The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

I’ve noticed The Flowing Spring many times on my travels, but always when I’ve been going somewhere else, usually Henley. It’s on a stretch of road just past Playhatch, in an oddly solitary location as the road slopes up towards Shiplake. I’ve always been struck me by the sign on the side of the pub, underneath the name, saying Fresh, home-made food including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, a big block of white with an incongruous, regular font as if it’s been cut out of a Word document, enlarged and stuck on to the building with Blu-Tac.

Well, having done my homework this week I took the next right, pulled into the car park and went inside instead. Why? Well, it turns out that The Flowing Spring is an interesting beast; that sign on the side is a pretty modest summary, but The Flowing Spring takes catering to all kinds of diets very seriously indeed. Apart from all sorts of plaudits for the beer – CAMRA awards, Cask Marques, I’m sure this stuff means more to most of you than it does to me – they were also given an award by PETA last year for being one of the top ten vegan-friendly pubs in the whole of the UK (and yes, if you were a cynic you might find yourself wondering how big a field there was). I haven’t forgotten my resolution to try and eat meat-free mains once a month, and I figured I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to put it to the test.

Charmingly ramshackle doesn’t even begin to do the Flowing Spring justice, an experience that begins when you pull into the car park and realise that it’s at a completely different level to the front of the pub on the main road. The split-level feeling of climbing the stairs to go in is continued by the slightly haphazard nature of the interior. Their website proudly boasts that the whole pub is on a slant, and indeed nothing feels quite like a straight line. There’s a main dining room upstairs, then a sort of L-shaped section downstairs which is more like a traditional pub, open fires and all, and then an area called the “Quirky Corner” into which I did not venture except on my way to the loos (I wasn’t sure I’d be quirky enough).

Initially they sat us in the dining room, all big square tables and handsome conventional furniture, the laminated walls full of copies of the pub’s newsletter and a chalkboard section with enthusiastic quotes on it (“better than the London Street Brasserie” said one, which made me smile). The woman behind the bar also warned us that only one table was unbooked and that there would be a cribbage match going on up there. And I would have stayed up there, but it was absolutely Baltic and I soon realised that cribbage geeks, in their amiable, peg-pushing way, can produce just as many decibels as a crowd watching a much less interesting leisure pursuit with balls and goals. So we moved down to the bar room and had a slightly more laid-back evening – still Baltic, mind, although I did notice that one of the open fires hadn’t been lit.

The menu, like the pub, looks like a big old mess at first. It’s only when I stepped back and had a proper look that I appreciated just how much thought had gone into it. Three of the five starters are not only vegetarian but vegan. They offer two different vegetarian burgers, one of which is vegan, and about half of the mains are either vegetarian or vegan – without a sodding risotto in sight, I might add. Huge sections of the menu can be offered gluten-free, and the menu also assiduously lists potential allergens (I never realised, for instance, that Marmite contains a small amount of gluten: I’ve never felt more sympathy for my friends who have a gluten-free existence). All promising, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a good menu got lost in translation from the kitchen to my table, so I sipped a pint of Aspall’s and listened to the hubbub of the cribbage match getting animated as I waited for the starters to arrive.

Smoked mushrooms in cider batter sounded so perfect that I really wanted to try it. And when it arrived it got so close to really good that I was almost prepared to overlook the flaws. The mushrooms were so smoky that I could nearly forget how small they were, the cider batter so crunchy that I only just remembered that they maybe could have done with being served hotter. The sweet chilli sauce was so thick and tangy that it took my mind off the incongruous bowl of dried coconut flakes on the side which didn’t go, or the undressed salad which was mainly iceberg lettuce. For seven pounds I think I expected slightly more, but on the other hand I was in a lovely pub trying smoked mushrooms, and that doesn’t happen very often.

FlowingMushrooms

My indecision wasn’t helped by the Thai fishcake. It was itself an indecisive thing, with a touch of Thailand but also the powerful influence of Captain Birdseye, a single giant breadcrumbed puck cut in half and served with more of the sweet chilli sauce and more undressed salad (this one with capers and roasted spiced corn, itself an incongruous mix). But here’s the surprise – despite all that it was delicious. It was nicely crumbed, full of fish rather than reliant on claggy spud with a lovely texture. I shared it with my companion, who isn’t a fan of the sponginess of most Thai fishcakes, and we agreed between us that The Flowing Spring had pulled off a rather surprising triumph of fusion cuisine. I even liked the little ribbons of crispy seaweed, also very nice dipped in the chilli sauce, even if they felt like they were on the run from another dish (or possibly even another restaurant).

FlowingFishcake

I watched dishes turning up at other tables – veggie burgers with a big heap of orangey sweet potato fries on the side, home-made chilli served in, of all things, a Yorkshire pudding – and I found myself oddly charmed by the whole experience, if still not quite quirky enough to explore the Quirky Corner. Mains had been ordered at the recommendation of the woman behind the bar. “You want me to narrow it down to two?” she had said, smiling but perplexed, as if I had asked her to solve one of the riddles on “3-2-1” (a show, in fairness, she was far too young to remember). In the end she suggested the “famous” Flowing Spring Kebab – the menu’s words, not mine – and a veggie burger and we went for those. Again, I was impressed that a pub so determined to court vegetarian diners was also prepared to offer a dish to potentially appease their meat-eating companions.

I was warned that the kebab would be big and it certainly was. The menu claimed that it was the Flowing Spring’s take on a doner kebab, which if anything undersold it because instead it was more like a gigantic roast lamb sandwich. So you got lots of thick slices of lamb, none of them pink but none of them the worse for that, sitting on top of some salad in a huge pitta. I loved the lamb – again, I possibly could have stood it being a tad hotter, but it was so good that I didn’t mind, another example of The Flowing Spring charming me into relaxing my critical faculties somewhat. I spent much of the dish wondering if the lamb was better dipped into the fresh, minty raita or the chilli sauce, a thick gloopy jammy pool of redness that looked like it would be sweet but then delivered an acrid, sinus-clearing punch. I also couldn’t decide whether to team it with a pickled chilli, a slice of crinkle-cut gherkin, some salad (which also contained little pieces of diced gherkin, creditable attention to detail) or a torn piece of pitta. Deciding how I liked the dish the best took me very nicely from the first mouthful to the last, by which point I had decided that I rather loved it all.

FlowingLamb

Photography isn’t my strong point at the best of times, but my veggie burger was far more interesting than it looked. The patty was butternut squash, goats cheese and beetroot and had a lot going on compared to the usual “bean burger” veggie alternative. Beetroot and goat’s cheese, that earthy combination of sweet and salt, is a well-worn combo but putting it in a burger, with the squash as a sort of base note that held it all together, was a surprisingly inspired move. It was crumbed and oaty on the outside which gave it a bit of texture, and that worked with the floury bap (no faddy brioche here) and a small smattering of salad. For a nice, simple burger it was spot on – nothing out of this world but a good, tasty veggie main. Even the chips were an excellent example of pub chips – regular shaped (which made me assume they were out of the freezer, though I could be wrong) but crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle and, unlike so often, they actually tasted of potato. They almost made up for the fact that the nice looking sweet potato fries I’d seen at other tables had run out. Almost. The only other slight downside was the price: just under twelve pounds (the same as the kebab) felt a little on the steep side, but perhaps you’re paying a premium to have all that choice.

FlowingBurger

Dinner for two – two courses each, a pint and a half of cider and a couple of soft drinks – came to fifty pounds not including tip. The service was lovely throughout, from the woman behind the bar who took our orders and recommended dishes to the landlord, who brought out our dishes and seemed to genuinely care whether we liked them. And that was the kind of place The Flowing Spring was, because although it was the first time I had ever been I rather felt that everybody else there had been in on the secret for some time.

By the end of the meal we’d moved tables to be nearer to the fire and you could see all sorts of photos up on the walls of events and gigs, be it jazz concerts, outdoor carnivals or classic car events. And I was struck by how remarkable it was that a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere could have such a community feel. A little piece of folded card on my table went into more detail about where The Flowing Spring gets its ingredients from, and it was another example of the kind of touches that make you trust a place: meat from a family butcher in Devon, eggs (also for sale behind the bar) from just down the road, mushrooms foraged in the autumn. The Flowing Spring really needed to work on its heating, but I still had a warm glow from somewhere. Maybe it was the fire, maybe my slightly jaded heart thawing. Who can say? As we left, having paid up, we talked to one of the cribbage players, an amiable twinkly cardsharp who was at the bar getting another drink.

“We didn’t drive you into the other room, did we?” he said.

“No, not at all. It was just getting a bit hectic up there.”

“You should give it a try some time! We play every fortnight and we’re always looking for new recruits.”

I might have to learn cribbage, you know. Just in case.

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/

The Crown, Playhatch

N.B. By November 2019 the Crown had been acquired by Brakspears and the menu differs considerably from the one I reviewed in 2015. In particular there are no longer any South African dishes on the menu. I’ve left the review up for posterity, but it’s no longer representative of the experience you would have if you ate at the Crown.

This week’s review is sort of me returning a favour. The enigmatic Roast Dinners Around Reading (worth a read if you’re not a regular already: his weekly reviews are probably the highlight of my Mondays – well, that and Only Connect) recently visited one of my top recommendations, The Bull at Sonning, and was a big fan. So it seemed fitting that I try out the Crown, which has occupied his top spot for as long as I can remember. The last time I went there was long before it had a makeover and repositioned itself doing classic pub food with a South African twist, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And yes, the website talks about freshly prepared, quality ingredients but, well, don’t they all?

First things first, I have to mention the building itself. Pulling up onto the gravel driveway in the dark doesn’t do the outside justice (though there’s lots of smart seating outside which looks like it could be gorgeous in summer – if we ever get one again) so the first impression you really get is when you walk through the door. The welcome – quick and friendly – was nice enough but the interior is stunning; there are lots of big rooms broken up only by lots of beams, some of which could be perilous after a couple of pints if you’re over five feet eight. The dining area is in a rough L shape, with a large barn section at the end literally crowned with, erm, a crown, all wrought iron and grandeur.

As is de rigueur these days, the furniture is shabby chic and mismatched (I lost count of the number of different dining chairs in the barn area – one large table only had a couple which matched at all) and the paint is the very regulation Farrow and Ball. The interior’s been done by the same people who styled Henley’s Bull On Bell Street and it’s every bit as tasteful: I felt like I should have been there in my gilet and Hunter wellies. Having dinner with friends called Pippa and Tarquin, probably.

The menu’s an interesting one which covers lots of bases without feeling overextended. There’s some kind of South African connection (though I’m not clear exactly what) so there are a few South African touches (Boerewors, bobotie, the dubious delights of “monkey gland sauce”) but they’re well integrated. There’s hearty stuff, slightly more sophisticated stuff and a couple of vegetarian dishes (and several salads) – enough range, in fact, to make Brits feel safe without feeling completely staid. It’s a nice balance.

Although the starter menu was full of temptation (more so than the mains, I thought) boneless ribs stood out as something I rarely see and, in truth, an invention I think the world has long been waiting for. I don’t mind ribs, but it’s impossible to eat them with any dignity and there’s always that moment of trepidation when you take the first bite – will it come away neatly and easily, or will you be left gnawing away and embarrassing yourself, your dining companions and, most likely, people at the next table? That’s before we get to the mess – there’s always mess, and there’s always more mess than you think there will be (which reminds me, must buy more wet wipes).

I was delighted when they turned up, because they just looked pretty. Presentation seems to be a strong point at the Crown – it was attractive enough that you wanted to eat it but not so aesthetically precious that you felt like you were ruining it. What I soon realised is that boneless ribs don’t resemble ribs at all – durr, the clue’s in the name – so if anything they were like small slices of belly pork and none the worse for that. I really liked them – tender, tasty, no bounce, artfully drizzled with glaze. On top was a heap of red cabbage which was packed with cloves. I liked it, because I like cloves, but it was only just the right side of the line between really good mulled wine and overpowering Yule-themed Yankee Candle. Oh, and the salad was not only pretty but edible, with little cubes of tomato and some attractive shoots on top. Not only was it edible, but I actually ate it, and you can’t say that very often. Good work all round, I feel.

CrownRibs

The other starter, hot smoked salmon was even better; a great big cylinder of it, all salty and smoky, was served with some sliced bread which had been generously oiled, garlicked (I think I may have just verbed a noun: sorry about that) and chargrilled, a little pile of salad, four little dollops of herbed crème fraîche and best of all, some slices of preserved lemons. It might sound busy in theory but it wasn’t in practice – and it was much prettier than my terrible photo would have you believe.

To be honest, the crème fraîche got rather lost against the salmon – I think it had dill in, but there might have been some parsley – so it needed the tangy, vinegary lemons to lend some zip and oomph to proceedings. Adding a bit of that lemon to a forkful of the salmon was a bit like putting Worcestershire sauce on your baked beans – once you’ve done it once it’s hard to imagine the dish without it. A cracking start: generous, just a little bit cleverer than it needed to be and with so many flavour combinations that it never got boring.

CrownSalmon

For mains it seemed absolutely right to have a South African special. The Bobotie (which I later discovered is pronounced beau booty, although I, mistakenly but enthusiastically, said it as bobot-yeah! instead) didn’t grab me on the menu but I am glad I threw caution to the wind and tried it. Out came a wee cast iron dish filled with minced meat (beef, I think, although it could have been lamb, or both) mixed with spices, sultanas, flaked almonds plus tiny pieces of ref pepper. On top of all that was something which looked like cheese but was in fact a layer of whisked egg which gets baked when the whole thing goes in the oven, sort of like a savoury custard.

It was so good – like nothing I’ve eaten before, intensely flavoured, sweet and rich with lots of complexity and a little heat. Really lovely stuff. Eating it, I found myself wondering if it was close to what mincemeat might have been a couple of hundred years ago (Google says yes, incidentally). It didn’t really need accompaniments – I would have been delighted with this on its own – but it came with some anyway – some very plain (allegedly saffron) rice and a prettily pleated poppadum. Just in case there wasn’t enough flavour there was a small pot of some of the spiciest mango chutney I’ve ever eaten and some fresh tomato salsa that, a bit like the herbed crème fraîche in the salmon starter, didn’t stand up to the rest of the dish.

CrownBobotie

I promised myself at the start of the year that I’d order one vegetarian main course every month, and with the exception of the month where I spent half of it on holiday I’ve kept that promise. This was likely to be my last meat-free main of the year, and I realised it was time to confront the ever-present on menus, the vegetarian main course you really can’t escape. Yes, just as Mario inevitably has to face the end of level baddie, there was no chance of me getting to the end of the year without ordering the mushroom risotto. So I did.

Unfortunately it was probably the only duffer of the evening. Again, it looked good on paper; wild mushrooms, lemon thyme and truffle oil were all namechecked, but what turned up needed to be half as big and twice as interesting. The mushrooms were wild – no trades descriptions issues there – but there was so much rice that they were drowned out. So much cream, too, with no seasoning to bring the flavour out in anything. There was enough truffle oil that you smelled it when it arrived at the table but after that nothing, a bit like those strangely flavourless herbal teas that you get. No lemon thyme either that I could see, just some rocket. Finally – and this didn’t bother me but I imagine it would many bona fide vegetarians – I’m pretty sure there was parmesan on top. In many ways, this was a fitting final vegetarian main course of 2015 because it highlighted how frustrating and difficult it must be: if a place like the Crown, which got so many things right, still couldn’t deliver a good mushroom risotto, what hope was there for everywhere else?

CrownRisotto

There was no chance of dessert after such big main courses and, to be honest, the dessert menu plays it far safer than the other two courses (cheesecake, Eton mess, banoffee pie, you know the drill by now) so I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Drinks were nice enough – a glass of South African red which was pleasant and everyday, but not wildly exciting and a bottle of Fever Tree bitter lemon which was very nice, albeit a little small. Dinner for two – two courses and a drink each – came to just under fifty pounds, not including service.

Speaking of service, it deserves more of a mention: I think at various points in the evening we were looked after by three or four different people and they were uniformly excellent, just informal enough to be engaging but never over-familiar. The young lady who took our money at the end was a particularly good ambassador, enthusing about the restaurant and talking about some of her favourite dishes (including the bobotie – no surprise there – and the steak). It was pretty busy, too – despite being a week night quite a lot of tables were occupied which is pretty good going for a location out of town. I think I heard a couple of South African accents, also a positive sign.

Despite the South African influences The Crown feels archetypally English in a Richard Curtis sort of way; the interior is beautiful, the staff are all lovely and much of the food is really good looking. I half expected it to be more style than substance (like Love Actually – that’s two hours of my life I’ll never have again) so it’s lovely to be able to report that there’s more depth to it than that; the food (with one exception, sadly – probably not one for vegetarians) was both tasty and interesting. Perhaps it reflects the growing competition in the area between Reading and Henley where there are plenty of options, but if anything, The Crown was better than I expected it to be: better food, better presentation, a better dining room and better service. You know what, I think that Roast Dinners bloke might be on to something. Extra gravy, anyone?

The Crown, Playhatch – 7.7

The Crown, Playhatch, RG4 9QN
0118 9472872

http://www.thecrown.co.uk/