I think gastropubs tend to be best when they remember to be pubs as well as gastro, and don't forget they're also supposed to be down-to-earth boozers as well as purveyors of chorizo and purple sprouting broccoli. But really, there are limits. Standing outside the Harwood Arms, you feel your heart sink. The pub is situated at the end of a dispiritingly bricky suburban street. As pubs go, you're surprised this one hasn't gone long ago: it's so tired-looking, so bored, so uninterested in having anyone come through its doors. There's nothing about it that shouts, or even murmurs, "Trendy eating-house!" The colour scheme is mostly a flat matt magenta, over which the dust of years seems to have settled. Can this be the joint recently voted London's best gastropub? Have we come to the wrong address? As for that awful colour ... "If I remember the Farrow & Ball paint swatch," said my date, Madeleine, "this is a darker version of their Dead Salmon ..."
Then you see a sign saying, "Harwood Arms – home of the venison Scotch egg" and feel cheered up. The owners are evidently playing it low-key. Inside, things improve a little: it's a proper pub interior, strenuously plain and sparsely populated, but the dining area is bathed in natural light from a huge skylight. You can't help falling for its Shaker-chic simplicity. The tables and furniture are simple, rustic stuff, the chairs don't match and the wood floor looks as though it has sustained the beer spills of years. On each table there's a white jug of wild flowers and an earthenware pitcher of water. It's an exercise in monkish minimalism.
There's nothing monkish or ascetic about what follows, however. The Harwood Arms represents a collaboration between two fine cooks: Mike Robinson from the Pot Kiln in Yattendon, Berkshire, and Brett Graham of the exalted Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill. The former shoots his own game (and appeared on TV in Heaven's Kitchen) while the latter is a young Australian who won a Michelin star in his first year at the Ledbury. Between them, they've come up with a heftily English menu: the snails are from Hereford, the salami from Cornwall, the wood pigeon from Berkshire and the pudding from Eton ...
Madeleine and I decided we had to try the venison scotch egg, though it wasn't on the lunch menu. Amazingly, though it was deep-fried, the yolk was runny inside, and the venison sausage meat tasted a million times better than the usual bready carapace you get with the Ginsters version. My starter of snails with oxtail was a whole muscular road-gang of butch flavours: the six fat snail shells in round eggcups contained a savoury mélange of escargot and fibrous oxtail braised in beer and grilled with green parsley breadcrumbs. As a final flourish, they'd shown some marrow bone the grill for 30 seconds: it lay on each snail like a transparent sliver of bacon. Madeleine's poached salmon with broken eggs, wild herbs and toast was delicious, palate-cleansing, light on calories with a touch of fennel in the salad – "Perfect," she said, "for ladies who lunch."
Her main-course of sea bream with runner beans and squid, stewed with tomatoes and fennel, was equally well received, although the roundels of squid were unexpectedly soft where we thought they'd be rubbery. The bream was perfectly cooked, the runner beans joined by an uncredited platoon of butter beans, and all of it bouncing with health.
My braised shoulder of English mutton with purple sprouting broccoli resembled, by comparison, an ancient, works-canteen portion of Meat Pie, but it tasted glorious. The densely flavoured mutton sat on a bed of champ (or Irish mash) and the two elements got along like a pair of drunkards taking the night air in Limerick. Some extras – white onions and caper berries – seemed a step too far, the capers adding irrelevantly sharp flavours to this majestic comfort food.
A bowl of warm Bramley apple doughnuts with cinnamon sugar and whipped cream was a very guilty pleasure for pudding, while the Eton mess, studded with blackcurrants and stem ginger among the lumps of meringue, was probably the best I've ever tasted.
This was an utterly satisfying lunch in coolly appealing surroundings: a menu that's full of things you long to eat; cooking that perfectly balances the wholesome with the excitingly full-flavoured; a low-key atmosphere that throws into relief the charm and attentiveness of the waiting staff. It was a treat from start to finish.
But there's still the problem of that horrible magenta exterior. Why would they have settled for that awful shade? Later, I dug out Farrow & Ball's online colour scheme and tried to find a match for it. Eventually I found the name of the colour: It's called "Eating Room Red". Seriously. It's a little design joke. Now there's sophistication for you.
The Harwood Arms, Walham Grove, London SW6 (020-7386 1847)
About £90 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: New gastros
The Draper's Arms
Accomplished comfort food courtesy of Ben Maschler – mains include Berkshire pork shoulder with fennel, saffron and tomato.
44 Barnsbury St, London N1 (020-7619 0348)
The Bull at Broughton
Dishes from the new chef Nigel Haworth include Wakefield wild rabbit with local new potatoes and chargrilled gem lettuce.
Broughton, Skipton, North Yorks (01756 792065)
Try a starter of Ireland black pudding potato cake with a soft poached egg and tarragon sauce at Robert Owen Brown's latest venture.
4 Angel St, Manchester (0161 833 4786)
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