Food review: The Fordwich Arms

Open log fires at either end of the welcoming front bar

Open log fires at either end of the welcoming front bar - Credit: Archant

New young owners have transformed The Fordwich Arms and are turning it into a foodie destination to rival Kent’s finest

The handsome pub is opposite the tiny Town Hall

The handsome pub is opposite the tiny Town Hall - Credit: Archant

If you thought policemen were getting younger just wait until you meet the trio now running The Fordwich Arms, which nestles by the River Stour in the UK’s smallest town.

Daniel Smith, 26 with fiancée Tash Norton, 25 and business partner Guy Palmer-Brown, 30 have transformed a rather old-fashioned, traditional pub into something already extraordinary.

Financed entirely by themselves, sheer hard work and talent has brought them this far and their maturity and confidence reminds you that their working lives began when they were just 16.

Award-winning chef Dan took over from long-serving landlords Sue and Shaun Donnelly after their retirement last November, reopened in early December after a thoughtful refurbishment and has introduced his own style of fine dining that showcases the best of east Kent produce.

Food at The Fordwich Arms

Food at The Fordwich Arms - Credit: Archant

Expect such delights as Stour Valley pheasant dumplings in a roasted onion and herb broth, Chart Farm Sika venison and smoked Park Wood farm trout with cockles. Yes, it costs more than the jacket potatoes and bar sandwiches that characterised the old menu, but this is quality fine dining in what remains a quintessentially English pub – and everything is freshly made. As Dan tells me: “We break down whole animals, cure our own meats, churn our own butter and bake our own bread.”

The decor is as fresh as the food and far from destroying the character of the original pub, which burnt down in 1930 and was rebuilt four years later, it has been restored and enhanced.

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All the original furniture has been retained, but the wood-panelled dining room has had its carpet removed to reveal stunning English oak floorboards. Similarly, when the layers of polish over the years that had turned the bar floor black were cleaned up, there lay beautiful maple parquet flooring. What’s not to love?

The open fires at both ends of the bar are now fully functional (and eat up three tons of logs a week), the moss green banquettes are firm but comfy and a mix of original paintings by Guy’s sister and old prints of Fordwich adorn the plain walls. “If we’d have wanted to buy a restaurant we would have done so, but we wanted a pub with character that could be a social hub where people could come and have a drink and a chat at the bar, bring their dog and feel at home,” says Dan.

[Chef column - no caption]

[Chef column - no caption] - Credit: Archant

And sitting in my corner spot, eavesdropping on a mature couple on the opposite side of the bar, who start off unsure about the menu but end up positively purring (“this is probably the nicest meal out I’ve ever had”, said one) I couldn’t have felt more relaxed and at home.

Even the laid-back background music is spot on: Dan’s own playlist, it ranges from Amy Winehouse to Otis Redding via the Kaiser Chiefs and the Kinks.

Time to stop chatting to lovely Dawn behind the bar, who worked for the previous owners for 23 years and loves the changes, and concentrate on the nicely concise menu: five starters and mains, four puds and a cheese course.

Mind made up, the treats begin (everyone gets them, not just the food critics): Irish treacle bread made from one of Dan’s old family recipes, a sweet onion chutney steeped in Master Brew, oak-smoked cod’s roe dusted with local seaweed, a tiny tartlet served on a bed of seeds in a hand-carved box, like a precious shell lying on a beach.

Dan brings out my starter of local crab with pickled cucumber and brown crab (he likes to serve customers as much as possible) and I experienced an immediate heady hit of sea freshness.

Zingily tangy with a hint of soft cheese, the freshest of crab meat topped with the thinnest circles of radish and micro sea herbs, it was heavenly. A recommendation of a 2016 Keller Riesling from Guy, who was head sommelier at the Michelin-starred Clove Club in Shoreditch, where he and Dan first met, delivered the perfect sharpness and lightness to accompany.

To follow I had the roast Stour Valley mallard, so fresh it had practically flown in from the river outside. Lightly smoked on thyme-laced hay in a copper saucepan, part of a set Dan bought in a French antiques market, it cut like a dream and the accompanying parsnips cooked to fudgy perfection and pickled pear really added to the exceptional flavour combinations. Guy’s wine choice – a bright, racy Bourgogne from Domaine Bachelet-Monnot – was an excellent match.

Tash brought out her own creation and if Dan wasn’t going to marry her, I would have proposed: caramelised white chocolate parfait with a hazelnut crumb, a blackberries and a granita made with Dockyard Gin (the house gin). Not too sweet and with the ice-cold granita and fruit adding a brilliant contrast of taste and texture, I could have licked the bowl clean.

I left as the Friday afternoon drinkers started drifting in, greeted by name and all looking as at home as the diners, like me, still lingering on. But I’ll be back when the wisteria is out and the riverside terrace and beer garden are perfect for al fresco dining. An exciting newcomer to watch with keen interest.

The essentials

What: stylish, unpretentious riverside pub

Where: King Street, Forwich, nr Canterbury CT2 0DB, 01227 710444,

When: Mon-Sat 12pm-11pm, Sun 12pm-10.30pm

How much: local crab with pickled cucumber £9, venison with plum, pumpkin and braised shoulder crumble £18, puds £7-£8, set menu £35 for three courses

Meet the chef

Name: Daniel Smith

Job title: Owner and head chef

Tell us a bit about you

I started cooking when I was 16, having always known I wanted to be a chef from as long as I could remember. It is an incredibly satisfying job that always allows you to be creative. It’s also very challenging, but incredibly rewarding.

We took over The Fordwich Arms in November of last year, reopened after two weeks of renovations and haven’t looked back. The thing I love about starting your own venture is that no two days are ever the same.

Your key suppliers?

Chart Farm in Sevenoaks, where Seb produces the best venison around and Stour Valley Game, for the best-quality game birds – you couldn’t get any more local.

Your signature dish?

My Stour Valley pheasant dumplings; we are surrounded by so much amazing produce at the pub, one of which is game coming from the Stour Valley. I get whole pheasants and use every part of the birds in this dish, we make dumplings from the meat and a highly aromatic consommé from the bones; it’s a real celebration of a very underrated ingredient.

Top cookery tip?

Recipes are only a guideline, you must use your initiative when cooking. Source the best ingredients you can and don’t over overcomplicate things.

Who has influenced you most?

My mum, she’s a great cook.

Must-have kitchen gadget?

My control induction stove, it’s built in Kent and I don’t think I could live without it.

Who would you love to cook for?

Anthony Bourdain.

Breakfast this morning?

A slice of our home-made soda bread with our own butter.