We make an excited return to the site of a British/Medieval fusion feast but this Buckinghamshire hidden gem has changed its approach. Has it lost it’s sparkle?
British/Indo fusion with perfect plating and colours to make a rainbow wel-jel
- People who like country pubs as much as they like the idea of the Taj Mahal
- Anyone who wears Barbour clothing whilst watching Bollywood films
- Fans of British fayre but bored of the usual pub grub
- Fans of Indian cuisine but want tbored of the local curry house
In a Word
From Rustic Medieval to Bold British Indian Fusion
It’s been almost a year since I first visited Hawkyns at The Crown Hotel in Amersham. A lot seems to have changed. When I first reviewed Atul Kochhar’s Buckinghamshire venture it was a unique and wonderful experience. Driven by a focus on fusing classic British dishes with a rustic, almost medieval twist, our meal was very different and rather good.
But since then, owner Atul Kochhar has decided to go back to his roots and today’s Hawkyns is a different proposition. This isn’t about wholesale change though. Yes there is a new head chef – Arbinder Dugal who trained under the Roux brothers at Pont de la Tour – and yes the menu has shifted to Kochhar’s comfort zone of Indian flavours, but the focus of this restaurant remains firmly rooted in classic British dishes.
A quick pass over the menu reveals chicken terrine; charred shoulder of lamb and fish and chips. But each dish, led by British heritage, is bound in bold flavours of Indian descent. The terrine is laced with a curried mayonnaise; charred lamb shoulder is swathed in an aromatic mint and coriander broth; and fish and chips has a tandoori batter and ginger peas.
It’s clear that Kochhar believes that through Dugal he has the British fusion experience he originally wanted. Good for him – but critically, does Kochhar’s vision becoming reality convert the customer experience from good to great? Or has Hawkyns become a ‘me too’ in the Kochhar family? We delve in to decide.
Décor and drinks
The look and feel of this restaurant hasn’t changed. That’s a good thing. It retains its feel of a halfway house between heritage gastropub and high-end eaterie. It’s perfectly lit, incredibly cosy, but with a detectable flow of class from the moment you enter the building. The staff are exceptional here. They know this is a very good restaurant and they play their part.
They are incredibly well drilled but friendly and accommodating. They know their stuff and it gives the customer confidence in what’s to come. Drinks are recommended by our waiter – I ask for a light fruity red and receive a rather brilliant 2015 Fleurie – translucent red with strong initial cherry flavours and a fresh finish. I may buy a crate of this.
My date considers a cocktail and is brought a Negroni. It’s not my cup of tea but its light and refreshing and a decent starting point.
We’re looking to cover the breadth of the menu so we order chicken terrine and mushroom gallette – two dishes as far apart as I can see from the menu. Before they arrive we are treated to a surprise from the kitchen – mini samosas enrobed with mango and mint, and fresh focaccia with homemade butter. The samosas are small but pack a punch – crunchy gram flour pastry gives way to a spicy vegetable medley.
It’s a little dense but the sauces lift it nicely. The focaccia is wonderful but why is it here? It does feel a little odd to have a traditional Italian bread in the middle of this British /Indian experience. But I’m not complaining, it’s gorgeous – crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside and fresh from the oven.
The mushroom galette is an unusual and complex dish. It brings together a light cooked mushroom pate on a crisp saffron bread like a crisp paratha; a gram flour cone filled with a rich truffle cream and topped with cep powder; and pickled mushrooms. Individually the elements are unusual but not inspiring. The cream is a little heavy; the mushrooms a little tart; and the galettes not strong enough in flavour.
But together they create something all-together different and wonderful. The cream lifts the galettes, the cep powder and truffles fusing brilliantly with the blended mushrooms. The pickled mushrooms cut through the richness of the rest of the dish and create zing where it’s needed. This is the very definition of ‘bigger than the sum of its parts’ and it’s a conversation piece for the rest of the meal.
The terrine is beautiful in its presentation. Picture perfect on the plate the texture is dense, firm and buttery – entirely as it should be. It’s a fine representation of this stalwart of British starters. Alone it lacks flavour but it comes with an excellent curry mayonnaise, creamy and bursting with Indian spices that elevate the dish to where you want it to be.
The pickled radish takes it above and beyond and makes you crave an extra slice or two to make it last longer.
Dugal insists we also sample the heritage beetroot salad – a combination of local beets, avocado, pomegranate seeds and sweet potato chaat. The beets are strong and earthy and are well connected to the dish by the smooth avo and picante dressing. It’s very good but I’m not sure why it’s such a signature dish. I’d highly recommend it as a side but as a starter, it lacks enough to satisfy hungry customers.
The spread of mains on the menu is not vast but is certainly well balanced. Two meat options, two fish options and a vegetarian choice. I want them all. There is pan-fried sea bass; braised pork cheeks; charred lamb shoulder; fish and chips; and vegetable pakora. It’s a genuinely tough decision. The waiter recommends the fish and chips and we also select the lamb.
Fish and chips seems almost beneath the restaurant given the quality of the flavours, ingredients and presentation we’ve experienced so far. But it’s twisted from a standard British classic into an Indian-spiced masterpiece through Dugal’s interpretation of Kochhar’s long established recipe. The two mini fillets of cod are such a bright white that Colgate needs to use this dish in its next advert.
Enrobed in a tandoori batter, the paradox of silky soft fish and a crisp bubbly batter with a kick of spice makes you dive in again and again relentlessly to devour what’s in front of you. The pickled mango mayonnaise lifts it further and drives your brain into overload and leaves you desperately hoping there’s more about to arrive. I don’t care how good your local chippy is – you’re never going back there after this.
Charred lamb is served more slow-cooked than charred. I was expecting a little more crisp on the skin and perhaps a little more of a sense of flamed meat on the exterior but it’s clear that this is not supposed to be a chargrilled dish. The meat is tender and supple. It falls apart with the most delicate of touches. The ratio of meat to fat is perfect and the flavour is mild but sweet.
Alongside the lamb roasted root vegetables and barley complete the picture. The veg are strongly flavoured and incredibly powerful, working well with the lamb. The barley is bland and needs a lift. Cue the entrance of a small glass teapot containing an aromatic broth made with lamb stock and over 15 different herbs and spices. It’s potent.
My other half can smell it from the other side of the table. I’d wager you could smell it from the other side of the road. It’s intoxicating and I’ve not even tried it yet. Poured over the dish it changes things immeasurably. Much like the addition of an Indian twist to the fish and chips this deeply spiced broth takes a resolute British classic and hits it for six.
The power of this broth with the sweetness of the lamb and the punch of the vegetables is incredible. It even managed to give the slightly insipid barley a new lease of life. What a dish. Hearty and heart-warming, it’s the very definition of Dugal’s vision, blending the old and the new, the British and the Indian, the classic and the novel. It’s a masterpiece.
The kind of dish that makes you upset it’s not an option on the dessert menu so you can have it again. Bravo.
Side dishes of buttered broccoli with toasted almonds and heritage tomato salad with tarragon are perfectly acceptable. Nothing worth shouting about but solid if uninventive. They taste good and complement our dishes just fine. No drama but no sparkle either.
When I last came to Hawkyns this was a weak spot. There was a distinct lack of a decent pastry chef and it showed. The side was well and truly let down. Not so this time. This is an area that has been well and truly fixed. The choices are all interesting and desirable and the execution is near flawless. Before we even got close to our desserts we became guinea pigs for a possible future entry to the dessert menu when the waiting staff laid something unusual in front of us.
A small smooth boule of turmeric and fennel ice cream laid on a bed of fennel meringue and topped with lemon balm. An exotic combination, which, from the description alone, felt like it could be too ‘out there’ to succeed. Not so. The combination of flavours, although rarely paired in a sweet course, dance around your mouth giving you a very new, very strange, but very unexpectedly pleasant experience.
The substance itself is pure decadence – so creamy you can’t but love it, and the flavours don’t all arrive at once, emerging instead over a period of seconds so you find yourself constantly searching your palette for the next shift. I liked – but not everyone will. Given the menu we’d experienced so far, it was very distant from what had come before. As good as it was (and it really was spectacularly good) it didn’t seem to slot in to the existing fayre.
But that’s fine, as Dugal is planning this for the summer iteration of the menu and I expect it to slot in well to the broader spread of what’s to come.
For the finale, we ordered chocolate fondant (sounds basic but wait for it….) and traditional Indian kulfi. Chocolate fondant is one of those ‘go to’ desserts. It’s a safe choice for the diner but it can be a treacherous place to play for the restaurant because if you go standard, it’s very very clear if you cook it wrong; and if you make it more interesting, you can ruin the whole dish by trying too hard.
This fondant was trying hard to be different and it really succeeded. Described as a cardamom chocolate fondant with rose parfait and passion fruit gel it could have been too much for one plate. But the genius was in both the ingredients and the plating, essentially delivering two desserts in one dish. The fondant was on one side of the plate in glorious solitude.
Perfectly cooked, light sponge quickly gave way to a river of melted oozing chocolate but when you tasted it you got the beautifully rich chocolate flavour followed by nothing more than a hint of flowery cardamom. It could have been so awful – too much cardamom leaving a soapy flavour behind as is so often the case with this tricky spice, but it was so, so excellent. And it got better.
On the other side of the dish was a small ping pong ball sized boule of rose parfait in stunning pink, standing on a bed of what can only be described as chocolate gravel, punctuated with blobs of smooth orange passion fruit gel. The parfait shouldn’t be my cup of tea – I’m not a fan of rosewater but it wasn’t overpowering and the combination of textures between the gravel and the solid cream of the parfait was rather special.
Together with the punchy tart gel it worked a treat. Possibly one of the best desserts of all time – a classic with a new twist and a presentation that not only looked the part but created a dish of two halves that gave you twice the pleasure of a standard choccy fondant.
I ordered kulfi because it’s an Indian dessert I can’t abide. It’s usually so overly rich it can’t be finished. Dugal and his team had given this homemade kulfi a total makeover. Bound with spirals of raspberry and mango coulis and bedded down on soft rice noodles (sounds weird – utterly magnificent in reality). Firstly – this looks incredible.
The vibrancy of the colours makes you want to don a pair of Ray-Bans and the plating looks magical. Dig into the kulfi and it’s solid, needing reasonable force to secure a spoonful. Put it in your mouth and it melts with a 50:50 split of creamy and sharp. It’s not like the kulfis I’ve tried before – I think I might finish this one.
The rice noodles balance the dish, giving it necessary weight and when mixed with the kulfi and the fruit, create a kind of high grade fruity rice pudding adventure. I like it a lot. Others might find it a bit unusual but it’s worlds apart from the desserts we experienced nine months ago.
Closing remarks and value for money
Hawkyns isn’t that cheap. There are two tasting menus for £45 each and weekday lunches come in at around £25 for three courses with wine. On a la carte where most people will tread, the average of £8 for starters, £17 for mains, and £7 for desserts, which means you’ll be forking out £50 a head for three courses, wine and service. But it’s undoubtedly worth it.
The ethos and mission of the restaurant has changed and from a strong base it’s still managed to improve significantly. The move to a British/Indian fusion menu has provided a route to a more balanced equation between Kochhar and Dugal’s traditional Indian cuisine and British classics loved across the UK. The concept isn’t innovative but the delivery is.
The use of bold flavours that explode in your mouth; married to vibrant colour schemes that deliver a visual breath of fresh air and a combination of unusual ingredients combine to create new experiences in every corner of the menu. It’s a triumphant shift to the East for a restaurant that originally showed promise but was effectively let down by too much rustic charm.
If Dugal can produce this kind of change in two months, imagine what this place will be like in two years. In this part of the UK, there’s nothing quite like it – which is, what I suspect, Kochhar wants most of all.
The Crown Inn, 16 High St, Amersham, HP7 0DH