This is the only review column in the country to my knowledge that asks the restaurateur or chef, post-review, for a statement of intent. One of the interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking, things about doing this is how so many people struggle to actually explain what they are trying to do. At times, it's PR-speak, or worse, business-management lingo (who's to know that KPI are Key Performance Indicators and what do they have to do with restaurants anyway?).
But every now and then, you get the whole package: people who know what they want to do, and who simply go and do it. This is why I like The Harwood Arms so much. It looks like any smart contemporary gastropub, with its stripped woods, pale olive colours, blackboard specials, and bare tables. But it has real presence, personality and professionalism, being a joint venture between the Michelin-starred Brett Graham of The Ledbury, the country-style celebrity chef Mike Robinson and the publican Edwin Vaux. These three have pooled their talents in an effort to recreate a little of the magic of Mike Robinson's Berkshire pub, the Pot Kiln. Berkshire game looms large on the menu, much of it shot by Robinson, and guest beers from the West Berkshire Brewery feature at the bar.
If you didn't already get the idea that it's not your average gastropub, you would when you spotted Chez Bruce's Bruce Poole eating there because The Square's Philip Howard had raved to him about the food. Or when you realise the lovely ripply-pond crockery is by Sophie Conran, or that the napkins are of fine hessian. Or when the people at the next table insist that you order the Scotch egg from the bar menu, and when you do, it comes freshly cooked and still warm, with a deliciously jellied yolk inside a shell of venison and sausage (£2.50).
Brett Graham, himself Britain's Young Chef of the Year in 2002, has put his money on 26-year-old chef Stephen Williams, who has worked at Michelin-star level at The Ledbury and at gastropub level at the Coach & Horses and Anchor & Hope.
This is exactly the sort of dining experience we need right now: a top trained chef dealing directly with country supplies and doing something twisty with it. So there is a warm salad of mallard, smoked trout with leeks and wild sorrel, and a best-selling pheasant Kiev. Venison features as a daily special of T-bone and as a flaky sausage roll next to a deeply flavoured clarified game "tea" (£6.50) that is a total treat.
Charcuterie is brilliant, with a nutty Cumbrian air-dried ham next to crisp patties of brawn; textbook potted rabbit rillettes and "real" mince pies that taste like medieval sweetmeats (£11.50 for two).
Best of all is a shared main course of a darkly sticky smoked ham hock lifted by its mustard-brown sugar glaze and served on a huge wooden tray with a huddle of roast parsnips, a bowl of fabulous Brussels tops frilled with vibrant green ballerina's tutu leaves, and a small jug of parsley sauce (£29.50 for two). With food like this, good red wine is required in sheer self-defence, and a plummy, herbaceous, 2004 Maison Albert Sounit Cuvee Meix Guillaume Rully Rouge (£35) works deliciously from the elegantly eccentric list, filled with unusual suspects from Oz, Spain and Italy.
To finish, small Bramley-apple doughnuts come warm, dusted with sugar and spice (£5). How good it is to see prices such as £5.50 on the menu for starters and puds, and barely a main course over £14. To sum up, I think they say it better than I could: "Beautiful country produce in a warm, comfortable city pub."
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
The Harwood Arms, 27 Walham Grove, London SW6, tel: 020 7386 1847. Lunch and dinner, Tues-Sun. Around £80 for two, including wine and service
The crunch bunch: Celeb-chef gastropubs
The Hind's Head
High Street, Bray, Berkshire,tel: 01628 626 151
Across the road from the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's charming 17th-century inn serves up beautifully cooked pub fare from Lancashire hotpot to quaking pudding
44 Narrow Street, Limehouse, London E14, tel: 020 7592 7950
Gordon Ramsay's first gastropub (he now has three) is still going strong, with its emphasis on good, solid British fare and in-your-face Thames views
The Yew Tree
Hollington Cross, Andover Road, Highclere, Berkshire, tel: 01635 255 360
Marco Pierre White's 17th-century inn combines MPW classics and pub favourites, from omelette Arnold Bennett to braised oxtail and kidney pudding
Read 'Eat', Terry Durack's blog, at independent.co.uk/eat
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