Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Fordwich Arms (revisited), Canterbury

If the idea this month was to revisit a few "old" favourites, the year-old Fordwich Arms shouldn't really qualify. But I've been determined to do another lunch at this incredible place ever since the dust settled from my first visit in February, and if my 40th Birthday Month is about anything, it's about doing what the hell I like and blogging about big boozy lunches on Saturday afternoons even though I wrote about the same place barely 9 months ago and everything I wrote about it back then largely still stands.

But then, there's more to say about the Fordwich Arms than one visit (no matter how big or boozy) could ever hope to cover. Like so many of the best restaurants, the menus are seasonal and change regularly, but aside from the availability of oysters and a superficial similarity in a couple of the snacks, very few of the dishes from this weekend bore even a passing resemblance to any served in February. This is a kitchen that is relentlessly experimenting and refining - in fact perhaps "refining" is a poor choice of word as it tends to suggest they're tweaking things towards some kind of imagined version of perfection. Instead, Guy, Dan and Tasha (I'm allowed to be on first name terms as that's how they signed my birthday card) are doing what every great restaurant should do - boldly reimagining dishes from the ground up, based on what's good that day, rather than simply replacing the protein element and doing all the same swirls and tricks around it.

Of course, an attitude like this, which would (and does) quite rightly scare the bejeezus out of lesser kitchens, only works if you have an obscene amount of confidence and a sickening amount of talent to back it up. Other than perhaps the Ledbury or Roganic, I can't think of another restaurant that sticks so loosely to anything approaching a formula or dreaded "comfort zone" but where the results are so astonishingly successful, time and time again. I won't give the usual blow-by-blow breakdown of my most recent meal; instead, I'll pick a few highlights from Saturday that hopefully illustrate just how clever these guys are at what they do, and why they deserve to be spoken of as amongst the very best restaurants in the country.

Firstly, the snacks. Out went the foie gras doughnuts, the pickles in cod's roe and Westcombe Cheddar tartlets topped with (from memory) puffed oats of some kind, and in their place gloriously flavoursome chickpea fritters topped with beetroot and parmesan, poached Whitstable rock oyster with caviar and apple, and little cheese tartlets topped with chalk river salmon, seasoned over a block of warm Himalayan salt. Clearly from the same family as the snacks from last time, they were now that much more bold and interesting, with the salmon served on salt brick providing a lovely bit of theatre. Even the charcuterie had stepped up a level - two different types this time, both great.

The bread course, too, had had a makeover. Here are a soda bread and sourdough to replace the fairly uninspiring foccacia from last time, presented with some nice normal salted butter but also "pork fat whipped with Marmite" which is the kind of idea an evil kitchen genius would come up with before cackling maniacally and being lit from beneath with an eerie green light.

Where what on paper looks straightforward - duck liver parfait - the Fordwich simply make sure it's the greatest duck liver parfait this side of Paris. Almost overwhelmingly smooth and rich it was saved from being too much with some zingy pickled berries, which were as vibrant visually as they were to eat. And as if they were worried we'd miss the foie gras doughnuts from last time (they know me too well), here they became an accompaniment to the parfait, golden brown and straight out of the fryer.

Perhaps it's also worth mentioning what didn't appear this time around, rather than all the things that did. What didn't appear on the table was a bowl of pickles - nice pickles, sure, but not special enough to make an effort over and the meal was better off without them. Similarly, a side of "confit potato" which was one of the few bits that less than impressed in February, and had been quietly dropped. For a restaurant to grow and improve you need to identify and realistically address your weaknesses rather than just work around them - this requires not only confidence, but a complete lack of ego. Something lacking in quite a few kitchens, but not this one.

I'm a sucker for a fancy presentation, and while last time it was sucker - sorry, suckling - pig, nestled in hay and smoking away tableside, this time some plump langoustine tails arrived on their own little bonfire, before being plated and served alongside little soda crackers topped with mediculously extracted claw meat. These were beautiful.

Oh God, I've ended up describing everything we ate again, haven't I? The problem is, food like this demands to be talked about. I mean, if you'd eaten something like this line-caught sea bass, with a delightful chestnut purée and sherry sauce, I guarantee you'd want to tell the whole world too, about how crisp and delicate the skin, how meaty and bright the flesh, and how it was a genuinely innovative combination of flavours that worked incredibly well.

Local venison managed to be the most powerfully-flavoured bit of protein I'd had in a while even before they covered it in an astonishing bone marrow gravy, which managed to be deeply umamified and robust without being cloying or overly salty. Quite a clever thing indeed. With that, a little pot of slow-cooked haunch in a frothy sauce, another effortless display of cooking technique and seasoning.

Yes, I often go on about seasoning on this blog, usually to moan about the lack of it. Everything was perfectly seasoned at Fordwich, which I suppose is the least you could expect, except how often is that really the case? Nothing I ate - literally nothing in god knows how many individual bits and pieces - could have been improved on at all, an attention to detail bordering on fanatical.

Desserts were similarly knockout. All completely different in style and form to last time yet still clearly the work of a top pastry artist, we began with luminous yellow macaroons where even the little cylinders of meringue had citrus flavour pumped into them, followed by a dark chocolate cake with about 10 different ways with chocolate all going on at once. Topped with gold leaf, because everything's better with gold leaf.

Perhaps, all said and done, it's a bit pointless going on about Fordwich Arms again so soon after the first review, which was still a rave. But I suppose I want to give as many of you as possible the opportunity to go for yourselves and discover a restaurant in that golden sweet spot of aiming for the highest gastronomic pinnacles whilst still remaining incredibly good value. Sure, the Michelin star spoiled a bit of our fun but even I, a committed Michelin-hater, would hardly deny such a talented team a star (or two) to shout about even if the prices have inched up a couple of quid.

So I'm happy for their recognition from Michelin (honestly), and here's a recognition from me. That outside of the mad-scientist international-toy-food three starrers, here and abroad, there are very few places doing this kind of food as well as the Fordwich Arms, while boasting service this polished, and in most other places you'd pay a hell of a lot more for it, as well. So as I said on Twitter, slightly tipsy from a final Armagnac and hurtling back to London on the Javelin train, there's an argument to be made that the Fordwich Arms is the best restaurant in the country right now. And I've just done my best to make it.


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