Monday, 19 February 2018

The Fordwich Arms, Canterbury

In common with most people with a regular exposure to it, I have a love-hate relationship with our nation's rail network. I love nothing more than jumping on an intercity of a weekend and travelling up North, sailing over a Victorian viaduct in a single-carriage Pacer on the way to an undiscovered part of the country and visiting an idyllic country gastropub. I even quite enjoy the inevitable 3 hours at a rain-battered station in a field for the one train a day back to London; it's all part of the adventure.

Unfortunately, I also have to commute, so I see our overstretched, overpriced transport system at its worst as well. And so although I do enjoy travelling by train, it helps to keep a certain reserve of stoicism to hand for when events, to put it politely, go tits up. And so it was on Saturday on the 1h45m journey from Charing Cross to Sturry where our 8-car Southeastern train had not a single functioning toilet, something that became a rather more pressing issue once we'd polished off the bottle of cava we'd brought along for the ride. We hopped painfully into the Fordwich Arms with mere moments to spare.

You'll be pleased to hear, then, that lunch at this handsome 1920s brick building is absolutely worth any amount of pain to get there. From start to finish, from the first nibble of cruditées to the final flourish of dessert, this is a restaurant that beams with energy and talent, and with the generosity of spirit to serve food that wouldn't be in the least out of place in the most heavily gilded and tableclothed temples of fine dining at prices that make you seriously worry for the future legitimacy of the business.

But let's leave the number-crunching to them; we're here to enjoy ourselves. Like lots of great restaurants, the menu reads so well it's almost impossible to make a sensible decision about what to order, so you'll probably end up doing what we did and consuming one of everything from the snack menu. Oysters arrived first, lean and cool and with a good chunky mignonette.

Foie gras doughnuts, fresh from the oven, exploded into a kind of warm foie bisque in the mouth, an absolutely heavenly experience.

These pretty things contained a silky-smooth tarama, a slice of pickle, and were topped with Caviar farmed from British sturgeon so you can imagine how completely addictive they were. I think given a table full of these or the foie gras dumplings I don't think I could have stopped until I'd put myself in hospital.

More tarama - or rather oak-smoked cod's roe - came with a selection of lively, and artfully arranged, garden vegetables. Though the roe was lovely - perfectly seasoned and full of seafood flavour - the real stars of this dish were the veg, which somehow tasted better than any radish, carrot and endive I've had the pleasure of trying in a long while.

Westcombe Cheddar tartlets had that same perfect temperature of the foie - warm, but not piping hot, and dissolved in the mouth into a divine cheesey soup. And again, left alone in a room full of these I would not have emerged with a fully functioning set of organs.

We were also brought a mini selection of house-cured meats, which could easily hold up against any top-quality Italian produce you could name.

By this point, it was abundently clear we were in safe hands, and we would be able to relax and let the rest of the afternoon sail by in serene, Sancerre-soaked bliss. A starter of chicken, artichoke and goat's curd was a stunning thing, meaty and fresh, smooth and crunchy in all the right places and presented with an artist's eye.

Confit potato didn't quite live up to the standards set by the Quality Chop House version - what on God's green earth would? - but did still impress with a clever light buttermilk dressing and some nice smoky charred spring onion.

Crab with pickled cucumber and sea herbs was essentially faultless - just the right amount of brown meat to enrich the white, seasoned well and topped with salty seaside greens, it was as elegant as it was rewarding.

Mains continued the theme. Dexter beef, tender and medium-rare and with a subtle aged flavour that added interest without overwhelming funkiness, came with sticks of celeriac and gravy- (sorry, "beef jus"-) soaked spinach.

And suckling pig had some pieces of belly presented with puréed carrot and prune, whilst in a separate copper pan two pieces of unbelievably lovely somethingorother, skin as delicate as rice paper, flesh inside soft and powerfully flavoured, sat on a bed of smoked hay. It was enough to send us all giddy.

Desserts I can only assume tasted as good as they look from my photos, because I'm afraid we were all a bit hysterical by this point, from the sheer overwhelming quality of the food mainly but, yes, also more than a little drunk. I seem to remember my brioche being soaked in something boozy, but that could just as well have been me. And I'm pretty sure the "Fordwich snickers" (lower case 's', in case the Mars lawyers start taking notice) went down well too, with its irresistable combination of caramel, chocolate and praline.

Before we rolled out into the crisp Kentish air, an insanely reasonable £87/head lighter each for what had been by anyone's standards a magnificent display of Modern British sourcing and technique, I couldn't resist asking head chef Dan Smith, who had emerged briefly from the kitchen, how he manages to achieve all these frills and fireworks at such relatively low price points. It seems largely to be a concession to grumpy locals who flooded Tripadvisor with comments in the vein of "what happened to my £9.50 roast" and "no more jacket potatoes, just overpriced fancy dinner". It's difficult enough launching a new restaurant these days, with food inflation and staffing shortages to deal with, but to be risking all that only to find yourself fighting to convince the very people you need to keep your business afloat must have been particularly depressing.

Look, I love an unreconstructed spit-and-sawdust pub every bit as much I'm sure as your average Fordwich local. I can particularly recommend the lovely Unicorn, 5 min from Canterbury West station, for a quick pint of Kentish Pip cider while you're waiting for the convenience(s)-free train back to London. Fordwich Arms has a bar area, and nice open log fires and a beer garden but no, it's not serving fish and chips and burgers and bloody burritos because it's not a "normal" pub - it's unashamedly and undeniably a fine dining pub, and that every boozer in Britain has to do exactly the same thing and please exactly the same set of people is neither practical nor desirable.

So with any luck over time the Kentish locals will realise what an utter gem they have on their doorstep and will realise they can still go a thousand other places for their sub-£10 roasts and salt and vinegar crisps if that's what they want. What's so much rarer is food as remarkable as served at the Fordwich Arms, easily one of the most exciting new openings of the last few years and, for more regular readers of this blog, yet another reason to get on the train from London. I hope yours has toilets.


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