The Harwood Arms is one of the two gastro-pubs, which I actually enjoy. It is, like the Sportsman too, not the usual “gastro-pub”, where one pays way too much for forgettable, unpleasant food. Here, the chef Stephen Williams has worked at the Ledbury amongst other places. The room was as full as ever. Booking should be done a few days in advance, as it gets pretty busy for the weekends, a good week in advance should suffice.
The décor is very warm and cosy, making it a perfect restaurant for a cold winter evening, or lunch. Service is lovely, and happily accommodates pretty much any wish.
To start the meal, we had the obligatory Venison Scotch Egg. A perfectly creamy egg, is surrounded by a layer of venison meat and then thinly breaded. Topped with a healthy pinch of Maldon sea salt, this is pure pleasure. The combination of creamy yolk, crunchy coating, and hearty venison is just as precisely balanced as it can get. To make this classically British dish this well certainly demands a certain level of technical dexterity and a good amount of research. This is without doubt one of the better, or more enjoyable bites in London. Excellent.
Bread was very good today. The sour dough was crunchy, with good taste,as was the rye bread. Butter was also very good, and most certainly not from Bordier, but from Britain (if I’m not mistaken).
One of the starters was a Sweetcorn and thyme soup with Scottish Hedgehog mushrooms and cheddar cheese straws. This was a very thick soup, almost like a fluid puree. The combination with the mushrooms and cheddar sticks was very pleasant. This was precise, and clean flavour-wise, with just the right amount of sweetness, to counterbalance the richness. The soup was a good heart-warmer after a pretty cold autumn day. Good.
The most interesting starter on the menu was the Salad of Berkshire wood pigeon with pickled girolles, toasted hazelnuts and game tea. A small wood pigeon breast came nearly cold, dressed with a few radishes and green beans. Paired with one or two small, pickled girolles and hazelnuts, the dish was on the light side, less robust than the previous one. The dressing for the salad was very good,with a well-balanced taste, but to serve the whole thing lukewarm instead of cold would have been perfect. Cold meat is just a little less tasty and tender than warm or lukewarm meat. The game tea here is always great. A warm rush of pure gamey punch, which certainly doesn’t leave you cold. Perfectly clean, this is a textbook perfect consommé, which is better than a number of clear broths served in a few starred restaurants. Very good.
To have a taster of fish, I tried some Roast Cornish cod with a wild mushroom and Jerusalem artichoke tart and English truffle butter. The cod was certainly very fine, but not of exceptional quality. It was cooked well, seasoned correctly and nicely paired with the tarte. The latter was very good, with a potent mushroom flavour and crispy, airy dough. To say the least, it was a most successful fish dish, all the more, if one considers that this is a pub. One that focuses on game. Very good.
I had hoped to find something like grouse, pigeon or some other gibier a plumes, but it wasn’t to be for today. The grouse has to be pre-ordered, and is served for parties of 6 or more (at a very favourable price, if one considers how much these birds set you back in a shop). Thus, I had to make due with something else. The most interesting thing on the menu was the Whole rabbit leg stewed in cider and mustard with smoked bacon, prunes and Swiss chard. A nicely braised rabbit leg came in a creamy cider/mustard jus, served with steamted swiss chard, prunes and a few pieces of bacon. The only annoying thing on the plate was the very generous serving of mashed potatoes, which was good, but not really needed, at least not in such quantities. That probably is a concession one has to make, when cooking in a pub. After all, (some) people will come here to get fed. This dish really was the standout for me tonight. It was hearty, well cooked and perfectly seasoned. The combination was certainly not inventive, but if it is well done, one can’t ask for much more, and eats it with a little smile. Very good.
As I saw one garnish for another dish, which interested me, I asked if it was possible to have a serving of it. The cheese and cauliflower croquettes were most enjoyable. If a little more greasy than the stunning Scotch egg, they had a perfectly crunchy (if nearly too thin) crust, and a centre that was most creamy and pungent. The cauliflower was nicely tamed by the cheese, and thus did not dominate the whole thing. Served with their own home-made ketchup (which was very tasty), this was great comfort food.
Desserts were not on the bad side neither. The first was Caledonian ice with English quince, whiskey and toasted oats. Two nice chunks of whisky parfait were simply served with poached quince and crunchy oats. This was very well made and served without any unnecessary complications. The parfait had a slight taste of whisky, which wasn’t overpowering, and was perfectly creamy. With the slightly acidic quince and crunchy oats, one had everything that makes a good dessert: rich creamy parfait, crunchy oats, slightly acidic, fruity quince and the happy taste of whisky, which rounded things off. Very good.
The second one was the house classic: Bowl of warm Bramley apple doughnuts with spiced sugar and whipped cream. As Andy Hayler wrote, Homer Simpson would have been very happy with these doughtnuts. They are indeed not bad at all. Today they were much better than on the previous visit, where they lacked a little fluffiness and were too compact. The bramley apple wasn’t that present, and could have been a little more powerful, but if dipped in the slightly sweetend cream, this is again, great comfort food. Very good.
The last dessert was a Buttermilk pudding with blackberries and Harwood Arms ginger nuts. Not too different from a panna cotta, this set buttermilk mix was served with some biscuits and a little blackberry jam. Clean, refreshing flavours, very good execution made this a very good dessert. Very good.
The food today was very reasonable in terms of price starters and desserts all are priced around £6, and the mains are more or less in the £15 area. The wine list is fairly priced. However, a meal here will not be a steal neither, as the products used here are of very high quality, and will never be.
Food was great for a pub. I would say that if the cooking here is as constant as I have experienced it on my two visits, it should get a Michelin star pretty soon, as it can really challenge a few of the 1* restaurants in this country. Together with the lovely service, this restaurant is a very enjoyable place to spend an evening, without breaking the bank.