The Fordwich Arms
King Street, Fordwich, Canterbury, CT2 0DB
The locals are not happy. Not happy at all. Because The Fordwich Arms, formerly a good old-fashioned sticky-carpeted, condoms-in-the-bog Kentish boozer, set in a ridiculously pretty 1930s redbrick building, has gone all posh.
So farewell, then, to the pie-and-pint nights, baked potatoes and lunchtime baps. And well hello there, my good man, to fancy food, hifalutin’ wine lists, floors stripped down to their original parquet and velvet banquettes restored to a gleaming emerald green.
Behind all this are folk from London. Well, of course they bloody are. Dan Smith, once of The Clove Club and winner of the Observer Young Chef of the Year 2016; his fiancee, pastry chef Natasha Norton; and sommelier Guy Palmer Brown, another Clove Club alumnus. Down from the Big Smoke to ponce about and muck it all up.
The Fordwich Arms, formerly a good old-fashioned sticky-carpeted, condoms-in-the-bog Kentish boozer, set in a ridiculously pretty 1930s redbrick building, has gone all posh
Sure, there’s still a bar selling Landlord and Harvey’s and a couple of local brews. Plus roaring fires that hiss and crackle and glow in the late-winter gloom.
But as my friend Zeren Wilson (wine expert and the man behind the ever-excellent bittenandwritten.com) found out when he waded through the pompous, poisonous and Pooterish morass that is Trip Advisor, it’s not a popular move. Hell no. ‘Unless you want an overpriced fancy dinner,’ fumed Upset Local in December last year, ‘you can now only get fancy, overpriced nibbles for lunch.’ Now even if I put aside my abject hatred of Trip Advisor, Upset Local is plain wrong.
Because while I sympathise with some of their fury, The Fordwich Arms is neither fancy nor overpriced. What it is, though, is a good pub with a rather fine restaurant. Smith talks about The Sportsman, ten miles or so to the north-east, as his inspiration. And he certainly shares Stephen Harris’s utter obsession with local ingredients. Romney Marsh lamb, pheasant, crab, brill and venison, all sourced nearby. There’s a purity to Smith’s cooking, mixed with discreet, pared-back art.
We sit in the panelled dining room, me and three restaurateur friends. And crunch pert, punchy home-made pickled onions, and sharp beetroot, and sloppy, smoky cod’s roe with fiery radishes and their peppery leaves. There are a dozen rich, brusquely saline Maldon oysters (a reasonable £2.50 each), and home-made Old Spot charcuterie; silken, subtle lomo and rather more rustic ham. OK, so it’s not quite pickled egg and teeth-shattering scratchings, but it’s sensibly priced, beautifully executed modern pub grub.
Tiny Westcombe cheddar tarts, in brittle pastry cases, are a touch more cheffy, but there’s nothing refined about their deep cheesy growl. A starter of pheasant dumplings in a roasted onion and herb broth is sublime, the pastry dim-sum-delicate, the intense broth sweet scented and ruddy with flavour. Town meets country, the big flavours worn lightly. Then fresh-picked crab, white and brown meat tumbled with gently pickled cucumber and salty sea purslane.
The extras provide textural thrills, but never draw attention away from that vibrant crustacean zing.
A splendidly stinky parfait (well, more mousse, as Mark points out – he was once a chef and knows these things) is tempered by delicate slices of grape. A piece of trout is perhaps a little too lustily smoked, although sharp apple and horseradish cut boldly through the smog. More subtle, finely wrought flourishes of texture and flavour.
I eat a beautifully cooked piece of brill with deep-fried Jerusalem artichokes, slivers of soft onion and a salty tangle of monk’s beard.
Roast Chart Farm sika venison, plum, pumpkin and crumble. There’s a purity to Dan Smith’s cooking, mixed with discreet, pared-back art.
The rib of Dexter beef (from Palmer Brown’s family farm) has good texture and is perfectly pink. But I crave a bit more depth. Hey-ho. The roast saddle lamb has lived long enough to know a thing or two about flavour, and comes with an anchovy-studded hispi cabbage. Suckling pig, the special, mixes luscious fat with brittle, golden skin. We finish with their take on a Snickers bar (hardly original but damned good) and well-kept cheese. Then a satisfied, well-fed silence. Three difficult-to-please restaurateurs, pleased.
As for me? Much as the loss of traditional pubs can be sad, the new Fordwich Arms is cause for celebration. You can still get your pints, and eat assured, elegant and often inspired modern British cooking. In the most civilised of surroundings.
The locals may be fuming. But I hope they give it another go. Because on the evidence of our lunch, this lot are in it for the long run.
About £40 per head
WHAT TOM ATE LAST WEEK
Still poleaxed by the flu. Do manage a tin of Baxter Beef Consommé.
Better. Off to see Arsenal thrash Everton. As a Spurs fan, it hurts. The things we do for our kids. Still, seriously good lunch there of smoked salmon and roast pork. Not that I manage much.
The Oak in Notting Hill – for a change. Diavola pizza. Then brutal and beautiful hot and sour prawn curry from 101 Thai Kitchen in Hammersmith.
Trotter nuggets, fried chicken and classic buns at Bao in Soho.