Monday, 26 October 2020

The Harwood Arms, Fulham

I last, and first, visited the Harwood Arms over a decade ago, at a time when Scotch Eggs (that's posh runny-yolk Scotch Eggs, not the little breadcrumbed rubber balls you get in the picnic section at Asda which was all we'd known previously) were becoming a delightful and exciting novelty in London gastropubs. The life of a noughties food blogger involved a lot of chasing around town for the latest greatest food thing, and though it seems rather pathetic and shallow now, it was great fun at the time. It probably seemed quite pathetic and shallow to lots of people at the time, too, actually, but that didn't stop us.

Anyway the Harwood Arms became known for its venison Scotch egg, a concept that had my name written all over it, so dutifully trotted down to Fulham to check it out one cold February evening. I loved it, of course - even then it was something approaching London food folklore, attracting awards and column inches from all over - and so it's a pleasure to report that in 2020 the Harwood are still right on top of their Scotch egg game. There's more venison meat than there used to be - this can only be a good thing - and it now comes with a little pot of tamarind (I think?) mustard sauce, but otherwise it was every bit as good as I remember, the platonic ideal of the posh bar snack.

But sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. I should probably start by telling you what is different about a meal in the Harwood Arms in 2020. There's the Covid thing, of course, which means staff wear plastic visors and there's bottles of hand sanitiser everywhere, but the tables I think were fairly well spaced out beforehand, and doesn't seem to have affected the happy atmosphere inside. Back in the day, half of the pub really was a drinking pub - they even used to do a quiz on Tuesday nights - but that has long since been abandoned and now the whole building is a restaurant and only a restaurant. I understand the reasons for doing this of course, I just think calling it a gastropub these days is stretching the term a bit.

And one more minor criticism to get out of the way - the Harwood arms say they have a "focus on game and wild food", which is great, but we're right in the middle of game season at the moment, the specialist butchers (the ones that I've seen anyway) groaning with pheasant and partridge and grouse and mallard, and yet the only vaguely gamey thing on their menu is venison. And I like venison - who doesn't? - but this still felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. I will counter that though by saying that there's every chance in these fraught times that the Harwood have decided the risk of putting on unusual game on the menu and not having people order it is too much to take, and there's only nerdy foodies like me that really miss it.

Anyway, that's as much as I have to say about the Harwood Arms that isn't unqualified praise. From the moment their house soda bread arrived, flavoured with Guinness and treacle and boasting a wonderful biscuitty crust, we knew things would turn out alright in the end. A nice salty whipped butter just demanded you slather about obscene amounts of it, turning an already dangerously addictive bread into an exercise in almost tortuous self-denial.

Porthilly oyster and English sparkling wine soup was absolutely perfect in every way, a warm "champagne" velouté with an incredible depth of seafood flavour, studded with chopped oysters and with a little quenelle of ice cream floating about inside. The texture and temperature contrasts just magnified the effect of the soup, and proved yet again there's a hundred different ways you can serve oyster and for them to never get boring. The beignet on the side was a little parcel of whole oyster and seaweed, deep-fried like a mini fish and chips, and I'm never going to say no to deep-fried oyster, but really the star of this starter was the soup, a quite extraordinary achievement in every way.

And yet, impossibly, that still was not to be the best of the starters. This, their Jerusalem artichoke and truffle tart, is the most stunning bit of pastry work I've had the pleasure to sample in almost as far back as I remember. In fact, in terms of savoury pastry, it's probably unbeaten. Not only was the mixture powerfully flavoured, with a salty, umami richness that made the most of the unique artichoke flavour while still retaining a soft, light dairy touch, but the base too had a delicate firmness and wholesome butteriness that made you wish it would never end. And then on top of that, pickled trompettes, parmesan and shavings of truffle, all of which only added to the beguiling complexity of it all. A swoop of some kind of mushroom purée just threw a final punch of umami loveliness and completed the utter masterclass.

It's not much of a criticism to say that the mains didn't quite live up to the stellar standards of the starters, but by most other places standards they were still great. Haunch of fallow deer with hen of the woods was attractive, refined and very easily enjoyable, with a sticky, herby sauce that the kale soaked up quite agreeably. I enjoyed it very much.

Monkfish was presented on the bone, golden-bronzed on the outside and lifting off into chunks of fresh, meaty flesh. This by itself would have been worth ordering, but the initially innocuous-looking side of cauliflower turned out was studded with little salty cubes of smoked eel, and all surrounded by a creamy, sherry-spiked sauce. It's these little touches of invention and surprise that really sets the Harwood Arms apart from so many similarly-pitched, and similarly-priced, rivals.

Full disclosure - I didn't really try the truffled parsnip and chestnut loaf but I did sample one of the parsnip crisps it came with, and it was lovely. Being a fully committed meat eater I'm wary of judging wholly vegan versions of classic dishes by my own standards because, as someone who's used to the satisfying "completeness" (for want of a better word) of butter, eggs and cheese, even the very most accomplished vegan alternatives will, for me, always fall short. This doesn't apply, of course, to dishes that are meant to be vegan, such as gazpacho or pan con tomate, but I didn't want to try the Harwood Arms nut loaf and complain it was missing cheese. But I will report that it was eaten without any complaint by the person who ordered it so there you go.

To stick to the £37.50 two-course version of the menu we shared one dessert, and blimey was it good. Pear and caramel trifle with frozen Babycham was as fun to eat as it was to look at, studded with little elements of burnt sugar, sherry-soaked spongecake and a delicate Babycham granita which is almost certainly the only worthwhile thing to ever result from a bottle of Babycham.

A lot has changed about the way Londoners eat over the last ten years, and the sign of a great restaurant is one that keeps to its original remit - refined, inventive gastropub food in a relaxed atmosphere - but constantly upgrades and tweaks its offering to stay relevant as time goes on. No doubt I would have found much to enjoy at the Harwood Arms if they'd served a menu largely unchanged since 2009, but would they still be spoken about as amongst the best in town if they had? Almost certainly not. As much as we may wish it weren't the case, staying still in a London restaurant is the equivalent of pedalling backwards elsewhere - we're a fickle lot, us Londoners. Rest on your laurels and we'll eventually forget you ever existed.

But the Harwood Arms has done way more than survive, first, the evolving attitudes to pub food, and then Covid - it's a restaurant confident and comfortable in its skin, serving a menu at once recognisable but also surprising and imaginative. Correct me if I'm wrong (and I'm sure you will), but I can't think of many £37.50 menus that would serve that oyster soup, or that astonishing artichoke tart, and still make it feel like it was the most natural and easy thing in the world. And yes, I may miss, while the pandemic rages on, a starter of smoked pigeon or roast pheasant for main, but I've every confidence these things will return once nerves settle. In the meantime, there's still a million and one reasons to head for Fulham and to make a booking. You won't regret it.



Its erm me again said...

Sounds nice, I had good food from erm "Core" (Clare Smyth) some weeks back when I dared the Train to London. Absolutely Stunning !!!! I also realy liked Lucky Cat (Gordon Ramsay) Maze Bar/Grill was a bit dull . Nearer Home Gather in Totnes(Devon), very nice (I had a Paddy's Whiskey at the end, better than I remembered from 25 years ago). . Taguchi-Ya in Totnes is nice and good value. Will I ever get to "Riverford Field Kitchen" ?? Keep up the good work :)

Cykler said...

new post, welcome to 2021