ability to evolve with the times. To grow and change, yet somehow keep the key elements that made it so good in the first place. For a place to go from a pop-up to a full-bore restaurant, to completely shift geography and clientele, and still make it work, it’s clear they’re doing something right. And it ain’t just the chicken wings.
I was invited to dine at The Butcher’s Social. Our meals were complimentary but we paid for our wine. A big thanks to Mike for taking the time to chat to us 🙂