Monday, 25 January 2010
Just over a week ago, the UK Michelin Guide results for 2010 were leaked. Among the Twitter frenzy, the Harwood Arms was outed as the first pub in London to be awarded a much coveted star. While the Michelin Guide has its detractors, this is certainly fine recognition about which any dining establishment would be suitably chuffed. One can only assume the champagne corks were popping in Fulham. But can a Scotch Egg really be that good? I considered it my duty to find out...
The Harwood Arms has a top class pedigree. Spawn of The Ledbury's Brett Graham and Pot Kiln's Mike Robinson, it has wisely posited chef Stephen Williams (also formerly of The Ledbury - which itself gained 2 stars this year) at the stovetop.
And I loved it at first sight. Relaxed country pub style, without the kitsch (not a wellie in sight), I found it warm and charming right down to the friendly, live human garden gnome sitting at the bar with his ale.
But better still was the menu. British and seasonal to the extreme, I could have thrown a dart at the thing and been happy with any line on which it landed. I eventually settled on some happy choices and remembered contentedly that there is another up-side to winter (in addition to re-discovering long forgotten treasures in the winter wardrobe) in the form of hearty winter feasts at your local pub. (Ok, so it's not my local, but you can definitely tell it's someone's.)
Enter the soda bread. Oh. My. Lordy. Lord. This bread was baked and handed down by God's own oven mitt. Only once before have I tasted bread this good - a very similar soda bread at The Crown Inn, in Amersham earlier in the year. But that requires a long train ride, a bus and likely dealings with lace doilies, tartan and old men with hunting rifles. This stuff's in Fulham. Unfortunately, the butter was as hard as a rock and completely unworkable without a bunsen burner on hand, but was hardly necessary with bread this moist, sweet and almost nutty.
Our starter was the easiest choice - you don't come to the Harwood Arms without trying its much famed Scotch Egg. The plate of venison starters for 2 was lovely containing a venison Scotch Egg, rissoles on licorice, pickled mushrooms, and some rare bits - on bread with a rich pate and on the side with a salad.
Simple, fresh and lovely. The meat was rich and tender, and well balanced with the bite of the salad and the rolling sweetness of the licorice. However, all eyes were on the Scotch Egg. Slowly, mouths open, eyes focussed, we took a knife to it.
Marvellous. Crispy bread crumbs and delectable layer of venison encased a perfectly soft boiled egg with gloriously runny yolk. Delicious. I took pause to think of those mysterious bottles of spirits at the back of your uncle's liquor cabinet with the larger-than-bottle-neck pear in them - just how do they do it? (Please don't tell me - let me have my dreams.) The Harwood Arms' venison Scotch Egg is truly a thing of awe and wonderment.
After some indecision, I had settled on the braised beef cheeks, with creamy mash, onions and carrots for my main meal. It was certainly a lovely, rich and tender dish - although nothing here stood out beyond what I would expect from any good gastropub.
The Peanut Gallery went for the daily special - deer, steak and shoulder (the latter fried up in crispy bready bits), with crispy garlic potatoes, mushrooms and (if I recall correctly) a licorice sauce on the side. Again, this was a terrific dish - no bells and whistles, just good solid pub fare.
For dessert - would madame like doughnuts with marmalade, orange sherbert and whipped cream? Uh, yuh-huh. I adored these doughey little balls of goodness - the tang of the marmalade against the glory of fresh cream. I couldn't distinguish the sherbert, but this was a delectable and surprisingly light end to my meal. Old sweet tooth, TPG, did naturally have a whine about his view that raspberry jam was the only acceptable filling for a doughnut (with the possible exception of custard) but my dough babies and I blocked it out as unnecessary background noise and marched on.
TPG was rubbing this hands together over the thought of his baked custard with gingerbread, cider sorbet (from memory) and poached pear. Imagine how his poor little heart sank when he found himself confronted with what appeared to be a creme brulee instead? He was, it seems, expecting something closer to a creme caramel - less cream, more eggy. Well, TPG's loss, my gain - give me a creme brulee any day. The custard was lovely and creamy and the gingerbread was delicious. However, the sorbet was too beery and acidic - a match that didn't quite work for me.
Service was friendly, and the only glitch was the inability to grab anyone's attention to pay our bill, after which the card machine remained broken for 15 minutes so TPG was summonsed to walk to the bank (in driving rain - TPG). We also noticed they brought the plates out for the table next door while none of the relevant patrons were seated (all being outside for smoko) - I would not be a happy camper to come inside to cold food.
One of the nice things about this high achieving neighbourhood pub is its mixed crowd. From old men eating their snails at the bar, to cool young thirty somethings having a drink on the couch, there's surely something for everyone here.
So, is the production of what might just possibly be the world's greatest Scotch Egg and Soda Bread sufficient to justify a Michelin Star? I'm certainly excited for the Harwood Arms that they've achieved one, and I love the fact that places like this are recognised by the Guide. But, if I was after Michelin Star dining, and all the dazzlement that I normally associate with it, this would not be my first choice of venue. In the end, this question doesn't really matter. The food is homely but well executed, with even some outstanding moments - particularly on the simple things (egg, bread). Service, although friendly and refreshingly relaxed, could improve and would do well to be a little more polished and knowledgeable on the product and the wine list.
I'm probably holding the Harwood Arms to high standards, but this seems only fair when visiting within a week of its star award. But go in expecting great, solid gastropub food, in a comforting atmosphere, and you won't be disappointed. All up, our meal came to just under £95 including wine and service.
27 Walham Grove, Fulham, London, SW6