Hurley House hotel: Japan-on-Thames

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For goodness sake...

Do yourself a favour this year and look closer to home when planning a getaway.

Words: Tim Griffiths

I nterest rates are rising along with the cost of living. Europe is on fire. This year, the collective eggs of Brexit, Covid and climate change all seem to be hatching at the same time.

Why then might you want to stand in ever-lengthening queues at passport control in order to spend days on a beach, self-basting with Factor 1,000 and tiptoeing through the cinders to get restorative and cooling drinks when you can indulge at home?

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I was offered the chance to review Hurley House hotel. Amazingly (in my eyes) this happens to be only the second hotel I have reviewed in our royal throne of kings, our sceptr’d isle. There have been many hotels, on many beaches, in many lands, but somehow just one here in the UK.

This friendly bolthole hotel lies slightly to the west of the prefecture of Tokyo. Nestled slightly off the beaten track yet easily accessible from the Berkshire towns of Marlow, Henley-on-Thames and Maidenhead, this understated boutique hidey hole would make a fabulous retreat from the hurley-burley (please forgive the pun) of London and life in general. For this privately owned gem is very much an example of hostelry done right.

Money has noticeably been spent but very much in the right areas. So many hotels seem to think that the addition of job lots of gold leaf is a signifier of a quality experience. Not a bit of it. No, what makes a good hotel experience is an accumulation of all the little things that go unnoticed at the time but, when taken together, make both for a superb stay and a difficult write-up.

...this understated boutique hidey hole would make a fabulous retreat from the hurley-burley (please forgive the pun) of London...

It is always easier to write about bad experiences. The writer can unleash his or her inner hacking cat and hiss or spit safe in the knowledge that vituperative metaphors and caustic comments entertain readers. As they say on Fleet Street: ‘Bad news sells.”

But good write-ups are hard. Consideration, care and sobriety are necessary to strike a balance between the observational and the hagiographic. So, forgive me here if I aim for the former but inadvertently segue occasionally towards the latter.

Hurley House hotel was built on the site of The Red Lyon, an 18th century country pub. With just ten luxuriously appointed bedrooms (mine had a claw-footed, rolltop bathtub in the main sleeping quarters – something that was attractive but maybe the room was just a smidgeon too small to accommodate it comfortably?) the hotel has the feel of the centuries-old coaching house it replaced.

The winding corridors and idiosyncratic nooks and crannies initially confused me. Not to the point of getting lost but as to whether Hurley House was a refurbishment or a new building.

On asking I was informed that it is architect-designed and purpose-built. There’s a danger when building ‘character’ into a building that the owners can stray into pastiche, but here they have stayed on the right side of the line. It is elegantly and tastefully done and doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. Not an easy balance to strike.

The rooms’ fixtures and fittings are superb too. The chambers themselves, if looked upon as mere head-resting sites, more than fit the bill with exposed beams, wooden floors and decorated in cream, grey and beige hues. The beds are just firm enough to support but soft enough to wallow with pillows that embrace your head like the caress of an angel’s kiss.

The linen is both crisp and soft, the towels, thick, fluffy and absorbing, while the subtle double glazing protects from any intrusive noise – my room overlooked the car park and the hotel is peripherally beneath Heathrow’s flight path. But was I disturbed in my slumbers as JAL001 headed to Tokyo overhead? Not for a minute and that wasn’t down to the quantity of sake I had at dinner.

The hotel has the feel of the centuries-old coaching house it replaced

However, the rooms are the secondary consideration at Hurley House in my mind. While they are excellent and the hotel is a good base from which to explore some of the Home Counties’ finest landscapes and its plethora of history, the primary attraction here surely has to be gastronomic.

My visit coincided fortuitously with a late-August bloom of warmth (after nearly a month of British summer drizzle) and dining was to be an extra-mural experience. Hurley House has a new offering, Omakase Sushi Bar, which is a special Friday and Saturday night experience over two sittings. Omakase translates as ‘leave it to me’ where the dinner is selected and crafted by the head sushi chef right in front of you but, alas, as I was to stay on a Thursday night, I had to ‘leave it to them’.

But the international menu on offer leant heavily towards Japan for those unable to be part of the vaunted omakase experience. Sushi and sashimi in various hues, stripes and concoctions were on offer and, as a lover of raw fish, but a complete novice when it comes to the ordering thereof, it could have been somewhat overwhelming.

It’s at this point that acknowledgment must be made about the staff at Hurley House. All were great but two in particular stood out. The restaurant manager, Adrian from Slovakia, was an utter delight; he was engaging and entertaining while being both interesting and interested. His help navigating the sushi offering was knowledgeable, humorous and portrayed a genuine love for his work. As a native speaker of English with a degree in modern languages I can only marvel at his command of idiosyncratic English idiom.

Then there was Konstantin from Romania, the sommelier. His dedication to oenophilic pairings and his willingness to go above and beyond when suggesting sushi / sake choices made an already good evening into one that will live long in the memory.

These two fantastic individuals served without being servile and were friendly without fawning. The highest compliment I can give them is that the evening felt as if we were in their garden, delighting in their cuisine and exploring the deeper depths of their cellars. And it wasn’t just for us – there were at least six other parties and this level of service was identical to all tables. Britain is in danger of losing so much from our European brothers and sisters since the dark days of Brexit.

The 40-piece sushi / sashimi sentaku was duly chosen (mostly… nay, completely, on the advice of Adrian) along with a small bottle of Dewazakura OKA ‘cherry bouquet’ sake. From the spicy tuna uramaki to the grilled eel unagi to the Yellowtail hamachi sashimi, the flavours and the love came singing through.

The highest compliment I can give them is that the evening felt as if we were in their garden, delighting in their cuisine and exploring the deeper depths of their cellars

If there’s any slight complaint (and this is certainly not a complaint!) I would have liked the theme to continue into the following morning. The continental breakfast offering was perfectly acceptable and delicious, with the addition of a simply superb grilled sausage, and light fluffy pastries alongside excellent coffee but I would have liked to have experimented with a Japanese breakfast offering.

All in all though, running down the list of the many hotels I have reviewed (or simply stayed in) around the world, it was an utter joy to find this gem so close to home. I will be returning.

As mentioned earlier, it’s the accumulation of the little things that make the whole so special. If you can’t stay overnight at Hurley House then for goodness sake you must try and have dinner here.

More than once.

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