Take one Michelin chef and interiors by Soho House's design guru, and Atul Kochhar's Hawkyn's is an instant recipe for success.
Atul Kochhar was the first Indian chef to ever be awarded a Michelin star for his mastery of pan-Indian fusion food. You may know him from The Great British Menu or indeed from that weird round in Masterchef where the final three contestants have to cook for a throng of chefs in black tie in what appears to be a Rococo ballroom. Or perhaps you’ve already visited his other restaurants: Kanishka in London’s Mayfair or Sindhu in Marlow? Or his previous projects: Tamarind and Benares in London, or other outposts in Madrid, Mumbai and Dubai?
In other words, he’s a Big Deal. So, as recent London emigres to the Home Counties, my husband and I were surprised and delighted to find that mere months before we moved to Buckinghamshire in late 2017, Kochhar had rocked up in Amersham and set up Hawkyns (named after Sir William Hawkyns, captain of the first East India Co. Ship to land in India in 1608) in the town’s old coaching inn, The Crown.
And the building is old – Elizabethan, in fact. And, predictably, replete with seven possible ghosts – one who allegedly shouts, “GET OUT NOW!” – which could be filed under ‘Refreshing ways to wake up’ if you were staying overnight in one of the 38 rooms. The inn also boasts a history of devastating fire, hero cockatoos and has the dubious honour of harbouring the suite where Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell first get it on in Four Weddings (although less chintzy nowadays).
You know the building is ancient the minute you and your well-nourished, 20th-century frame squeeze through the restaurant doors. The Elizabethan timbers are put to good use, zoning the different spaces of the restaurant, which has been sympathetically decked out with pared-back wood tables, a neutral colour palette and Soho House-esque soft furnishings (not entirely surprising as Ilse Crawford, interiors genius of Soho House NY is behind the design).
We’re the only people here and we clump noisily over the creaking timber floorboards but let’s be clear, we’re early. We’ve squeezed in a 6.30pm sitting as we had free childcare (thanks Mum), and while it’s empty, it has the feeling of a place poised for action. Which, quite frankly, is really encouraging in a place such as Amersham, which can come across as sleepy at the best of times. We’re seated by one of the lovely sash windows that look out upon the main street and begin the meal with an aperitif of champagne and poppadum shards with chutneys.
And it’s starting to fill up. Across from us a young-ish couple, slightly awkward – first date, perhaps? Next to us a glamorous married couple, enjoying the fine wines, discussing family matters. Over the way, a pair of old friends, laughing heartily over their Prosecco. A family comes in with a one-year-old around 7pm; no eyebrows raised and a highchair is swiftly placed at the table. (The restaurant does have a simple kids’ menu but I would recommend keeping older children at home for the evening service – if they struggle to sit at tables, they’d be under the feet of the discreet and well-paced staff.)
We didn’t stay but there’s plenty of opportunity to do so should you desire. The 38 available rooms include 10 suites, and these are arranged in the inn itself and around the courtyard at the back. Naturally, the rooms in the original building are shorter on space and bigger on character (Room 12 has a hand-painted wall dating back to 1550) while the courtyard suites have been designed to capitalise on the extra room with roll-top baths and four-poster beds.
SCOFF & QUAFF
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to either go to India or be fed in an Indian household, you will know the difference between the real deal and what you can pick up from a high street tandoori at 9pm. I’m a fan of both but this is very much the former. I go for the tasting menu of four courses and I’m hopeless pairing wine with spicy food so instead of silently panicking at the wine list, ask for the flight of wines.
First up, comes a very generous Samosa Chat, above, smothered in mint and tamarind chutneys and sweet yoghurt. It’s gently spiced and devoid of all greasiness, perfectly offset by the mineral-rich Bodegaza Sauvignon Blanc from Chile.
The following course of pan-fried seabass with masala mash and coconut moilee sauce sounds a touch too close to a Pina Colada for my liking – but the fish is perfectly cooked and the coconut is in no way overbearing. A Spanish white, Essenica Divina Albarino, is delicious and refreshing.
The main event is Tandoori Chicken with Makhani sauce above (or like my husband, you can choose Bhuna Gosht, a fennel scented lamb chop with rogan jus, for a £6 supplement). A quick aside – aren’t these plates totally amazing?!
Sorry, back to the meal. This course is served with Saag Makai (a spinach and corn dish), Black Dal and the lightest garlic naan you will ever try. Plus, it comes with a Californian Pinot Noir. (This is why I need help with wine. I would never put those two together.)
And then for dessert, Mithai Wala – tandoori pineapple with rose-flavoured steamed yoghurt served with Hungarian sweet wine.
It’s around this point you will wonder why you ever paid for bog-standard Indian food before. Especially when you observe that Hawkyns offer a takeaway service. The people of Amersham are seriously blessed.
OUT & ABOUT
The sun is still up when we emerge so we feel we should make a night of it, and head down the main street for a nightcap. Amersham Old Town has a good clutch of picturesque pubs to wander into – some peppered with a few locals, some bursting to the seams with live music and the town’s partygoers. We end up in The Swan on my husband’s request as they have beer from the local brewery, Mad Squirrel, on tap (it was Father’s Day. What can I say?) and it’s perfectly pleasant but if you want more life, the Elephant & Castle is the one where you have to squeeze your way to the bar.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Couples and friends wanting grown-up conversation and a little spoiling. I could see us coming back here soon with our pals (with babysitters employed at home).
Not for: Certainly in the evening, I wouldn’t bring children. It’s a snug restaurant, which is what gives it its ambience, but there’s nowhere for them to go. Parties over six might struggle, too.
The damage: Not cheap. But not killer, either. The four-course tasting menu was £35 per person, £60 per person with a flight of wine. On the A La Carte menu, starters begin at £6, mains, £12, sides from £2.
Hawkyns by Atul Kochhar, 16 High St, Amersham, HP7 0DH. Tel: 01494 728126
Words: Lucy Foster