Dinner At: The Alford Arms, Frithsden
PUBLISHED: 07:53 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 07:53 03 February 2015
Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne braves the wintry back roads to sample a much-lauded country pub
Hoping for a table for dinner on a wintry Wednesday, you don’t expect to be told the place in mind is ‘choc-a-bloc’, even more so when the restaurant being courted is in the middle of the countryside. But this is the Alford Arms, whose ability to pack ’em in during what others might consider a slow midweek is notable. As it happens, I’m in luck – there has been a cancellation, so my deadline is safe and I am graciously allowed to make my booking.
Those in the business will recognise this as the reigning Hertfordshire dining pub of the year, as awarded by the 2015 Good Pub Guide. It is the 10th time since 2003 that the Alford Arms has been handed the honour, while parent company Salisbury Pubs was named pub group of the year in the 2014 guide. The place boasts a string of other awards, which might account for its enduring popularity, as might its location on the edge of the Ashridge Forest between Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted. In my case, in winter and faced with narrow country lanes in the pitch dark, it was more a case of being attracted by the menu, which shows the sort of inventive touches that gladden a critic’s heart.
Among the starters, here called Small Plates (the mains are Big Plates), I spot seared pigeon breast with Waldorf salad, or potted Devon crab with Bloody Mary jelly, not to mention bubble and squeak with poached egg and bacon and Hollandaise sauce. Mains feature slow-cooked beef cheeks with horseradish mash, or free-range sausages of the day, or the prospect (though not on the day of my visit) of pan-roast venison haunch with red cabbage, new potatoes and juniper jus. There are also specials of the day, from which my companion chose a starter of Devonshire Thai crab cake with chilli and coriander aioli (£8.50), meaty and tangy and generally satisfying. With a solid main course to come, I chose a lighter option of twice-baked celeriac soufflé with goat’s cheese from Wobbly Bottom farm and watercress sauce (top right, £6.50). It proved to have near-perfect texture but little of the celery flavour I expected, though still a refreshing beginning to the meal.
My fellow critic plundered the specials again for her main course, a good-looking char-grilled pork loin steak with honey-mustard carrots, mini-roast potatoes (rather than the advertised mash) and thyme jus (£14.75). Previous misgivings about the amount of fat such dishes often come with were set aside; this was properly prepared and apparently went down a treat. With the venison unavailable, my choice was almost a foregone conclusion – a roast partridge (£17.75), but with the intriguing touch of being served with an harissa marinade, Moroccan chickpea tagine and mint yogurt. This was a new combination to me but worked well, with the peppers and spices giving an effervescent lift to the meat. A shared side dish of courgette fries (£3.75) was enjoyable if not exactly compatible.
Suitably impressed so far, we decided to try dessert, a decision helped by the presence on the menu of spotted dick with citrus custard (£5.75). It was about what was expected but completely outshone by the choice across the table, a clove crème caramel with muscat-soaked raisins and popping candy tuille (above, £5.50) which is now on the record as the best crème caramel my companion has ever tasted, a verdict that delighted our server and several other people within earshot.
Comfortable and informal, the Alford Arms lived up to its record on this occasion. It’s a good bet for an evening out and it knows it, as shown by the general quiet confidence and cheerful and efficient service, not to mention the flowery language on the website. This was a pleasant all-round experience – even with Hertfordshire’s dark country lanes to contend with.
The cost of this dinner for two with one glass of wine and one soft drink was £81 including service.
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