Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Harwood Arms

Gastrocide: A Day on the Eating Streets
(with profound apologies to David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets)

Removing his reading glasses, Andre Batch stares down at his food. He’s seen a thousand similar plates before, and he’ll probably see thousands more before he’s done reviewing restaurants. Poking at the lump of meat with his Laguiole knife, he throws his dining companion a knowing glance.

“That’s been dead a while,” he says, his craggy face betraying not even a hint of emotion. Batch knows a piece of well hung t-bone venison when he sees it (even though it’s a highly unusual cut) and as he chews his first perfectly medium-rare forkful, his pleasure is unmistakable. Things could be looking up for new Fulham gastropub The Harwood Arms.

Amongst his fellow restaurant critics working the London district, Batch is something of legend. Stories of serial restaurant binges that have taken in half a dozen of the city’s top spots in a day are circulated with equal measures of awe and incredulity. But recently, the grizzled 50 year old been suffering from burn out.

“You know, when I first started reviewing restaurants, I’d get so excited about the prospect of a truly great lunch I could hardly sleep the night before,” says Batch, taking a sip of the delicious and reasonably priced Tarret Viognior house white from the south of France. “Now the thought of yet another gastropub makes me want to pull the covers over my head.”

Critics like Batch recognise two distinct categories of restaurant: dunkers and who’d-eat-there’s. Dunkers are the sure fire hits run by top professionals serving the sort of food anyone with even half a decent palette would crawl over their dying grandmother to eat.

Who’d-eat-theres tend to be either ego driven dens of pseudo-gastronomy that are bound to suffer an unsightly but natural demise due to sheer cluelessness; or cynical money making operations that use low prices to extend their natural life span just long enough for the original owners to sell out to a faceless corporation.

Batch knew all too well that Fulham Broadway was more likely to be home to the latter rather than the former, but pulling the case file, he was pleasantly surprised to discover the name of the pub’s owner.

“Brett Graham, yeah I know the guy. Cooks at The Ledbury in Notting Hill, he’s got a hell of a rep, and a Michelin star to hang on it too,” says Batch. “But how he hooked up with Mike Robinson is anyone’s guess.”

A presenter for cable TV channel UKTV Food, Robinson is not the most obvious choice of business partner for one of the country’s rising star chefs. But whatever Batch’s reservations, there’s no doubting the telly chef’s culinary credentials.

“I hear only good things about his other place The Pot Kiln in Berkshire. And apparently he’s handy with a rifle too,” says Batch noting Robinson’s predilection for shooting his own muntjac deer.

A menu can tell you a lot more about a restaurant than just what there is to eat and for a seasoned pro like Batch, it’s a smoking gun at the scene of the crime.

“You never want to feel laminate between your fingers. You can forget creativity and seasonality; they might as well have set the menu in stone,” he says while studying the Harwood’s single cream coloured sheet. “But they can print something like this everyday.”

Batch runs his eyes down the concise list of five starters, six main courses and five desserts. “With a menu as appealing as this, you have to keep your wits about you and use a process of elimination, otherwise you’re never going to make a decision.”

Batch learnt long ago to ignore enticing descriptors like “warm”, “crisp” and “slow braised” and concentrate on the main ingredients, but he’s finding it hard to ignore one particular element.

“Salad cream is critic bait, pure and simple. We’re all suckers for atavistic ingredients; we’ll fall for it every time.” And when his starter of smoked trout with leeks and wild sorrel arrives, he’s glad he did.

“It’s simple but masterful cooking, the work of a real pro. The leek vinaigrette is tender as a baby’s cheek and the contrasting pink of the trout looks beautiful on the plate with those wafer thin slices of radish and tiny sorrel leaves. There’s a little too much mustard in the salad cream, but overall, that my friend is a triumph.”

As the lunch wares on Batch looks increasingly at home among the scrubbed wooden tables, mushroom coloured wainscoting and leather sofas. A bowl of warm (there’s that word again) Bramley apple doughnuts with spiced sugar and a particularly good “flat white” coffee served by the enthusiastic, young Antipodean front of house, and he looks ready to settle in for the afternoon.

“In this job, you never know what’s going to hit you. That’s what keeps it interesting, even after all these years. The Harwood Arms could have been just another gastropub, but today at least, it was something else, something more.”

The meal seems to have reinvigorated the previously weary Batch, who begins to pontificate on how something as simple but original as the crisp potatoes with garlic butter served with the t-bone can be revelatory, when his mobile rings. A short conversation later and he’s heading for the door with dining companion in tow.

“A major West End restaurant has just announced a new chef and menu, I need to get over there,” he says and heads out into leafy Fulham in search of a taxi and his next case.

Gastrocide: A Day on the Eating Streets is a work of faction. The Harwood Arms is a real restaurant.

The Harwood Arms, 27 Walham Grove, London SW6 1QR (020 7386 1847; harwoodarms.com)