cost-benefit analysis.

Other stuff happened yesterday, but I should get this out of the way first...

Yes, what to say about The Harwood Arms. I guess, inevitably, whatever I would say ends up saying more about our current tastes and preferences than it does about their food.

We have a difficult relationship with restaurants these days: since scaling down our lifestyle several years ago, we've gone from eating out once or twice a week to maybe once a month if that, more like four times a year. If that.

This means that when we do pay someone else to cook for us, it has to meet a couple of criteria. Perhaps most importantly, it has to be reasonably priced, an extremely subjective and qualitative criterion, I know, but it's one of the biggest reasons we don't eat out much.

I don't necessarily mean that the food has to be "cheap": I mostly mean that it needs to be honestly priced, with some relation to the actual cost of producing it. But there's no ignoring that our monthly income is small, and our budget reflects that. To spend 100 euros on one dinner is twice our weekly grocery budget, and a quarter of our rent + utilities for the month.

Also, it has to be comfortable. I'm thoroughly uninterested in a dining atmosphere that goes out of its way to construct or convey some sort of aura of "privilege", as if I'm lucky to be there. In truth, in the big picture, I am lucky to be there, I'm lucky to be anywhere, I'm lucky to not be sleeping outside, I'm lucky to have running water, I'm lucky to be able to afford a dinner at a restaurant, etc. But you know what I mean. If the attitude or ambience is trying to tell me to be thankful for my seat, then the food really has a lot of work to do.

Lastly, it really helps if we're served food that we couldn't ourselves cook in our own kitchen. This is a very important factor, but it's also the most jettisonable: if it's a welcoming vibe, and the prices are reasonable, I'm having fun, and the food tastes good, I'm likely to forget about the degree of difficulty involved. But it's always a plus when I'm surprised (in a good way) by what's on my plate. On vacation, there's an extra element here that has to do with local ingredients: things I simply can't find where I live, and that counts for something as well.

Fussy presentations fit in here somewhere, but mostly as a sort of wild-card. I guess, like most creative risks, when they pay off, the results can be elevated disproportionately. When they fall flat, you just end up looking kind of silly. In the end, I'd much rather be served something that looks like a "burst colostomy bag" (to quote someone on eG) and tastes incredible than something that looks like a graphic design project and tastes like one too.

So I say all of the above because, rather obviously, I don't think we're necessarily the right audience for a lot of restaurant cooking these days, and so anything I say on this site about a "professional" dining experience we've had should be appreciated or ignored in the context of the above manifesto.


I will say that greeting me with the phrase "we need you to give up your table by 9pm" is not setting off in the right direction (see discussion of privilege and comfort above). Also, not having a list of beers is a bit strange: this means I have to get up and go to the bar if I want to see what the choices are.

Which would be fine, but everyone looked at me like "What's wrong?". Nothing's wrong, I'd like a beer. You're a pub, right? And then I order from the barman and he says he'll have it sent over to the table. It's just a bit odd. I'm already standing up, you're pouring the beer, why don't I just take it back with me to the table?

But whatever. We did eventually warm to our server a bit, and after a beer or two I didn't mind the weirdness of having to get up and order them myself.

About the food. Nothing was bad. The bread and butter was delicious. For our starters, the venison Scotch egg (see previous post) was just about the best thing I ate all night. The smoked eel tart was nice, something to try at home; the rabbit/prune sausage roll also pleasant and satisfying, if not especially rabbitty; etc.

Entrees were a bit more problematic, as they almost always are everywhere. Although I thought the beef cheeks and snails (yes, that's what I said) themselves were 100% enjoyable, I didn't have the revelatory bone marrow experience that many people seem to enjoy, my toast seemed like it had been toasted some time ago, and the parsley salad was kind of misguided or at the very least underdressed.

The mackerel started out disappointingly bland, but when combined with everything else on the plate it seemed to come into its own, and by the end of it I was enjoying it quite a bit. This dish reminded me very strongly of the cooking at St. John Bread and Wine, in fact.

The rhubarb jelly donuts? A tiny bit dry, but otherwise good.



Yes, the presentation was beyond what we're capable of under normal circumstances. Could I go into my kitchen tonight and make that Scotch egg? Not even close, no way. Could I possibly spend twice as long in the kitchen tonight and get my smoked eel tart to look like theirs? Maybe. Did I fully appreciate the difficulty in serving a perfectly-boned mackerel? Not really.

But while nothing was bad about the food, we immediately compared this experience to the pani puri and bhel from East Ham the other day. Is this just our bias towards Asian food rearing its head? Maybe. But while the braised beef was really really good, it was still just almost as good as someone else's braised beef that lives right down the street and doesn't charge me €20 for a plate of it.

I'm enjoying the Harwood meal more in retrospect than I did at the table, probably because my expectations are gone now. Walking through Fulham after the meal, the comparison that kept coming up was Marius in Amsterdam. Even though we've only eaten there once, I've seen nothing to contradict the impression we had of it: at Marius, there's no hurry, there's no concern on your part, and no sense that the kitchen is trying to impress you with anything, even though that's usually what it's doing despite itself. It's an extremely comfortable dining experience, and it all feels kind of predeterminedly natural and good.

OK. You get my point probably. Pictured below: warm smoked eel tart with rhubarb and horseradish cream; stout-braised beef cheeks with Herefordshire snails, smoked bone marrow on toast, parsley salad, and potato mash; stuffed mackerel with a sourdough crust, Isle of Wight tomatoes, greens, and horseradish; warm rhubarb jelly donuts with stem ginger and sour cream.

1 comment:

Klary Koopmans said...

very interesting observations. I've been thinking a lot about the whole 'dining out' experience, its purpose and effect. Looking forward to a real life discussion...