THE WINNER: Harwood Arms, Fulham
Sponsored by: Premier Foods
Gastropub: a term guilty of spawning countless muddled, and many now extinct, attempts at hospitality. If only they all had the same formula as the Harwood Arms, where the creativity and originality displayed within a notoriously saturated market led this year's judges to award the Fulham pub the Menu of the Year Catey. And the award came with the highest praise. "The menu is something of its type that I have never seen before," said judge and food writer Michael Raffael. "Everything on it is thought through with innovation."
The pub opened in October 2008 as a joint venture between rural celebrity chef Mike Robinson, publican Edwin Vaux and Michelin's hot tip for 2010, Brett Graham, head chef at one-Michelin-starred the Ledbury in London, with young chef Stephen Williams taking up the day-to-day role in the kitchen.
The menu is the brainchild of Graham and Williams, who knew each other from time spent in the Ledbury's kitchen together. The pair make a dynamic duo - at 26 (Williams) and 30 (Graham) they certainly have time on their side - and this verve and creativity spills over into their menu. But despite Graham's Michelin ambitions, any unnecessary frills have been kept in check. "At the heart of it, it's a pub serving innovative English food," said judge and operations director of the Dorchester Collection Zoe Jenkins.
The menu is one of exclusively English produce, with judges praising the focus on game. However, it is the creativity of the menu within its pub genre - keeping prices below £15 for a main course - that stands the 60-seat Harwood apart from competitors. Maldon oysters don't come with everyday Tabasco, lemon juice or shallot mix, but finely diced apple in Chardonnay vinegar and a smidgen side of horseradish (£7). Pheasant isn't stewed or roasted; it's turned into an inventive Kiev - ballotine breast stuffed with marjoram, chopped onions, wholegrain mustard and seasoning - and served, boldly, with turnips glazed in mead and rosemary (£14). Game tea comes with a venison sausage roll (£6.50).
And of course there's the price point, praised by the judges for its value for money. A la carte starters rarely exceed £6, mains rarely £15. The key: everything is fastidiously seasonal and, beyond the protein, the luxuriousness of the dish is in the cooking alone. Mains include short ribs of beef braised in stout accompanied by celeriac and horseradish (£14); breaded fillets of plaice with cauliflower cheese and brown shrimps (£14); Cornish cod with seaweed, boiled potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli and sea purslane (£14.50); braised shoulder of lamb with smoked garlic, celery and pearl barley (£13.50). And note the meat cuts: shoulder of lamb, rib of beef, even ox tongue (with a gratin of Jerusalem artichokes and walnuts, £13.50) - no fillet, loin, leg - anything that might crank up the dish's price.
Desserts move seasonally with the rest of the menu. A few - for example, burnt Camp coffee (£5.50), a sweet coffee crème brûlée - are unaffected by the shifting British climate, but the rest reflect the seasons: apple, rhubarb, strawberries and so forth.
The distinction and originality that the Harwood Arms has breathed into the flagging gastropub movement makes it a worthy Menu of the Year winner. "I love this place," said judge Charles Boyd, chief executive officer of Chester Boyd. "The pub itself and especially the attitude to the menu. I was completely taken aback."
- The Clog and Billycock, Pleasington, Lancashire
- Harwood Arms, Fulham
- Purnell's, Birmingham
- Charles Boyd, chief executive, Chester Boyd
- Kevin Gratton, executive chef, Soho House Group
- Richard Hughes, chef-director, Richard Hughes Restaurants
- Zoe Jenkins, director of operations, Coworth Park
- Michael Raffael, food writer
- Richard Vines, chief food critic, Bloomberg News