by Sue Quinn, The Telegraph, November 14, 2017
Geographically, Bray is a mere speck on the map, but when it comes to gastronomic credentials, this sleepy Berkshire village is a heavyweight. Boasting seven Michelin stars in total – including two of Britain’s five three-Michelin-star restaurants – it’s a magnet for people who take their food extremely seriously. Hugging a tranquil stretch of the Thames and oozing 16th century charm, it also offers a picture-perfect backdrop for fine feasting.
Of course, don’t expect a conventional meal at three-Michelin star The Fat Duck, but a culinary “itinerary”, as Heston Blumenthal describes his £275-a-head menu (excluding drinks and service). He extensively refurbished the restaurant in 2015 to transform the dining experience into a gastronomic journey that traces a British childhood day out.
Fifteen courses (give or take) reflect Blumenthal’s nostalgia for his younger years, among them his now famous ‘The Sound of the Sea’. Diners are presented with seafood served on a glass box filled with sand, and a seashell containing an iPod and headphones. The idea is to eat while listening to the sound of gently crashing waves, transporting diners back to a childhood day at the beach. Guests are asked in advance about their own childhood memories and the kitchen creates personalised dishes accordingly. See thefatduck.co.uk
The legendary Waterside Inn has been serving Michelin starred French cuisine since Blumenthal was in short pants (it earned its first star in 1974 and has held 3 stars since 1985). Chef-patron and pastry maestro Alain Roux, who was handed the toque by his father Michel in 2002, delivers superlative French classics – think silky veloutes, devilishly rich jus and technically perfect desserts. The restaurant perches right on the river and boasts sublime views – you could almost dip your toes in the water while you sip your aperitif. Service, as you would expect (and deserve, at this price) is impeccable. Le Menu Exceptionnel is an excellent way to sample the best of the kitchen: £167.50 per person including service, excluding drinks. See waterside-inn.co.uk.
Just metres away from the Fat Duck is The Hind’s Head, Blumenthal’s picturesque 15th century former coaching inn, which adds one Michelin star to his bejeweled crown. Like the Fat Duck, it’s also buffed and shiny from a reasonably recent facelift, with low beams, wood paneling and fireplaces now paired with velvet thrones and funky taxidermy. The food is more accessible than at the Fat Duck – there is something for everyone on the a la carte and set menus (£25-£58pp), including the likes of shepherd’s pie made with lamb belly, and apple and blackberry crumble. But other plates are innovative and bear the unmistakable Blumenthal signature, like lapsang souchong tea-smoked salmon, and quaking pudding (a modern take on a medieval English baked custard). See hindsheadbray.com.
If proof were needed that Blumenthal really is the ‘baron of Bray’, The Crown is it. His relaxed 16th century boozer feels like a local – you can start your meal with a pint at the bar or pull up a chair in front of the fire. There are no Michelin stars or meat disguised as fruit here, just traditional pub fare cooked in an exceptional way. The prawn cocktail comes with juicy king prawns, for example, and the cracking Hereford burger is served with a generous blushing layer of pastrami. See thecrownatbray.com.
While Heston and the Roux family tend to hog Bray’s limelight, Giancarlo Caldesi and his wife Katie have quietly established a reputation for excellent Italian food at Caldesi in Campagna, which the couple opened in 2007. (They also run the Caffe Caldesi bar and restaurant in London’s Marylebone). The menu is heaving with authentic Italian ingredients but the kitchen uses local, too, wherever possible. The set menu for Sunday lunch is excellent value: £33.50/£39.50 for 3/4 courses. See caldesi.com/caldesi-in-campagna.
How to get to Bray
The nearest train station to the village is Maidenhead, which is served by trains from London Paddington and Reading. It’s a 30-minute stroll from Maidenhead to Bray. Or else, if you’re in no hurry, take the train to Windsor and walk down the river, past the 12th century St Mary Magdalene's Church, and Oakley Court, which featured in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Where to stay near Bray
Our expert’s recommendations in the area include Castle Hotel Windsor, an elegant Georgian property in the shadow of the castle; Sir Christopher Wren, with views of the Thames and Eton College; and The Winning Post, in the village of Maiden’s Green.