The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, Little Bedwyn Near Marlborough, Wiltshire
Saturday 26 March 2011
Little Bedwyn sounds like it should be the home of miniature desert-dwelling Arabs, but actually it's as English as Midsomer Murders. A 15-minute wiggly slalom down a bumpy C-road from Hungerford running alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal, it's slap bang in the middle of nowhere. I don't think I saw a single signpost to the village, or to Great Bedwyn either. We only found The Harrow after a workman on a building site said he thought there might be some sort of snack bar for well-to-do folk in yonder meadow...
I was expecting a posh gastropub, but I was wrong. The owners, Roger and Sue Jones, bought The Harrow Inn in 1998 and, from the outset, envisioned it as a restaurant. It, and they, have been garlanded with prizes. Roger got his first Michelin star in 2007, and has retained it every year since. The Harrow is the current AA England Restaurant of the Year 2011. Their 60-page wine list is regarded by oenophiles as a document of pontifical splendour. Their website shows Sue and Roger smiling toothily at the cameras after being presented with yet another trophy by Steven Gerrard.
It's a solid-looking, handsome inn, with a cosy, homely vibe. Two small dining rooms off a tiny bar are plainly furnished with original floorboards, high-backed chairs and recessed lights. There's a nicely ramshackle, DIY feel about it all – and in the way all the dishes are in inverted commas, as though "Pembrokeshire Lobster" was a satirical version of Pembrokeshire lobster. I liked the frankness with which Mrs Jones told us their (utterly delicious) Bloody Marys were made from a shop-bought jar of Big Tom Bloody Mary mix.
It took no time to discover that the Jones's strength is their devotion to freshness of ingredients and heftiness of flavours. The owners' relationships with local breeders and suppliers seem intense – you get the feeling that the people from Kelmscott, the local pork butchers (whose fillets, faggots and bellies appear together on a single dish) live in the kitchen. The homemade bread reeks of thyme. A jar of what seemed to be almonds were wild garlic cloves, boiled and pickled until they tasted like macadamia nuts.
An amuse of beetroot and Roquefort was simply miraculous, the cheese disappearing inside the beetroot soup, to give it a spectral, internal richness. Angie's ceviche of sea bass, langoustine and scallops sang on the tongue, the crayfish so plump, the lime-marinaded bass a dream of sushi. My "seared diver-caught scallops" were the fattest I've ever seen, and, surmounted by their bright orange roes, sat on tiny flecks of chorizo and a pea purée that was enlivened by tiny actual peas. I've had a version of this dish 150,000 times. This was the best. Getting scallop roes is rare – they lose their lustre so fast, most restaurants don't bother with them. The Harrow have their shellfish flown from Scotland shortly after they've expired and the result is this dish; scallop almost meaty in its suppleness, the roes as soft as foie gras, the purée and chorizo like spicy kisses. I'm not ashamed to say tears pricked my eyes at the perfection of it.
The sensory assault continued with my fillet of roe venison, slaughtered at three months after roaming the Northumberland moors, cooked rare, piled up in a soft, steaming hecatomb on a mound of roesti and Sottish neeps. The addition of black pudding surprised me (deer and pig?) but it fitted the venison, complicating without eclipsing its flavour. A silver side-bowl of braised lamb's heart seemed gratuitous (deer, pig and lamb?) but the heart was a supple and slithery contrast, served in a meat jus with morels. Angie's fillet of pure-bred Welsh black beef came with a horseradish potato cake – potato, egg, horseradish and cream combined and griddled until it rises like a soufflé. It was a wondrous accompaniment to the heavenly beef – unlike the accompanying oxtail, which she spurned, saying: "Being given meat and then extra meat is like eating a box of chocolates and being given a Lion Bar on the side. It's lovely but irrelevant." I should mark the restaurant down from five stars to four because of their tendency to overdo it, but I'm damned if I'll penalise Mr Jones for delivering too many complex and wonderful taste sensations.
From a choice of four cheeseboards, we laid into a sextet of British ones, and discovered the delicious Nuns of Caen (from Gloucestershire) and Perl Las, which tastes somewhere between Cashel Blue and Roquefort. A pudding pear, poached in red dessert wine, sat on a white and dark chocolate mousse and vanilla ice-cream on ginger. It was heavenly, and brought to an end the most sumptuous lunch I've had in months. The Harrow may dismay some quivering violets with its meat-on-meat enthusiasm; but in every other department, it's a destination restaurant – a forcing house of flavours, a cornucopia of wines, a dream of gutsy English gastronomy you won't forget in a hurry.
The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, Little Bedwyn Near Marlborough, Wiltshire (01672 870871)
About £150 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Wiltshire winners
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