The Harwood Arms
Half-way through my lone and lengthy lunch at The Harwood Arms, Amy – a very bubbly waitress – stared at me and exclaimed, ‘You’re going to eat your way through the whole menu, aren’t you?’
Sadly not! After a while, even my appetite reaches a reluctant limit. I contemplated, um, making space for more, but decided against it. Were it not for the effort required, I'd have gladly munched every dish they had.
It was fabulous. A spin-off of the much-lauded Pot Kiln in Berkshire, where Mike Robinson feeds his customers a menu of laser-guided seasonality comprising game he's often shot himself, The Harwood Arms competes in a different league from the places it superficially resembles. Indeed, with Stephen Williams (formerly of The Ledbury) in the kitchen, it's scarcely playing the same sport. Yet it cleverly retains elements that made the gastropub the quintessential Noughties eatery - stripped floors, scuffed leather, chalked-up specials. Some touches are frankly lovely, such as the drops of fresh lime juice added to an earthenware jug of tap water, or the fine hessian napkins. Others are less welcome: the irritating piped music, say, or the wine list seemingly compiled as an afterthought, containing two measly reds by the glass.
But what a menu. Five starters, six mains, five puddings - and I could eat and enjoy any of them. Smoked trout with leeks and wild sorrel might be followed by a mead-glazed pheasant Kiev with champ, or Cornish cod with seaweed, purple sprouting broccoli and sea purslane. The wildness of the ingredients, the instinct for terroir behind them, are of course utterly contemporary; and how pleasant it is to visit a restaurant that accurately gauges the modern vogue without condescension or pointless gimmickery.
To business, then. A reddish, frothy pint of Good Old Boy from the West Berkshire Brewery is tender and hoppy, like a baby rabbit. When I order it, they call me 'sir', which is nice for a pub, though scarcely necessary. They bring it over with two warmed breads: yielding baguette with a crackling crust, and some marginally undercooked soda bread. The butter arrives on a slab of granite and is fridge-cold: isn't it remarkable how few restaurants, for all their triumphs elsewhere, manage to serve room-temperature butter?
A venison Scotch egg is an amber-shelled globe, glinting with salt crystals, crisply wrapping a mixture of sausagemeat and venison, and ekeing gold onto the plate. It’s a signature here: a sublime blend of spice, heat and comfort: Greggs lifted to greatness. Salad of wood pigeon follows: a perfect foil, with young shoots of baby cress and the restaurant’s ‘salad cream’ – home-made mayonnaise spiked with mustard, lemon and a splash of vinegar. It's simply the best salad I've had for ages: fingers of tender, slightly high breast offset by thoughtful rural details: toasted nubs of hazelnut; buttery roast chervil roots; a scattering of Warwickshire-grown enoki mushrooms. If Bear Grylls made salads, he'd make them like this - candid, drawn from earth and sky, and the more remarkable, I think, for being so good in the depths of winter.
A main course of grilled ox tongue is a bestial French kiss. The muscle was poached before searing, and now melds dense tenderness with an iron savour from the grill's vicious heat. It's accompanied by some sharp and crunchy home-pickled red cabbage, and a sheer hug of a gratin, made with melting Jerusalem artichokes and, unusually, floury potatoes. A slightly meagre pot of grainy mustard accompanies, and I wonder why they couldn't just give me the jar and let me help myself. But this is the sort of offal that makes you pray for a recession. Fillet be damned, I say.
Last: a splendid custard tart, syrup-glazed and vanilla-speckled. As with crème brûlée, it's a dish that can often be oversweet, but this one is unashamedly eggy, with the jungle aroma of nutmeg haunting every mouthful. The pastry is as thin as a 50 pence piece, and as short as Tom Cruise. Sultanas poached in pudding wine accompany: little grenades of flavour bringing interesting contrast of depth and texture. I slurp with it a glass of botrytised sauvignon blanc (from Iona, of all places) which is somewhat vaguer than its French equivalents, but nonetheless a solid counterpoint to this superb pudding.
The Harwood Arms is at once - nowadays, I suppose, all such places have to be - local, generous and honest. It is also consistently delicious. Williams avoids predictability or staidness by the quirky intelligence he brings to the dishes, and by his deft use of uncommon ingredients. How delightful to find an outstanding menu in which no main course touches £15, and where starters and puddings all hover between £5 and £6. Quite simply, it's a fantastic place, and you should go there this instant. Best of all, I live round the corner, which makes me very lucky indeed.
The Harwood Arms, 27 Walham Grove, Fulham, London SW6
Tel. +44 (0) 20 7386 1847
Lunch for one, excluding drinks and service, costs £27.25.