Restaurant Review: The White Hart, Welwyn

Very cosy and very English - the historic White Hart in Welwyn makes an impression on food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne

The White Hart Restaurant & Bar2 Prospect Place, Welwyn AL6 9EN 01438

THERE is a pleasant family feel about The White Hart in Welwyn, which is exactly as it should be, since it's a family business. General manager Piers Lyon meets me at the door in casual shirt and slacks. Until he introduces himself, I mistake him for a guest - it's that sort of place.

Among other outlets, the message has sunk in with the Michelin Guide 2008, which grants the White Hart an unusually long entry commenting approvingly on a 'family-run converted 17th century inn with snug bar'. The notoriously terse guide goes on to wax enthusiastic about the 'charming dining room with impressive high ceiling' and 'traditional English food'. No wonder Piers seems happy.

The property, which as well as the bar and dining room boasts a 13-bedroom hotel operation, is part of the Punch Taverns portfolio and managed by Piers and his parents. They took over in September 2004, ran it until the following January, then closed for almost six months for refurbishment, reopening in June 2005. A further refurbishment of the bar and restaurant followed in June last year.

The Lyons live at Old Knebworth, just down the road, and Piers' opinion of the importance of the local connection peppers our conversation.

That goes particularly for the food - the White Hart website boasts that the property offers 'simply the best food for miles without the food miles!' and Piers is happy to expand on the philosophy, listing his suppliers with some relish. Prominent among them are the ubiquitous Bridget B's Traditional Meats from Watton-at-Stone and Food Smiles, of Westmill Farm near Ware, and G Dollimore of St Albans, both of which supply fruit and vegetables. Fish comes direct from a supplier with a stall at Billingsgate Market - and, Piers adds, 'mum and dad have a quarter acre garden at Old Knebworth, so they bring stuff in too'.

Putting it all together are head chef Mark Sharples and his team of three full-timers and one part-timer, who between them produce an array of dishes to keep a large seasonal a la carte menu and a table d'hote list running. The a la carte changes about every three months, although there are weekly specials, and there is a new table d'hote offer every fortnight, so it's a busy regime for Mark, who arrived at the White Hart just over a year ago having worked at the Atrium in London and then Brocket Hall.

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The sample two-course table d'hote menu (�11.95) on the day I was there included blackened mackerel fillet with caramelised apple, beetroot and watercress among the three starters and Thai-style chicken breast with stir fried pak choi and sesame noodles among the three mains - all very tempting.

Piers, however, is anxious for me to try the bar and restaurant table d'hote offerings, broken down into 10 'smaller dishes', available as starters or mains, and 10 'larger dishes', which are all mains. There is some intriguing stuff here, including, on the first list, smoked haddock and champ fishcake with sauce verte and baby spinach (�6.25 as a starter, �9.50 as a main). Another highlight is lightly spiced seared scallops with crushed peas and mint, Parma ham and a raisin and caper dressing (�9.75/�14.50).

This being lunch rather than dinner, however, I keep it simple with twice-baked goat's cheese souffl� with apple and walnut salad as a starter and Suffolk duck hash with fried hen's egg, rocket and balsamic as a main. It's all very English and just right for the day - just as Piers (and mum and dad) would have it.

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