This would be as Kentish as you get – eating at a Shepherd Neame pub on the south side of the Dartford Crossing one sunny evening. The Wharf is not gastropub territory, but is a perfectly pleasant modern pub set in a good location. It’s a light and airy place, walks festooned with pictures of old Kent and the SN brewery, before smallish breweries found competing with the big boys unprofitable and chose instead to get into the hospitality industry – which means they keep a close eye on one another and maximise revenues by offering as many services as their outlets will sensibly permit. SN’s website says this of The Wharf:
“The Wharf is a modern, spacious, family-friendly pub with a restaurant, carvery and bar where customers can enjoy stunning views over Cotton Lake, in the heart of Dartford’s new Crossways area. The well-kept patio and garden includes a children’s play area and the pub is near the Crossways Nature Walk, an indoor bowling centre and Bluewater shopping centre. A good selection of specially-selected wines is available and Kentish cask ales are served at their best, with the Wharf a recent winner of the brewery’s prestigious Beer in Glass Award for pouring the perfect pint.”
And to up the ante still further, two customers are quoted thus:
“Fantastic service, food and scenery. Friendly staff and good quality for money…would recommend to family and friends. 10 out of 10.” Louise
“Very impressed. Lovely views. Lovely carvery and very pleasant staff. Will definitely be visiting again.” Jo
Presented with an acceptably short menu, I started by ordering a pint of Whitstable Bay pale ale and perusing the options. Definitely erring towards the pub grub but a few variables to stand out – very marginally – from the crowd. Naturally the item I chose was the one the computer system announced was out of stock, but a quiet word between barmaid (if that’s what you call them nowadays) and kitchen found another portion of “slow roast belly pork with parsnip and potato cake, braised red cabbage and confit of fennel and roasted apple.” The title pushes plenty of fashionable buttons, but since I’ve written before about the temptations and risks of jumping on the belly pork bandwagon this also means the dish will come under close scrutiny as an easy means of comparison against other similar venues – which I would suggest is a very good reason for serving something more original.
As delivered, this was a round of solid porky mass encased in skin, vertically mounted above the potato cake and some fennel, as is the current vogue, surrounded by sliced leaves of red cabbage and half a baked apple, core in – which is unnecessary and annoying.
However, here is the crux of this dish: the point about slow roasting is that the meat should be rendered to a state of unctuous succulent tenderness, such that it practically falls apart on the fork. This was less than gratuitously tenderised, suggesting a cooking time on the quick side of slow, also far dryer than you would hope. More than this, what is the point of serving pig skin around the meat unless you are going to crisp it up into that most wonderful of British charcuterie inventions, crackling? A lost opportunity, to be sure.
As for the remainder, the potato cake seemed soggy and not the fresh, crisp confection I had anticipated. The red cabbage was moderate but not a patch on my own version of the same side dish, and the roasted apple was decidedly al dente. The elephant in the room was a decent pork jus. There was a small film of juice at the bottom of the plate, but not enough to prevent the dish from appearing dry, all the more critical when the pork cried out for moisture.
So, not an entirely happy experience for £12.95, and judging by the photo of poorly fried fish and anaemic chips (see above), neither did that live up to expectations. SN may have scored a hit with the ambience of their pub and the fine Kentish ales, but unlike Jo and Louise I’d suggest they work harder to give a really standout dining experience to match the decor.
PS. For comparison, I cooked slow-roast belly pork a couple of days later. It was moist and tender inside, crisp outside, and beautifully rendered. A joy! 🙂