Top-quality food in a pub environment - it's something lots of operators are aiming at. If you want to see how it's actually done, you could do a lot worse than visit the Duke's Head in Bishops Stortford. Neil Gerrard reports
Don't call the Duke's Head a gastropub. It's not a term that licensee Justin Flodman is particularly keen on.
Instead, he prefers to think of the style of cuisine in his pub, set in the heart of the picturesque and well-to-do commuter village of Hatfield Broad Oak in Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, as "colonial British".
That allows him to accommodate a lot of different styles under one umbrella, producing contemporary English food "with a twist".
Flodman runs the Duke's Head with his wife, Liz, running the front of house. They beat several other hopefuls to the Enterprise Inns lease when it came up nearly two years ago.
Justin had previously worked as a head chef at two different sites for multiple operator Salisbury Pubs, and before that held posts at a number of different restaurants and hotels, including working as senior sous chef at Marco Pierre White's Mirabelle between 1998 and 2000.
It was that experience that explains the Duke's Cod, with a parsley crust, tomato, mushrooms, buttered spinach and fish cream sauce (£14). "The Duke's Cod was something Marco did at Harvey's and we are just doing it in a pub environment," he explains.
The cod is perhaps the closest thing to fish and chips that diners will find on the menu. "The menu has evolved since starting 18 months ago. We did have fish and chips on for a while but it kind of took over the menu," Flodman says.
Meanwhile, staples such as chicken also get a slightly more unusual treatment than might be expected in a traditional country pub, with dishes such as Thai green chicken curry with vanilla rice and sweet potato chips (£12.75). There is a simple business reason behind that - it adds value for the customer. "I find it very difficult to sell chicken because it is something that people can cook at home," Flodman explains. "And if I am going to do a chicken breast I will use Label Anglais, which comes locally from Essex."
It's a similar story with one of the starters, crispy Parmesan chicken liver "nuggets" with beetrot and pea shoot salad and horseradish dressing (£6.25). The dish is a creation of Daryl Fryers, the Duke's Head's 23-year-old chef, who has been working with Flodman since he started doing stints washing up for his boss aged 14. Flodman admits, however, that the pair did spend some time discussing whether the word "nuggets" was the correct term for what is actually a very refined dish.
While he concedes that the options on the main menu, which is printed in house and evolves and changes mainly with the seasons, are reasonably "safe", Flodman and his team have more room to experiment with both dishes and pricing on the specials.
"Towards the weekend we have a nice elegant fish on there to test what the ceiling price is. And it is a forum for chefs in the kitchen. We can work with whatever ingredients we want as long as we can sell them."
That sees more seasonally-based fare such as grilled Brixham plaice with buttered samphire, saffron and thyme potatoes and sun-dried tomato butter (£13.75) - a light summer dish which Flodman put on after visiting Brixham for a trawler race.
He can also experiment with local suppliers, as with the roast talmara duck breast with an apricot and mushroom potato rösti, buttered spinach and Madeira jus, which uses duck from a local butcher just down the road in Great Dunmow.
The formula clearly works and the menu, along with a conservative but modern-looking refurbishment to the 70-seat restaurant, has helped drive the Duke's Head up to 400 covers a week and breathed new life into a well-loved village pub.
Sample dishes from the menu
Beer-battered monkfish tails, pea purée, tartare sauce £7.25 Field mushroom and spinach stack, red onion marmalade, crispy Parmesan poached egg £6.50 Potted Brixham crab, Russian salad, duck egg mayonnaise, poppy seed lavach bread £7.50 Church Gate Farm sausages, creamy mash, caramelised onion gravy £10.50 Chestnut mushroom and asparagus open lasagne, goats' cheese, piquillo pepper, basil oil £11.75 Crispy Great Garnett's pork belly, seared sea scallops, dauphinoise potatoes, thyme jus £16.25 Warm bitter chocolate fondant tart, sea salt caramel mascarpone £5.75 Lemon syllabub meringue, shortbread and lemonade jelly £5.75 Honeycomb parfait, raspberry sauce, chocolate "soil" £5.50
The Duke's Head High Street, Hatfield Broad Oak, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire CM22 7HH
Tel: 01279 718598