Posted on Tuesday, 28th September 2010
The first time I went to the Harwood Arms (click here to read about that meal), I was bowled over by both the wonderful quality of the food and the very reasonable pricing. Resident Harwood Arms chef Stephen Williams trained under Brett Graham at The Ledbury which now holds two Michelin stars. So while the Harwood Arms may be a collaboration between Brett, Mike Robinson from The Pot Kiln and Edwin Vaux from the Vaux brewery, it resonates with Brett’s trademark cooking. It’s little wonder then that the Harwood Arms won its first Michelin star earlier this year.
With its new star rating, bookings have gone through the roof. Its focus has switched solely to the food, and so it’s dropped the gastropub label. There is still a bar area at the Harwood Arms, but this is mainly used for pre-dining aperitifs with casual pub drinking now being frowned upon.
My last visit to the Harwood Arms was over a year ago, and ever since then I have yearned for their wonderful venison Scotch egg (£3). A perfectly cooked runny egg encased in beautifully seasoned venison meat and coated with crispy breadcrumbs delighted once again. However, from memory there use to be more meat to be had.
A soda bread was exquisite, the texture of which was very light for this type of bread. The white bread was also very tasty.
A starter of wild rabbit and prune faggot (£6), with its warm livery overtones, was delightful. The sweetness of the prunes provided a nice contrast with the richness of the meat. It was served with a creamy turnip puree and a ‘horn of plenty mushrooms’. An inventive and cleverly constructed dish, the only reservation I had about it was that it arrived at the table a little cooler than it should have been. Furthermore my serving bowl was also chipped, something I consider unacceptable at a Michelin restaurant. Nevertheless, it was good value at £6.
Chilled beetroot and celery soup (£6.50) burst forth with cool autumnal freshness. It was accompanied by a buttermilk scone filled with smoked mackerel and horseradish. With its smoky, slightly fiery overtones, it worked well with the soup.
M and I shared the rib of red ruby beef for two with smoked bone marrow, field mushrooms, greens, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and wholegrain mustard (£39.50). Despite all the great things I had heard about this dish, I found it disappointing. The steak was cooked to a beautiful medium rare and topped with some luscious bone marrow. But I found parts of the beef chewy, and my enjoyment of it was lessened by the fact that we were given cold plates to eat off which meant the beef went cold quite quickly. The roast potatoes were surprisingly not crispy, and the mushrooms, found in the crispy Yorkshire pudding, were slightly over seasoned. The accompanying jus was also disappointing. It was very runny and not particularly flavoursome. By all accounts, in periods past, this would have been reduced to a thick consistency and a more concentrated flavour, the way a proper jus should be.
Braised shoulder of English lamb with new season carrots, pea fritters and a fresh mint broth (£16.75) sang with the freshness of the vegetables in the dish. The lamb was wonderfully tender, and the mint gave the dish added aroma.
Sticky toffee and date ice cream with caramelised brown bread (£6.50) was really tasty, although a blueberry and lemon curd Eton mess (£7) was really something of a mess. There was too much cream to the amount of meringue in it, and I found the blueberry jelly at the bottom a little better than a supermarket version.
The service was a slightly clueless at times and needed fine tuning. As an example of this, we were not given steak knives to use with our beef.
What I found disappointing about this experience at the Harwood Arms was that it wasn’t as good as it use to be, and it should have been every bit as good now that it has a star. A Michelin accolade has brought with it fame and a full reservations book. But it also brings with it greater expectations from customers like me. Added work pressures don’t help either. A little birdie tells me that Stephen is being stretched in the kitchen as he is currently without a sous chef and is working non-stop around the clock. This was evident as some of the food fell short of the standards set by my previous meal. The poorness of the jus that accompanied the beef was probably the greatest sin of the day.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still flashes of superb cooking, and given that the pricing continues to remain very reasonable (mains have gone up by about £1 to £2 since my last visit), the Harwood Arms outclasses most other restaurants that are similarly priced. I still rate it as a decent bet for London dining. But it’s always a hard pill to swallow when a restaurant produced better results pre-Michelin then post.
However I’m not quite ready to give up on the Harwood Arms yet. I’d like to believe that they’re only going through a minor blip and that it’s capable of lifting its game again. But I’m going to give it a few months to try and sort itself out before I’d even consider going again. And if it doesn’t pick itself back up? Then I’d be yearning for the gastropub that once was before Michelin came and spoiled it all.