The White Hart, one of numerous dining pubs in Hertfordshire of that name, lives up to its name by virtue of a vast array of harts, white or otherwise, in pictures, a stuffed head, a lamp, statues and ornaments, even book ends. This being a McMullen pub, the brewery features largely among the ales on tap, but to their credit have allowed the tenants to provide their own website and take a very personal approach – though the harts on display are at least a minimal form of logo branding. Maybe this explains the naming conventions through this part of the world?
The pub does not look massively made over, and does look at least passably like a traditional English pub offering good beer, games, live music, a welcoming wood-burner, beamed walls, spurious artefacts and decor, eccentric furniture and eccentric locals (always a good sign.) That said, there is precious little evidence of corporate approaches to hospitality that ring false every time you try them.
So it was that there was little attempt to sell us more food or drink, enquiries made of our satisfaction were discreet, such that the experience seemed far less like a standardised, homogenised pub experience and more like sincere people who actually cared whether we had a good evening. Trust me, this is a pretty rare experience in pubs nowadays, since faux-sincerity is commonly hammered into staff in training programmes.
It was a good idea to book ahead since the place was crammed early evening on a Friday. As it was, a table for two was lodged tight against a vertical beam in the centre of the restaurant area, surrounded on all sides by further reserved tables. Not exactly the spot for dining unobtrusively, but at no point did the sound levels prevent conversation; I assume the beams provided sound insulation.
Since my phone was charging behind the bar for most of the dinner, so I took precious few shots of the environment, and only two of the grub, you’ll have to take my word on the food and drink. While I was waiting for my friend, an excellent pint of Invictus (described as American Spring Ale but more like IPA to my taste) was an excellent companion for perusing the main menu, comprising typical British pub grub and a few popularist odds and sods.
For example, alongside pie of the day, fish & chips, bangers & mash, liver & bacon and the like, you’ll find a fashionable fillet of sea bass, burgers with beef or for the veggies red pepper and halloumi, smoked chicken melt (hmmmm), king prawn spaghetti and veggie Wellington. On the starter menu salt and chilli squid (of which more shortly) tussled with belly pork and scallops, both hovering around the £6 mark. To my right, two vertically-mounted plates were served, one with lamb rump atop a brick of pommes dauphinoise, the other with what looked like the liver and bacon – though I may be wrong.
The the time came to order we were ready: one squid, one pork and scallops; one minted lamb pie, one short rib with marrowbone bread pudding, sweet potato mash and gravy. But before describing the dishes I will take a minute to return to the issue of portion sizes, long a cause of debate among restaurant cognoscenti and a previous blog in my collection (see here.)
Restaurant portions seem once again to be on the wane, while most pub grub menus vary depending where you go – and seem on the decline when pubs tilt at the gastropub market. At the White Hart it would appear McMullen decided to stick with the “traditional” pub grub market with generous portions, thus appealing perhaps to the older market, gluttons and those used to gargantuan American dinners.
Think I’m joking? The squid starter was on its own sufficient for a main course, with three flabby pieces of squid rolled up and pinned with cocktail sticks, where a Chinese version would be cut with care and served crispy. The lamb pie was truly vast, a serving for at least two even without vegetables. My short rib was not far short of a long rib, though being on the bone did mean it reduced in edible size once filleted. Being generous is good, though slightly less food with slightly reduced prices would probably fetch a more welcoming reaction from punters, and probably sell more desserts into the bargain.
So then, long on quantity but how was quality? My comments on the careless serving of the squid tell you that the kitchen could have done better with the raw materials, quite apart from reduction, but the pork and scallop starter, a bargain at £6, looked about spot on in volume and composition on the plate, augmented with small splodges of some pureed item I could not identify by flavour. The scallops, small and sweet, were well cooked and fine, though sadly the belly pork had not been cooked to render down the fat, nor was it served crispy, thus failing twice in one sitting.
My beef fared slightly better, giving every indication of slow cooking to the point of tenderness and falling from the bone, served with a lip-smackingly sticky gravy; quite why it was paired with sweet potato mash is not entirely clear, though the two seemed embarrassed to be on the same plate, as indeed did the announced “bread pudding” – which had the appearance of a flattened Yorkshire pudding but without evidence of the promised roast bone marrow.
The pie and veg overfaced my friend, who had barely eaten in the previous week. It was a beautifully constructed pie, one with masterly shortcrust pastry and well filled too, just way too much. Perhaps she should have asked for a doggy bag, but as it was ate less than half of the filling, less of the pastry and barely a third of the veg. What a waste, though she did also say she wished there was more gravy than the small jug provided.
A bill of £45 was not unreasonable though there were ample ways in which the finished results could have offered greater satisfaction. I’ll put it down to trying too hard rather than inability to make good food, but safe to say the White Hart is safely short of the gastropub threshold and will presumably continue to make what its regular clientele demands, regardless of what I think.