Correct London Grammar
There’s nothing wrong with a pint of cider and scampi fries in your local. But we’d prefer the pescatarian tasting menu with Berry Brothers and Rudd of St James’s wine thank you. Fordwich, eight kilometres north of Pett Bottom in Kent, is apparently England’s smallest town. Fordwich Arms is a gorgeous 1930s mock Tudor brick without half timber building. It looks like one of Walter George Tarrant’s houses on St George’s Hill Estate, Weybridge, Surrey. A curvilinear gable over the entrance is a welcome whimsical touch. The pub is opposite the 1540s real Tudor brick with half timber Fordwich Town Hall, apparently England’s smallest and oldest town hall in use. The Norman Church of St Mary behind the pub walled garden complements this tranquil grouping.
We’re lunching in the dining room accessed through the main bar. Cast iron framed windows are open to the walled garden on one side and the riverside terrace on the other. In good ol’ Tudorbethan style, the room is linen fold panelled with a stone fireplace. Fashionable visible bulb lights are the only wall decoration. The dining room is simply furnished: Ercol chairs and matching table tops balanced on cast iron legs on a timber floor. No boozer clut here: not a Toby jug or faded photograph of the high street in sight.
The unmistakeable cosmopolitan air (and not just us) is no coincidence. Londoners run the show. Chef Patron Daniel Smith worked for Jason Atherton’s group and then The Clove Club. His wife, Pastry Chef Owner Natasha, worked at Chapter One in Locksbottom, Kent, and latterly at Rocket events company in London. The Smiths are joined by Sommelier Guy Palmer-Brown. They’re all the same age and ridiculously young: 28 years old. Fordwich Arms is celebrating its second birthday. Daniel recalls his 17th birthday dinner at The Fact Duck in Bray, Berkshire, as being a directional moment towards his chosen career.
The serving staff possess encyclopaedic knowledge of each course and micro course. It’s the catering version of old masters dealing – they’re heavy on provenance. Just as well the pub backs onto the Great Stour River and the north and east coasts of Kent are five kilometres and 17 kilometres respectively away as all the savoury courses are a hymn to seafood. Getting even more local, their bread and butter is churned on site. A kitchen favourite is soda bread (very Northern Irish!) but we’re served rosemary focaccia with garlic cloves as well as wheaten bread made from the Chef’s mother’s recipe. Mrs Smith senior is from County Wexford.
After a trio of prettily colour coordinated amuse bouches come five fishy dishes which stretch that provenance the full length of this island. Confit chalk stream trout, oyster, pea and gooseberry sets the pace. Isle of Wight tomato, lemon verbena and Cornish caviar gathers knots. Roasted Orkney scallop, brown butter, applied and spiced scallop sauce makes waves. South coast brill and warm tartare sauce is a splash of panache. Line caught hake, celeriac, young leek and Madeira completes the culinary coastal voyage. Hit after hit of retronasal olfaction and satisfaction. Local and national produce; capital style and British brilliance. The plates themselves have varying textures and tonality – very Michelin. The Merchant’s White is just what a lover should be: rich and full bodied.
Top London chefs love their signature dishes (think County Antrim born Clare Smyth and her potato) and Daniel is no exception. While he manages to sneak in a perfectly formed potato mound side dish, it’s the Snickers bar pudding that’s his pièce de résistance. Delicately deconstructed then rigorously reconstructed as a sponge log with its skin of hard chocolate removed and ingredients (peanuts and caramel) placed on top, it’s gastronomy’s answer to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Gold leaf is a nice reference to chocolate box wrapping.
The primacy effect (start of a meal) and regency effect (end of a meal) tend to stick in our minds. Not so, this lunch. Every morsel is memorable. We’ve eulogised for seven paragraphs now on the glories of Fordwich Arms; the Michelin Guide (the pub gobbled up a star almost instantly) is more succinct: “High quality cooking, worth a stop!” It’s a long stop for us: we reluctantly depart at 4.30pm as our car pulls up outside. A golden retriever keeps watch at the entrance. There mightn’t be a beer stained carpet but Fordwich Arms has kept one pub tradition going: it’s dog friendly.