Places To Eat In Canterbury: Fordwich Arms, Fordwich
There is one food review in Canterbury I’ve purposely been waiting to do. The Fordwich Arms in (funnily enough) the little village of Fordwich, just outside the city used to be just a local boozer, so when it transformed into a fine dining establishment (they call themselves a gastropub, but I think it is more a restaurant) it ruffled a few local feathers, calling it too expensive etc., and not what the community wanted. It got lots of great write ups in the national press from London food critics who had either hopped on the train or who actually live locally (you’d be surprised how many big name food writers actually live in East Kent!), but I’d heard from quite a few people who are into their food who had been that it was a real, overpriced disappointment with surly service, corked wine and dishes that belonged back in the 2000’s.
Then, in the last round of awards the Michelin star arrived, and I started to hear from more of my foodie friends that the meal they’d had at the Fordwich Arms was one of the best they’d had in as long as they could remember. So, earlier in the month I finally booked a table and went for a Mummy-Daughter lunch. It turned out to be my best meal of 2019 so far, and I don’t see it being knocked off the top spot for quite some time.
There are a couple of menu choices. There is obviously the a la carte option, a three course (with three options per course) £35 set menu (I think this is incredible value), a short, 5 course tasting menu for £65 a head with a matching £65 wine pairing, and a full 8 course tasting menu for £85 a head, with a £85 a head wine paring. Okay, so it is not your local pub (and besides, for such a tiny village Fordwich does have another one!) and more a place you’d go to celebrate a special occasion, but it is possible to keep it affordable, which I think is fantastic if you look at the quality of the food, the extra bread and snacks that come to the table, the Michelin star (which is usually used as an excuse for sky high prices) and the fact there is a good value wine list to pair with your meal.
Once we had ordered, a few snacks arrived at the table in curious presentations. I liked the black pudding beignet with mustard cream, and the pickled cucumber in the smoked cream bite topped off with vibrant green Whitstable seaweed powder was beautifully bright and fresh. However, the best bite was the chalk stream trout, seasoned at the table on a Himalayan sea salt block and placed into a horseradish foam tartlet at the table – it was a nice piece of theatre, delicious, fresh and had a real whisper of freshness, perfect to start off the meal. These, along with my aperitif cocktail – a damson sour with slightly ashen rosemary that provided a real smokey aroma really set the tone for the rest of our meal.
Next, the bread and our wine arrived, as well as a few snacks we’d ordered off the main menu. First, a note on the wine: you could spend an awful lot on wine here, but I don’t think I’d ever been so impressed by the by-the-glass wine selection. As the designated driver, my Mum had a single glass of the house white – £5, a standard vintage provided by Berry Bros., it was lightly, bright, fresh and went with the food beautifully. I had two glasses, the cheapest on the list, the corresponding red also at £5, and a pricer, £14 glass of Saint-Émilion which I adored for it’s beautiful smokiness, but actually, I think you’re missing out not ordering the house wine.
Our bowl of smoked cod roe with garden vegetables (all perfectly prepared and perfectly crunchy) almost melted in your mouth, and we found ourselves wiping the bowl with the bread. The bread at the Fordwich arms is amazing – made from the chef’s mothers recipe it is still warm from the oven, and has that more-ish quality you get from only the best freshly baked loaf. It came with a perfect – but in our corner of Kent rather ubiquitous – quenelle of whipped butter, and a mouthwatering whipped pork fat, served with maple bacon pieces I just could not get enough of. Nothing will quite beat the marmite cream that comes with the bread at The Compasses Inn for me, but it blew the whipped duck fat I had at The Beacon the day afterwards, and the whipped dripping I’d at at The Duck Inn over Christmas clean out of the water.
I’m an oyster girl through and through, so when we decided to get a few snacks before our starters, I knew I had to order a pair. First I had a Whitstable rock oyster, which came with Tabasco and a classic vinegar shallot mignonette. It was the pure, clean, fresh taste of the sea, elevated by the deep, smokey taste of the Fordwich Arms’ own bottled Tabasco. The oysters here are truly excellent, and if they’re your thing, not something to be missed out on. For something a little different, I also got the poached oyster served with caviar, apple and a Kentish cider butter. To be honest, I saved it to last as I did not want to eat it it was so pretty but when I did it was fresh, light, creamy and buttery, and I think one of the best bites at the Fordwich Arms.
Believe it or not, we’d only just made it to our starters; after our snacks, we opted for the set menu. I’m still thinking about their impossibly smooth duck liver pate (more like foie gras in melting, mouthwatering texture) served with pickled onions, muscat grape, sauternes and a crock of warm, steaming savoury doughnuts for spreading. A truly incredible dish that I hope becomes a menu classic. However, if pate and doughnuts are not really your thing, I would have also happily demolished the chalk stream trout, delicately, gently and perfectly poached, served with a beautiful crust of roe, dill and radishes, and a generous dollop (served table side) of the most luxurious calamansi (it’s a type of citrus) hollandaise I’ve ever encountered.
If anything, our mains were even more impressive. I had the roast black-faced lamb with done so many ways, with some hibisi cabbage, Jerusalem artichoke, the most amazing pieces of crisp potato sandwiched with lightly herbed mash, and a salsa verde. I failed somewhat getting a picture of the smoke filled dome that arrived at the table, but you can see the aftermath video in my Instagram highlight from the meal as a piece of confit lamb skin, beautifully and delicately house smoked arrived alongside my plate. The roast lamb was impossibly tender, the pressed confit topped with crispy fried capers was full of in-your-face flavour, and the whole thing added up to one of the most impressing treatments of meat I’ve been served in this style.
My Mum’s hake, served with morels and another table side – this time a mushroom reduction – sauce also had her slightly lost for words with the flavours and presentation – I was particularly tickled by her little ‘on the side’ element – rather than my smoke dome, she was brought a tray of seaside shells and pebbles, with a (I think turmeric?) tempura piece of hake nestled among them, made to look like something that had washed up on the shore with the clever application of jellied details. It was all the details of our meal – from the attentive, flawless service, to the food that made lunch a truly memorable experience.
I ordered a glass of English Sparkling wine from nearby Gusbourne to go with dessert – it is one of my favourite Brut English sparkling wines, but they do have a rose from also nearby Simpson’s on the menu – they were kind enough to give me a try and while it was beautiful at first, as I suspected having stood among the recently planted vines and in the brand new winery not too long ago, I think it needs another year or two before it belongs on a wine list like this.
Our puddings – very similar in looks were the thing I was least enthusiastic about on the set menu – how could you not be tempted by the wild honey brûlée with brown butter, burnt orange and damson, or the Fordwich Arms Daim bar? – but when they arrived and I tasted them they were anything but a disappointment. Neither of us are big baked cheesecake fans – it is something about the curdy, almost grainy texture, but we both loved the gloriously smooth cheesecake, the crisp tartlet, the fruity middle and the wonderfully velvety bay leaf ice cream – a wonderful, curious and aromatic flavour I’ve been meaning to re-create at home ever since I first had it at The Good’s Shed, I think almost six or seven years ago now! It is just so beautifully unique.
The burnt caramel flavours of the brown sugar pavlova were reminiscent of a true Kentish gypsy tart (a true local great – go to The Duke William for a good one) with a beautiful light creme fraiche ice cream, and an incredible aroma of rosemary honey both peppering and lifting the dish.
The little, flavourful lemon sherbet jellies that came with our bill really rounded off the meal; I know I’ve posted way more pictures than I usually do for a restaurant and I know I’ve slipped back into gushy mode, but especially I think as I had built myself up to be a little less than impressed by the Fordwich Arms, I was simply blown away, and I can’t wait to go back. My mother commented that from the food to the wine and the service, it was a radically different Fordwich Arms than the one she had visited in the spring, so even if you’re local and you have already been, I urge you to book a table to discover why I think the Fordwich Arms is totally deserving of all of the (positive) song and dance that they’d had since they opened.