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May 30, 2010 09:10 AM

Two Gastropubs, London

• Bull & Last, Highgate

Hearty food, but very balanced and careful cooking, understated technique and refinement.

A wonderful composition in a salad: smoked haddock, glossed with yolk from a poached egg, the rich and savoury flavours contrasting with the sharpness of cress, the nutty bite of rocket and the sweetness of beets, rounded off by the gentle acidity and oil from the dressing, every flavour playing a part in a delicious chorus.

Halibut is beautifully cooked, enhanced by vegetal and slightly earthy flavour of chives (a combination that reminds me of chives/jiu3 cai4 with prawns or other seafood at dim sum and other Cantonese dishes), and the sweetness of soft leeks. A chive tempura shows off excellent deep frying technique and adds a brief crunch to the dish. A smooth, rounded cream sauce.

Flavoursome lamb, tender, meaty; complemented by an aromatic celeriac mash, and rounded off with a slightly sticky and shiny reduction.

Triple cooked chips once again showcases their technique - and aura of crispiness, then a thicker brittle crunch, and finally and amazingly, creamy starchy potato beneath, without breaking into any kind of grain.

Regret not trying their ice cream, will have to be back.

• Harwood Arms, Fulham

The golden runny yolk in the venison scotch egg is a pleasure, a wonderful finish to the multiple layers of texture, from crunchy shell, to the soft, peppery minced venison and firm whites. However, the minced venison seemed a bit thin, thus compromising the balance between meat and egg, and was somewhat uneven (a couple of bites had the batter just over the egg with barely any meat). The flakes of salt made for a beautiful feathery glitter, but resulted in uneven salting, as each biteful led to different amounts of salt (the meat beneath was thoughtfully less seasoned to rely the salt on top). It's a trade-off between presentation and even flavouring (textural interest from the salt was minimal, as the crunchy crust had fulfilled its role to the max.)

A slice of eel tart was more composed, brilliantly crispy multilayered pastry supporting firm but delicate pieces of eel, charmingly garnished with rings of red onion for bite and a brief acidity, backed by tangy batons of rhubarb. A perfectly dressed side of greens, and soft snowy goats curd, all came together with the tart. Very elegant plating.

A very thin slice of sourdough blankets a fillet of delicious sea bream, providing just the right amount of crunch against the tender fish. The carrots in the dish were glorious, bites of sweet sunshine. Fronds of chervil, a soft bed of spinach add nuanced flavour and texture. A creamy orangey puree tasted very of very mildly sweet vegetable, but was too subtle to really convey much, especially with the fantastic carrots in the same bite.

I loved the smooth texture of the pear sorbet, but it also seemed a little too sweet for my tastes.

Warm rhubarb donuts with a (iirc) sour cream or yogurt dip on the side were enjoyable but not out of this world.

Portions were on the small side, which meant the possibility of having more than 3 courses. Somewhat expensive (mains ~£17) compared to Bull & Last (mains ~£14-15) , which I liked a little more.

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  1. I am happy to read the report on Harwood Arms. We are spending a long weekend in London and will be returning to The Harwood Arms. I have reserved for quiz night, since I am curious about the experience. Have you ever been there during quiz night?

    4 Replies
    1. re: Nancy S.

      We've booked for Friday night. No doubt, I'll post a review somewhere online.

      1. re: Nancy S.

        Sorry, haven't been there on quiz night.

        1. re: limster

          Yup, I go once a month on quiz night. It is raucous and busy and all about the quiz - we just always order lots of scotch eggs, ham, cheese etc, but the full menu is available. Swot up if you are thinking of joining in - it's pretty challenging.

          1. re: daisyK

            Excellent. With regard to the quiz, is there a theme, or is random knowledge tested?

      2. The doughnuts (at the Harwood) used to be served with a lemon curd, I wonder if this was the "sour cream"?

        I am impressed by your detailed analysis of the scotch egg, whenever we have have them they don't last very long! However I wonder if the analysis detracts from the point of them: after all they are the classic simple bar snack, best enjoyed standing at the bar with a pint in hand. Isn't this a case of "the whole being greater than the sum of its parts?"

        1 Reply
        1. re: PhilD

          I don't think it was a lemon curd, as it didn't taste citrusy at all (plus it was white not pale yellow), more of a deeper tangy flavour.

          Thanks for your kind words, but to be honest, the strengths/weakness of the scotch egg were pretty obvious and didn't really require much finessing. Unfortunately, it was a case of a net negative in the sum of its parts.

        2. I like the Bull and Last a lot. And our canine companion on our last visit very much enjoyed his crispy pig's ear.

          1. Went back to Bull and Last for their ice creams. Fantastic.

            Ferrero Roche was outstanding -- the perfect balance of ice cream and crunchy crushed bits of the namesake confection, capturing and enhancing the combination of hazelnut and chocolate -- it's unfussy, honest and delicious.

            Prune and Armagnac was also good and subtle, the texture of the ice not substantially softened by the alcohol.

            Vanilla a stellar and clean example.

            Walnut was evocative, channelling bits of the raw nut flavour.

            The berry sorbet (blackberry iirc?) was also very good, sugar, tang and a concentrated berry flavour.