The Harwood Arms dining room is a simple affair, with bare wooden floors and tables without tablecloths (but with high quality napkins), and a few framed black and white photos on the plain walls. The emphasis here is on the food rather than the ambience, and after all this is a pub rather than a formal restaurant. Sister to the well-regarded Pot Kiln (owned by Mike Robinson and Edwin Vaux) in Berkshire, the culinary credentials of the Harwood Arms are impressive. The chef that launched the Harwood was chef Stevie Williams, courtesy of investor Brett Graham of the Ledbury, gaining The Harwood a Michelin star. His last service was lunch on the 20th February 2011, where I enjoyed a superb meal, the highlight of which for me was a dazzling shoulder of venison, slow cooked for five hours, stunningly tender, served with a rich venison jus and horseradish, paired with a delicate rack of venison smoked in hay. Stevie handed over the reins to Barry Fitzgerald, who himself moved on in late 2012. The pub was technically without a head chef on my most recent visit, but with the resources of The Ledbury at their disposal this is not really a problem and will shortly be resolved. The food was of the same high standard, with excellent roe deer and a carefully cooked sea bass main course the highlights, as well as the iconic venison Scotch egg, which The Harwood has made its own. The game in particular at The Harwood is as good as at any restaurant in London.
Prices are refreshingly fair, with starters around £5.50, mains about £14 and desserts £5.50, with vegetables £3.50. The wine list has copious notes on each wine and has stacks of choice under £30, with fair mark-ups. Examples include Marques de Riscal Tempranillo 2006 at £20 for a wine that will cost you about £9 in the shops, Clos de los Siete 2007 at £29 for a wine that retails at around £16, and the classy Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 at £45 for a wine that will set you back around £18. I can remember drinking this wine in the Thelema vineyards near Capetown some years ago when it cost less than £4 locally; those were the days. Of course these days even the rand looks like a robust currency compared with sterling.
Here are brief notes from a recent meal.
A starter of new season pheasant eggs on sourdough toast was enhanced with morels; this was a very pleasing combination, the eggs soft cooked and the morels having good taste (14/20). End of season fallow deer (from the Lockinge estate in Oxfordshire) and cooked in two forms: shoulder was braised and had deep flavour, while a cutlet was grilled and fried in breadcrumbs, served with garlic potatoes, excellent spring greens and a little mushroom ketchup. Apple beignets were made with Bramley apple and were as good as ever, served with spiced sugar and whipped cream. A playful little pre-dessert (this being Easter) was hot cross bun ice cream which, remarkably, tasted very distinctly of hot cross bun. The service was friendly and capable, as usual.
Below are notes from a meal in January 2010.
The obligatory warm Scotch egg made from venison, with a soft egg in the centre and a little salt on top of the egg was as superb as ever, completely redefining my view of how good a Scotch egg can be. This is really hard to mark, but is a triumph of a dish (17/20 seems mean). Poached salmon with broken eggs, wild herbs and very thin toast managed surprisingly good taste from the salmon, which despite being farmed (from Scotland) still worked fine, as well as being nicely cooked (14/20). Roe deer (from Linkenholt Estate in Hampshire) was grilled on bay, served with a salad of beetroots, grated horseradish and crisp garlic potatoes. The meat itself was very good indeed, the potatoes correctly cooked and properly seasoned, the salad a good foil to the meat, and the horseradish adding just a little spicy bite (16/20). A bowl of little sherbert doughnuts was most enjoyable, the doughnuts themselves very classy indeed, served with a bowl of warm lemon curd with whipped cream and heather honey; Homer Simpson would love them.
Below are notes from March 2009.
Bread is a mix of excellent white bread from the Flour Station and soda bread made from scratch (15/20). I started with a bar snack, a Scotch egg, and is a million miles from the supermarket version. This is cooked to order, with a soft cooked egg in the centre of a fine filling of sausage meat and venison, and a light crust. It is hard to imagine how this could be much better (17/20).
A starter of charcuterie included excellent air-dried Cumbrian ham, potted wild rabbit, deep-fried tasty brawn and mince pies with Oxford sauce and toast. Well made though the mince-pies were, they seemed slightly at odds with the rest of the dish, but there was no denying the quality of the meat (15/20). A chestnut and thyme soup with chanterelles suffered from being lukewarm by the time it arrived, and although it had good taste the texture was thick, even for me (13/20).
Fallow deer Wellington had venison that tasted great though was a little chewy, with good pastry and mushroom duxelle, served with smooth and intense celeriac puree and shallots cooked in stout, with some cooking juices (15/20). I also sampled Cornish cod with seaweed, properly cooked and served with tender sprouting broccoli, boiled potatoes and sea purslane, the combination working well, the dish properly seasoned (14/20). Warm onion tart was less good, the pastry fine but with the taste of cheddar rather overwhelming the onions, and seeming to have pea shoots rather than the promised watercress (12/20).
I enjoyed Bramley apple doughnuts with spiced sugar, fried a fraction longer than ideal but tasting fine (15/20). Even better was Yorkshire rhubarb with excellent stem ginger ice cream, the ginger flavour coming through really well (16/20). Coffee had good flavour, though it was not quite hot enough (14/20). Service was friendly, and indeed there was little to criticise about the evening, other than a lack of vegetarian dishes and a couple of dish served less than piping hot (which may have had a lot to do with the quiz night unfolding around us). There is some really impressive food being served here, which would put almost any gastropub in England to shame. I will be back.