There are many answers you get when you compliment an establishment on its food. “Thank you, that’s so kind”, “Great, I’ll tell the chef”, “Wonderful, that’s what we like to hear”. You get the gist.
“Yes, we know” isn’t one that crops up very often. Yet such was the response to my exuberant praise after lunch at the Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden near Henley-on-Thames.
Of course, telling you this via the written word doesn’t quite convey the knowing smile that came with that response and the tone that made it neither arrogant or annoying. It was just a statement of fact, and one that I admire. I mean, if you’re going to dish up food – surely you should be confident in the fact that it’s good?
We stumbled on the Stag & Huntsman on one of our many campervan trips (before coronavirus and lockdown, obvs). It’s tucked away in Hambleden – a chocolate box village perfect for jigsaws, postcards and tourist information brochures just outside Henley-on-Thames – and is everything we tend to want in a lunchtime watering hole.
The building’s pretty, with several different areas including a cosy bar and a lighter, brighter restaurant. It’s dog-friendly – always a plus for us – but there’s a garden which tends to be our go-to if the weather permits. There are rooms too, though I can’t speak to those, but I imagine it’s a lovely place to hide yourself away no matter what the season.
Obviously it’s the menu that caught my eye. Changed seasonally by the looks of things, with a focus on local produce. There are crowd-pleasers in there but also a few hints that someone in the kitchen is ambitious. There’s also a range of choices from starters and sharers to light lunches as well as mains.
As tempted as I was by interesting mains of spring lamb cutlets with garden peas, charred courgette, raspberry beetroot and lamb stock jus and creamed crayfish and clam tagliatelle, sharers like a Chiltern charcuterie board, and a sexy-sounding ‘dirty mac’n’cheese’ with pulled pork, I opted for a classic – a prawn sandwich.
Obviously not an average shop-bought prawn sarnie. This North Atlantic prawn open sandwich was one of the more spectacular sandwiches I’ve tried and it wasn’t just the appearance that was impressive.
Sandwiches are often overlooked but it’s easy to get them wrong (cast your mind back to that time you inevitably endured soggy, rubbish bread, inadequate filling, and an overall disappointment in what should be a home run of a snack or meal.
Not so here. Good quality bread, and a thick slab of it too – important when you’ve just got the one piece. Peppery rocket. And most importantly, big fat tasty prawns without any of the squish that can sometimes make a prawn sandwich a bit unpalatable.
Held together by the caress of a virgin mary sauce with its trademark tang as well as a slight creaminess, neither overpowering the stars of the show, the prawns. Add a generous shake of paprika for a bit of heat and the obvious aesthetic benefit and it was a sandwich fit for a king.
Jamie couldn’t resist his favourite – a baked camembert – despite my plea to order something that you don’t see on pub menus across the country. However, I have to confess that the reason baked camembert is on so many menus is because it’s a winner. I also have to admit that this one was up there with some of the more impressive I’ve seen and tasted.
I’m not sure whether it was the fact it was baked to perfection, with a slight crispiness, and studded with rosemary and garlic, or the sourdough it came with. It could also well have been the homemade tomato chutney that is one of the better chutneys I’ve had and a far cry from some of the over-sweet, one-dimensional offerings you get in some establishments.
Two simple dishes, yet somehow capable of giving you a fairly good idea that food is taken seriously here. An idea cemented by the barman’s reaction when I commented on the quality of the Stag & Huntsman’s offerings.
I get it – I only had a sandwich and baked camembert so I could well be wrong. Perhaps we just lucked out that day. But I think when a place takes time to get even the simple things right, there are good odds that they invest the same passion and standards into the more unusual items on the menu.
There’s only one way to know, of course, and that’s to go back. Which I plan to do as soon as we can.
We paid in full at the Stag & Huntsman. They didn’t know I was a blogger.