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Over pints of Rebellion, the local bitter, the parishioners of Bray
are beginning to mutter darkly about the man who catapulted their
genteel Berkshire village into the foodie stratosphere. While they do not deny that Heston Blumenthal and his idiosyncratic
servings of mustard ice cream, crab biscuits and oak moss have done much
for Bray, they fear that Britain’s most famous purveyor of molecular
gastronomy may finally have gone too far. Not content with turning The Ringers pub into the Fat Duck restaurant
– which was named the world’s best in 2005 – and taking over the Golden
Hind, where champagne sells for £13.50 a glass, Blumenthal has now
seized control of The Crown, the last remaining traditional drinking
hole. His expansion has left some pub-goers claiming they are the victims
of a creeping culinary colonialism, and given rise to suggestions that
the chef is trying to turn Bray into "Hestonworld". To add to the controversy, the village is also fizzing with talk that
the TV chef’s acquisition of their last refuge from the pre- and
post-Fat Duck crowd, came at the expense of his old boss Marco Pierre
White, the original bad-boy of TV cheffery. According to the gossip, White fancied taking on the pub and challenging his former employee on his own home turf. The Crown is a paring knife’s throw from the front door of the Fat
Duck and the presence of White – the youngest chef ever to have been
awarded three Michelin stars – would certainly have increased
competition in Bray, whose restaurants already boast seven Michelin
stars between them. Management at The Crown confirmed White’s interest, telling the
Guardian on a visit this week that "Marco was in for it", while local
sources with knowledge of the sale confirmed that he had expressed
interest to the previous leaseholders. The chef himself did not return
calls. However, Blumenthal’s camp denies that he bought The Crown to
shut out his rival. "We bought it because it became available and it was
a good deal, but we don’t have any plan for it," said Monica Brown,
Blumenthal’s spokeswoman. "Our only plan is to keep it as a local village pub. Marco coming to Bray wouldn’t have had any effect on Heston at all." Judging by the first reviews, Blumenthal is struggling to maintain
the pub’s reputation as a cosy local boozer. Smart uniforms for staff,
new deep-pile carpet and bottles of £200 vintage Dom Perignon champagne
have transformed the ambience – to the dismay of many locals. The menu, devised by Ashley Palmer-Watts, head chef at the Fat Duck,
features flourishes such as Genoan bangna calda anchovy dip, marrowbone
sauce with steak and a mandarin and thyme-infused soup for dessert. But the layers of smoke-stained paint that have been stripped away
from its walls and The Crown’s reupholstered chairs are, according to Di
Evans, who was drinking a mile away in The George, concrete proof of
Blumenthal’s growing influence in the village and how it "irritates the
hell out of the people in Bray". Many former Crown devotees have now decamped to The George, where the
bitter is 20p a pint cheaper. "They call it Hestonworld, like Rick
Stein in Padstow," Evans said. "The Crown was a good pub which did great
food. They have a bit to live up to." Another drinker said: "I haven’t been in there since he took over.
There’s a feeling he is trying to create Heston’s kingdom and buy up all
the pubs over there. Still, good luck to him. It’s his money and he’s
put Bray on the map." Blumenthal now dominates the High Street in Bray, with The Golden
Hind and The Crown bookending the Fat Duck and his hi-tech development
kitchen. He is also putting the finishing touches to his biggest opening
yet – Dinner By Heston Blumenthal – at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in
Knightsbridge, London, which is due to open in December. His swelling empire, which also includes TV work for Channel 4 and a
major advertising contract with Waitrose, echoes that of Gordon Ramsay,
who in June announced he was shutting The Devonshire, his gastropub in
west London, after it "failed to meet expectations". And, as Evans points out, it also bears comparison with the strategy
of Stein, the TV chef who specialises in fish and seafood and has opened
four restaurants in the small Cornish fishing port of Padstow. But there remains a degree of puzzlement as to why Blumenthal would
want to run a second pub when he made his reputation by creating
£150-a-head haute-cuisine extravaganzas. Pat Goodman, who worked in The Crown before Blumenthal took over,
bemoaned the loss of its cosy English pub ambience. What’s more, she
said, the chef himself had also loved and regularly used the pub. "The atmosphere is soulless," said Peter Langdon, who used to dine regularly at The Crown. "Any week night you went there would be a little crowd of locals and
those people don’t seem to be there as much, so it feels more like a
chain restaurant." An anonymous online review from a regular complained that Blumenthal
has "ruined this great pub" while the local newspaper last week
published an irate letter from a former customer complaining about price
rises. The restaurant blogger Douglas Blyde warned that the new acquisition
could become "a holding pen for Fat Duck diners". Janice Eden-Bayley,
clerk to the parish council, said she had heard similar grumbles. "The previous landlord and landlady had been there donkey’s years,"
she said. "They were well liked and it was a really lively traditional
village pub. I do get the feeling people were upset at losing their
local pub."

© Guardian News and Media 2010


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