Restaurant review: The Bird in Hand at Knowl Hill
PUBLISHED: 16:06 12 October 2017 | UPDATED: 16:06 12 October 2017
Taken for granted by many, but capable of bringing food experience rapture to others, writes Jan Raycroft
So there we were, virtually dancing in the aisles of the Twyford Waitrose – me and the by chance coeliac disease suffering member of staff restocking the ‘Free From’ section with expensive bread that actually tastes like ‘the real thing’ and snacky sweet things (much of which have far too much fat and sugar).
What was causing our joy? The fact that I’d found yet another dining out place where those of us who must avoid gluten like the plague (or suffer our own version of it) can feel at home, and most of all ‘safe’, is always good cause for joy when shared on the not-gluten grapevine. But that wasn’t the reason we were a little over-excited, nor that for us, at least, my find was ‘just down the road’.
No, it was as simple a dish as this: fish and chips. Anyone who is coeliac or simply gluten-intolerant, like me, knows how we hunger for those three little words. Something hundreds of thousands of people in our counties take for granted as a weekly take away treat, particularly on Friday nights. When it’s fish and chip shop time at my place it means someone is despatched to the takeaway for everyone else, while I cook my own gluten-free version. It’s a solution, but hardly all-inclusive. My other desire is brown sauce, a no-no because all mainstream brands are packed with barley and leave me looking puffed up like I’ve been punched in the face. Similarly, malt vinegar on the chips now makes me itch like crazy and hunt in my bag for antihistamine to stop the sneezing and runny eyes.
As for ‘quick’ oven chips, you have to carefully read the ingredients on frozen packets as some are made crispy with a flour-based ‘batter’. I’ve been caught out by this at a friend’s home. Youngs, the frozen fish people, still make their gluten-free fish fingers, but they are no substitute for the battered fillets which used to be part of the product line but seem to have disappeared. What should be a simple treat has become an assault course.
But gluten-free fish and chips, eating out? A genuine rarity. I’d found mine at The Bird in Hand, Knowl Hill, on the A4 between Maidenhead and Reading, a 14th century inn recently acquired by Wiltshire brewer Wadworth. It underwent a big refurb just before summer started and inside the historic exterior you’ll find light and bright dining areas.
Impressive as all this is, it was undoubtedly the actual gluten-free dining experience that stole the show. Firstly, most restaurants now cope with and understand what us unintentionally awkward squad can and cannot eat. But it doesn’t inspire confidence if every time you ask a usually young member of staff if a particular menu choice is available gluten-free they um and ah and disappear to the kitchen to eventually return with good or bad news.
Nor do I want to be handed a complicated chart – usually in a plastic folder – where you have to read along an extensive list, often in tiny type and Excel-chart style, with crossings out, ‘Y’ or ‘N’ for everything from lactose, nuts and sesame to gluten, wondering if your finger accidentally strayed into the wrong column.
At The Bird in Hand my table place was complete with a pretty menu looking just like the ones handed to those who can ‘eat the wheat’, and each of three courses offered innovative and extensive options. And there it was – fish and chips – alongside long lost delights such as a ploughman’s with ‘rustic bread’ and Thai curry with the works, minus the nasties which usually halt that idea. Choices, choices! Anyway, the fish was very fresh, melt-in-the-mouth, and the batter a crispy dream.
For those with small appetites, or children, the choices included fish goujons in a gluten-free batter. And on the dessert list was sticky toffee pudding with a rich sauce and salted caramel ice cream. Rapture! You can see why me and ‘Mrs Waitrose’ were so excited by this discovery.
Gluten-free or not, try The Bird in Hand, see birdinhand.co.uk for more and to see sample menus, including a gluten-free one. And to keep up with news, we have Coeliac UK, who offer support, manage campaigns and back research, based at High Wycombe, see coeliac.org.uk.
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