My friend John Hackmeyer (otherwise known as Hack) and I met about ten years ago on a flight from Washington, DC to Dublin, Ireland. He was a six-foot-something giant with no legroom, and I was the four-foot-nothing girl in the aisle seat. We both had careers in training, and got on like a house on fire. He introduced me to sushi (I’m forever grateful, but I still won’t eat eel), and we’ve been great friends and occasional work colleagues ever since.
I hadn’t seen him since he and his family joined me on holiday in Florida a couple of years ago, so I decided to make the journey south from Scotland to catch up. He was leading a workshop in Windsor, and we planned to meet up for dinner on his first night back in the UK. He left the choice of venue to me.
Several years ago, I used to live in a bucolic, picture-postcard little village on the River Thames called Cookham. It’s about an hour west of London, and just an American-sized stone’s throw from Windsor. (The locals probably think it’s miles away.) Cookham is famous for its many eateries lining its tiny high street, especially two warring Indian restaurants which sit over the road from each other.
I navigated the mad, twisty streets of Windsor to eventually find his hotel, and we set off for Cookham. I only got lost twice on the way there. With a SatNav.
After we parked, we decided to start at the end of the street and walk along, looking at the menus in each of the windows (there are over a dozen restaurants to choose from). Our first stop was Bel and The Dragon. It’s a 600 year old coaching inn, and was beautifully restored a few years ago. I’d never eaten there, as before the refurbishment, the menu wasn’t to my taste… however, they obviously have a new chef, and the menu was enough to make us give up our search and venture inside.
It’s generally a good idea to book a table, but on a rainy Wednesday night in the off-season, we bagged a spot in the cosy bar area with its fireplace. The table was painted with chalkboard paint, and a small tin bucket of chalks was on the table, ready for any moments of mad creativity.
We shared the bacon-topped, grilled scallops as a starter. Oh, how I wish I’d never agreed to share. I’m not really a fan of scallops, as it’s so easy to cook them badly, but these were grilled to perfection, and the extra-thin, crispy streaky bacon on top as well as the delicious sauce rounded out the dish nicely.
Next time, I’ll order my own.
For our main courses, Hack had the pork belly with root vegetables and the “famous” roast potatoes. I had the lamb cutlets, which were cooked just as I like them – full of flavour but blushing pink in the middle. They clearly have an excellent butcher and the chef knows how to do justice to the meat. Hack declared his main course delicious, and although my lamb was brilliant, I wasn’t keen on the potatoes, as they were a bit too hard for my liking. Give this girl a bit of mash with green onions, any day, and I’m a happy camper.
The service was fairly typical of Britain. The servers were not particularly attentive, and we were tempted to go to the bar to ask for cutlery or additional water when we couldn’t catch anyone’s eye. I’ve been told by friends in hospitality that servers in Britain prefer not to “hover”, but I believe it’s possible to be present and aware without being intrusive. It takes very little effort to glance around a room to see if anyone looks like they need anything, rather than avoiding all eye contact. That said, it was still a very pleasant dinner in lovely surroundings.
For dessert, we opted to share the brownie bites. The waitress had taken our cutlery away with our dinner dishes and was nowhere to be seen, and we could tell at-a-glance that our fingers would be covered in chocolate if we tried to eat them without utensils. They had a light, flaky crust on top with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar, and the middles looked very, very fudgy.
This didn’t stop Hack – chocolatey fingers were worth the taste – sooner, rather than later. They were absolutely heavenly, but so rich we could have shared them with the couple at the next table and still had our choccy fix. My espresso was perfect, dark and nutty and slightly bitter.
I love the little special touches – meals served on lovely wooden boards, just the right amount of excellent sauces, the fun chalkboard table, and interesting artwork on the walls (not a horse brass or kitsch copper coal scuttle in sight). For a 600 year old place, it was surprisingly refreshing, and I would gladly return in the future.
Highly recommended by the Go Knot Girl.
Note: They now have 5 bedrooms to let in the tradition of all great coaching inns. From the website photos, they look tempting, and are just a 10 minute stroll to the local train station. Next time, I’ll see if they can show me around!