When my esteemed, ravenous friend Tom Parker Bowles declared in 2018 that it was goodbye to the “pie-and-pint nights, baked potatoes and lunchtime baps” of the old Fordwich Arms pub, for a change of direction with new “fancy food and hifalutin’ wine lists,” he couldn’t have been more accurate. But then again, he is so often right, the first in line, the first in the know.
The team at The Fordwich Arms has used those intervening years wisely, receiving fluttery critical worship and achieving a Michelin-star. It is now a proper, bonafide dining destination – a place worth travelling to, despite its hidden location in the smallest town in England, somewhere south of Whitstable, north of Dover, but not quite Canterbury centre. If you hit Littlebourne, you’ve gone too far.
Battling Covid, multiple lockdowns and a birthday migraine, I was determined not to leave it any longer, so that natal weekend, I schlepped across Kent for dinner with my mother. We parked in the pub car park, then spent half an hour or so exploring the town, nosing through the windows of private homes and envying the lives of the rich. Growing up in Kent, I have an olden-village node that feeds sentimental Chaucerian Garden of England twaddle into my mead, and this is about as pastoral England as it gets. Meandering along the River Stour, passerby’s greeting with a friendly nod, the criss-cross oaks of the 15th-century town hall and the red-brick pub itself draped in ivy. Then inside for grub. Not pub grub. This is far more austere.
Such swishing offerings are not all that unusual around here, with several boozers rising to fine dining status, although the proprietor and chef Dan Smith (pictured top) references The Sportsman, ten miles or so to the northeast, as his primary inspiration. So many of the capital’s pubs serving food are overhyped anyway, overdecorated rooms full of crass folk in suits who don’t care what they’re eating as long as it comes with chips. For Dan, that wasn’t good enough. His personal tastes aligned with his teachings, so he took those years working under Isaac McHale at The Clove Club and with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Natasha, uprooted to Kent, where he quickly established his own vernacular, rooted in local.
Seated in the mahogany-panelled dining room, Mum and I shared that awkward stand-off, the deliberation of à la carte or tasting menu. We eventually agreed that the five-course taster (six-course with a hefty £30 supplement for langoustine, which we opted out from) was, for a pretty punchy £85, a worthy culinary spin for such a celebratory occasion and kicked things off with a glass of local Gusbourne bubbly rosé. Then a trio of amuse-bouches, dainty delights like teensy mackerel tartlets with minute dabs of green garden purée, and jamon croquettes and foie gras cigars in a flip-top cigar box – all outstanding little teasers for what was to follow.
I could bathe in this stuff and have the waitress lick me clean
Handmade bread is a course in its own right and has my mum snatching for the basket and going all rapacious Hulk, strewing great silky swaths of butter across magnificent nutty sourdough and consuming it as if a dare. I had my fill of the pork fat whipped with Marmite and maple and topped with crumbs of sweetened bacon, which is just as sexy as it sounds. I could bathe in this stuff and have the waitress lick me clean, except that I’m too afraid to ask.
Other courses I recognised from social media and past reviewers, menu staples that have remained since the early days, Marina O’Loughlin writing back in 2018 about the “light and pungent” duck liver parfait and “completely brilliant” warm, fluffy doughnuts. And they are, both brilliant and fluffy, puffs of airy dough that I’m told took an age for the kitchen to master and that melt and mould and become one with the spreadable parfait. I like that the kitchen struggled before prevailing; it shows commitment and skilled artificers rather than merely backroom nose-pickers and assemblers.
A cut of outstanding monkfish is roasted then finished over applewood on the barbecue, the skin cooked to that unique place between gelatinous and crisp, which has us both rhapsodising. It takes skill to cook a moist fish like monkfish and get it right. And rose-pink venison saddle from nearby Chart Farm in Sevenoaks is served with a jolting beetroot caramel. The dish lacks greens, even wilted, but there’s a single circular carrot and a shallot petal dabbed with rich bursts of beer vinegar and blackcurrant. A fantastic cut of fillet and a braised shoulder accompanies, but the globular dollop of fleshy bone marrow atop was unnecessary.
I’m excited about dessert – my birthday. Plus, I had heard about their witty take on a Daim bar ice cream. That chocolate bar has now been replaced by a cold Snickers concealing a caramelised white chocolate, salted caramel and hazelnut parfait, crowned with candied peanuts and flakes of rather preposterous gold leaf, to appease Michelin, one suspects. Cracking the milk chocolate casing takes some force, and I wonder, had it been left to cool to room temperature, then less aggression would be needed. My perseverance is rewarded, however, with a sweet, cooling centre. Mum says that it’s the best dessert she’s ever had.
Staff are all brilliant. Young, professional and enthusiastic. Olivia is great, tip-toeing between tables without interruption, but pleased to engage and inform when I begin picking away with questions. Settling the bill, more treats arrive, like homemade cubes of blackcurrant pâte de fruit that evoke the sourish sweeties of my childhood and salted caramel truffles on sticks. Mum sighs a defeatist sigh, the bread having caught up with her. Instead, she sneaks the choccy orb into her handbag for later. Of course, it doesn’t make it home. It’s a muggy September evening, and the results are disastrous, her belongings hideously besmeared and befouled. I eat mine forthwith, not prepared for my birthday to end but impatient for any extra Fordwich goodies I can get. C
The Fordwich Arms, King St, Fordwich, Canterbury CT2 0DB
01227 710444; fordwicharms.co.uk