With season three of BBC2 show The Restaurant with Raymond Blanc having kicked off this week, Emma White visits last year's winners, Michelle English and Russell Clement, at their pub, the Cheerful Soul in the Hare and Hounds, in Marlow.
Michelle English and Russell Clement have every right to feel cheerful. Last year they were the winners of the BBC2 TV hit series The Restaurant with Raymond Blanc; this July they opened their own restaurant in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
The pair took over a 17th-century country pub called the Hare and Hounds - located a short walk from Marlow town centre - which they extensively renovated and renamed the Cheerful Soul in the Hare and Hounds. The transformation of the pub was something of a family affair, with English's uncle leading the site management, her mother (an interior designer) helping to choose furnishings and her cousin completing the look with some intricate wall paintings.
The hard work has paid off and the 70-cover venue is a picture of rustic country charm with exposed century-old beams, whitewashed walls and wooden floors. Fun, intricate paintings of Russian dolls, flowers, goldfish and even a tub of Marmite painted directly on to the walls, bright cushions on wooden benches and a colourful stylish chandelier add a modern twist to the traditional setting.
Before entering The Restaurant, Clement and English ran a catering business in Essex where English, a trained textile designer and maker, was able to develop her skills in restaurant management. Clement's past experience of supervising staff as a head chef in the headquarters of an investment bank has also equipped him with the skills to lead the four-strong kitchen brigade at the Cheerful Soul. The menu, he says, is designed to complement the surroundings of the pub and is inspired by seasonal local produce.
Clement is enormously proud of his best-selling starter, Brixham crab and clotted cream tart with horseradish dressing (£5.50), which he says was inspired by his childhood in Devon. "This dish says a lot about my heritage and I've made it up from scratch. My gran used to make clotted cream at her tearoom in Devon and we used to catch crabs in the nearby rock pools to have in salads," he explains. The starter dish outsells the other choices by two-to-one and as a result is unlikely to ever come off the menu, according to Clement. "Some people come to the restaurant specifically for the crab starter so we can't disappoint them," he says.
Slow-cooked belly pork with wilted gem lettuce, peas and spring onions (£12.75) is a pub classic and another big seller. "We slow-cook the pork for 12 hours at a low temperature and crisp it up for 12 minutes during service," Clement says.
Another popular dish is braised Atlantic sea trout with summer vegetables, white wine and basil (£13.50). "We have delicious vegetables in this country, such as young fresh carrots, celery and fennel which we braise slowly and sit the fish on top with the lid on the pan so it steams and creates its own sauce from the juices. We top this with chopped English tomatoes plus basil and chives from our garden at the back of the restaurant."
A Nip and Tuck lunch menu (£11.50 for two courses or £14.50 for three) is offered during the week and includes a glass of house red, white or rosé. The menu is designed to offer quality and value with less commonly used produce such as plaice - "a delicate and often forgotten fish and lower in price than the more popular sole", according to Clement.
Braised lamb shoulder is another cheaper option: Clement rolls it up with caul fat and braises it with white wine, garlic and chicken stock for two-and-half hours, serving it with white beans and a minted sauce. Every Friday the restaurant also offers a fish special and on Sundays a roast.
With summer barely a dim memory, Clement and his team have put together a more autumnal menu which now features venison stew, crispy onion mash, duck breast with spiced plums and pears and hearty desserts such as sticky toffee pudding and crumbles. A 30-strong wine list offers a balance of New and Old World wines ranging from £15 to £22 per bottle. "We offer wines to suit every dish and season on the menu but we prefer to ask customers what they like and find a wine to suit them rather than recommending something specific," Clement says. "If the customer wants red wine with their fish then they can have it."
The Cheerful Soul in the Hare and HoundsHenley Road, Marlow, Buckinghamshire, SL7 2DF
Tel: 01628 483343
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Pressed ham hock terrine with cauliflower piccalilli and warm toast, £5.25
- Fresh and aged Homefield House goats' cheese salad with marinated beetroot, £6.95
- Half pint of shell-on Atlantic prawns with home-made mayonnaise, £6.50
- Braised lamb clod fillet, smoked aubergine, buttered spinach, £15.95
- Chargrilled aubergine with garlic, potato dumplings and fresh pistou, £10.75
- Warm roast chicken ballotine, fresh garden salad, tarragon dressing £11.25
- Rhubarb trifle, £5.50
- Chocolate and hazelnut slice, £5.50
- Eton mess, £5.50