Keith Miller reviews The Harwood Arms, London: does 'Britain's best gastropub' deserve the accolade?

4
The Hardwood Arms
The Harwood Arms: What the hell is a gastropub anyway? Credit: The Harwood Arms

This week’s dispatch comes to you from what has recently been anointed the UK's Best Gastropub: king of the hill, top of a heap of 50 food-forward boozers, chosen by a jury of “top foodies and hospitality experts” in a list sponsored by the Catalan beerco ­Estrella Damm.

But what the hell is a “gastropub” anyway? It’s not a wildly likeable word – redolent of snails and hospitals – so at very least it ought to mean something. It can’t just be a restaurant in a former pub (RIAFP), though there are plenty of those. You wouldn’t call a restaurant in a former church a “gastrochurch”, after all.

It can’t just be somewhere that does “pub” food (Scotch eggs, pies, etc) ­really well, either – my occasional colleague Stephen Harris, whose pub The Sportsman has been at the top of this list several times (and is still at Number 2) cooks food that’s never unnecessarily fussy, but always deeply thought through, highly ambitious and unafraid of complexity.

(Interestingly, though, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, a RIAFP of what I would guess is still unrivalled fancy-pantsy-schmantzery, doesn’t appear in the Top 50 at all.)

To settle the question, I did what any conscientious 21st-century hack would do: I went on Twitter. It's not unlike a sort of virtual pub, oddly enough: you’re chatting away with people you know, or you don’t really know but have chatted with on Twitter before, or don’t know at all but whose writing you’ve read, and then all of a sudden there’s someone else at your shoulder, piping up with what might be a really helpful ­comment, from someone who’s not just a gastro-ambitious pub chef but who turns out to be on the very list you’re talking about; or it might be a call to end the disastrous democratic experiment, or a threat to set fire to your cat, or an advert for personal ­services in the Felixstowe area, or ­anything at all, really.

I’m not sure a consensus was reached. Every time we arrived at some cast-iron criterion for inclusion in the gastrocanon, someone piped up with an exception that disproved the rule. One principle that I felt didn’t get shot down in flames quite as decisively as the others was that a gastropub might be somewhere that was serious about food – whatever we meant by that – but you should feel welcome there whether you’d come in for a drink or a three-course dinner – or hadn’t even made up your mind yet.

Seen in this light, we thought, or rather I thought (my brothers and ­sisters in chat were more than patient, but I think they just thought I was wanging on and on to no great effect by this point), the rise of the gastropub ­reflects the rebirth of an archetype not much seen on these shores: a porous, informal, social space, where good food is on offer but not compulsory, and where the goodness of that food is something that can be taken for granted, rather than something the proprietors expect a bleeding medal for.

In other words, a British counterpart to a certain type of ­European institution – the Augustiner Stammhaus in Munich, say, or the sinister-sounding but joyful U Černého vola (At the Sign of the Black Ox) in Prague, or the “buffets” of Trieste, or cheap, buzzy Parisian bar-brasseries such as Café Charbon.

Venison with pickled walnuts Credit: The Harwood Arms

I love such places; but the “gastropubs” on the Top 50 list don’t much resemble them; and the Harwood Arms isn’t like them at all. It is a very handsome conversion, austere and aristocratic, of a Victorian pub on a quiet residential street.

They major in game, though we also had an amazingly well-cooked slab of cod, timed to the second so it juddered into pieces under the fork but retained a lunar pallor; everything’s ultra-rigorously sourced; the walls are hung with hunting trophies; there’s an imaginative if wallet-blistering wine list. The space is dominated by the bar, but when we went they’d set the whole surface of the bar for dinner.

I’ll talk you through what we ate, though the menu changes pretty often. Dark malt bread with hodloads of whipped and (we thought) cultured butter; fantastic lamb sweetbreads, done popcorn chicken-style and perched on a mess of wild mushrooms and pearl barley; herby venison faggots, perfumed with marjoram and sweet with chestnut; that cod, served with prawns, bacon and colcannon; discs of venison loin with pickled ­walnuts and clapshot.

For pudding there was more malty goodness in the form of a chocolate malt cake with “crystal malt” ice cream (we initially read this as “crystal meth” – that’s not very “fine dining”, we thought), and a picture-perfect pear tarte tatin with a tangy-creamy buttermilk sorbet.

If the Harwood is a RIAFP, it’s an extremely good one, no doubt about it. And it’s not at all stuffy: a crowd of what I would guess were locals looked to be having a roaring good time, though some of them had clearly been at the Botox so their state of mind was hard to read.

At £49.95 for three (excellent) courses, it’s by no means crazily expensive – if you stay near the front of the wine list – and the staff were energetic and unfalteringly friendly.

But if we’d just turned up on spec, or come in for a pint and then decided to stay, I suspect we might have been ­politely shown the door. I wouldn’t mind going back to find out, let’s say, and leave it at that.