[Ad – we were invited for a complimentary meal at The Hatton Arms long before lockdown and coronavirus and all the chaos we are currently going through. Going to enjoy a free meal during the most challenging times for the hospitality industry wasn’t an easy decision and involved much discussion with the management at the Hatton Arms and quite a bit of soul-searching on my part. But eventually we all agreed together that we all hope by sharing this you will be tempted to visit once this is all over and help them recover from these horrible times]
Normally, if you visited a recently relaunched restaurant and found yourself one of just two tables in an echoing, empty dining room, you’d be worried. But nothing is normal now is it, and hasn’t been for what seems like a very long time.
Early in March, the Hatton Arms – a popular canalside pub just outside Warwick – relaunched after several weeks of closure. There was a soft launch, a big celebration party, and the joys of a revamped interior, new porch and brand new menu.
Then Covid-19 arrived and changed everything. What felt like five minutes after the Hatton Arms reopened, we were all advised to avoid bars, pubs and restaurants, plunging us into a limbo period that left many of us who champion local food and drink businesses in a bit of a moral dilemma.
Later on, they were forced to close in what weirdly was an almost welcome order from the government. But it was in the preceding limbo period that I visited the Hatton Arms. As I say above, it was a difficult call – especially given I was invited for a complimentary meal.
In fact, I tried to say we should pay. First when we arrived, then again after the meal. But the manager was determined that they should honour their original offer. Needless to say, we left a fairly large tip (something I wouldn’t usually talk about but I’m rather keen that you all know I do have a conscience).
Anyway, onto what you came here for. I’ve always quite like the interior at the Hatton Arms, but they’ve done a bloody good job with their revamp. It feels cosy yet chic, and while it has a lovely restaurant feel in some areas, there are plenty of cosy corners typical of a country up to snuggle up in with a quiet drink.
When it comes to the menu, someone somewhere has got their eye on what’s on-trend and important to diners these days. (Well, what was important before we all just started hankering for eating out in general). There is space dedicated to showing off the suppliers, from local butchers, egg suppliers and bakers and a proud reference to the venison being from the Wellesbourne Estate.
On top of this, there’s reference to seasonality – another thing we’re all looking for these days. When we visited, the ‘February and March’ reminders were that it was the end of the venison season, vegetables like cauliflower, leeks, sweet potatoes and parsnips, as well as crab and sea trout. A nice touch.
My mum and I are never very good at eating three full courses each, so we agreed on sharing a starter. While Devon crab and avocado toast tempted mum (not me, I can’t eat crab anymore after a food poisoning incident a few years ago), and I was drawn by some grilled South Coast mackerel, we opted for ‘Leeky Welsh rarebit’.
Perhaps it was the prospect of rich, sexy melted cheese or maybe the need for comfort in a time of horrible uncertainty – or maybe both – but it was exactly the right choice.
The melted cheese laced with leeks was smooth, savoury and tangy, draped over the sourdough toast like some kind of sexy lady of the night. Not too much, not too little, and heated on top until brown and slightly blistered, just as it should be.
For main course I went for pan-roasted sea trout fillet, not only drawn by a fish that I think appears far too rarely on menus, but the prospect of a spinach and samphire risotto and and a lobster butter sauce.
This kind of dish is right up my street. Simple yet with a bit of ambition and executed brilliantly. Fish cooked well, the skin crisped up to perfection, the flesh flaky yet not dry. The risotto was delicate and fragrant, its texture also just right, while the silky sauce was light, fresh, but with that hint of indulgence and taste of the sea that served to bring the whole dish together.
From the minute we sat down and saw the menu, I knew my mum would choose venison. It’s one of her faves and I think the provenance boast of it being local made it even more appealing. The grilled haunch was pretty darn good, judging by the way her eyes popped out of her head. I’m told the sweetness of the beetroot jam was a good counter-balance for the gamey meat and jus.
But a surprise star of the plate was the root veg dauphinoise. A riff on the classic, it was refreshingly different from the norm (I tried it to check) and added a touch more sweetness as well as a bit of complexity that you wouldn’t get with a plain potato version.
In case you were wondering, there’s a rather nice wine list on offer which I could quite happily have roared my way through but was driving, so we shared a small glass of red and pretended we didn’t want more.
My mum may be disciplined, but she’s not one to miss dessert. She went for the seasonal crumble which was apple and apricot. It was enormous and came with its own jug of custard. The verdict was that it was good, but its crumble topping was crunchier than you might expect.
It turns out it’s gluten free, which changes the consistency slightly, and I completely understand why this is a good call as it saves you cooking two separate crumbles, but if you prefer yours a bit softer it might not be your favourite crumble ever. That said, this is completely a preference thing. I know plenty of people who love a crunchy crumble.
In all honesty, I guess our meal at the Hatton Arms was bittersweet. The food was great – and let’s remember we went at a time fraught with uncertainty not only for those who behind the scenes, but for the people who cooked for us, who served us, and who did so without a hint of waning enthusiasm or love for what they do.
Our welcome could well have been lacklustre, as could our food, and who could blame people who had no idea whether they’d have a job in a few months, weeks or even days. Yet it’s testament to the team at the Hatton Arms that the food was bang on in both taste and presentation and was served by staff whose resilience, calmness and positivity shone through.
If an empty restaurant is heartbreaking for a diner, imagine how it must feel for a waitress or waiter, or a chef. Yet these guys styled it out and did what they do with pure professionalism. It’s for that reason that I’ll never forget that night at the Hatton Arms.