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. It's not rocket science: good beer, simple countryside-in-London feel, and unfussy yet inventive British cuisine. And it's Stephen Williams's menu that stands at the heart of this successful new pub, 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.
The menu is the brainchild of Graham and Williams, who knew each other from time spent in the Ledbury's kitchens together, and while Williams is head chef, he admits he'd be foolish to ignore Graham's experience. "Brett's got a fantastic eye for food," Williams says. "We're good friends and we share the same idea of food." The pair make a dynamic couple - at 26 (Williams) and 30 (Graham) they certainly have time on their side - and this verve and creativity spills over into their menu.
It's a menu of exclusively English produce. January's meat is game or beef or offal, its vegetables purple-sprouting broccoli or celeriac or turnips, its fish plaice or smoked trout. Suppliers are kept to a minimum. Murray's Fresh Fish supply the seafood - a Covent Garden outfit that talks regularly to the coastal day boats and, in Williams's words, "knows exactly what I want". Game comes from Vicars Game, in Berkshire near Robinson's other pub, the Pot Kiln fruit and vegetables from Fresher by Miles in Warwickshire.
The creativity of the menu is what stands the 60-cover Harwood apart from competitors and marks its appeal amidst a sea of so-called London gastropubs. 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 with the bold and successful 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: à 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. Celeriac and horseradish accompanies the short ribs of beef braised in stout (£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 - nothing that might crank up the dish's price.
Nothing is wasted, either. For example, while it might need only one large breast for the pheasant Kiev, the thighs and bones are cooked down for a pheasant coq au vin equivalent for a forthcoming lunch menu (price to be confirmed).
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 items such as rhubarb, which Fresher by Miles has just received its first winter batch of, will reinvigorate the menu. The apple in bowl of Bramley apple doughnuts with spiced sugar (£5) will make way as rhubarb steals its position as most desirable winter fruit.
Williams skill and synergy with Graham suggests he might harbour ambitions above the simple British cuisine he's turning out here, however inventive it is. He disagrees, though. "Yes I can get frustrated by the limitations of a small team. But while I may enjoy eating more complex food, it's not what I'm good at putting on a plate. The food I'm turning out here isn't that far away from what I want to be doing long term."
It's early days for the Harwood, but its promise and simplicity of its menu calls to mind the talents of more established chefs such as Great Queen Street's Tom Norrington-Davies or Hereford Road's Tom Pemberton, with a creativity all of its own. In a sea of average pub offerings, the Harwood Arms stands apart.
The Harwood Arms is a real gastropub, serving simple - yet inventive - British food
Also on the menu
î¬ Sweetcorn soup with crab and basil, £5.50
î¬ Warm salad of wild wood pigeon, smoked bacon and black pudding, £5.75
î¬ Warm onion tart with Montgomery Cheddar and watercress, £5
î¬ Roast T-bone of Henley fallow deer with crisp potatoes, black cabbage and mushroom ketchup, £16.50
î¬ Sea bass and crisp whitebait with a stew of white beans and courgettes, £14
î¬ Slow-braised faggot of jugged Berkshire hare with carrot purée and juniper £14
î¬ Black treacle and stem ginger tart with Cornish clotted cream £6
î¬ Brown bread ice-cream with poached Damson plums, £5
î¬ Eton Mess with blackcurrants and brown sugar meringues, £5.50