The White Hart, Welwyn
Oh hello, The White Hart, I'm sorry it's taken me so long!
Reviewing The White Hart gave me the feeling that I was living a parable or an inspirational quote, something along the lines of travelling the world in search of riches, only to find that the greatest thing is actually buried close to your doorstep. The truth? I live in Welwyn village and have never eaten at The White Hart. Shame on me. But it’s never too late. And, happy days, not one, but two friends are coming along with me. Mary, who I’ve been friends with since nursery (in Victorian times) and who now lives in Welwyn Garden City, and Natasha, who I met when working in a design consultancy (again, years ago), who was good enough to leave Walthamstow Village for the evening to join us (and was amazed at the speedy rocket train – first stop Welwyn North). We’re all set for a catchy-uppy summer evening with old friends and discoveries new.
I know I’ve called it Welwyn Village, but the local historian, Tony Rook, would correct me. The village is actually Welwyn, and Welwyn Garden City is the new(er) bit that came much later. I often see people with guide books pottering around the village at the weekend because there are loads of interesting bits to discover and admire. There’s now a heritage trail that can guide you if it’s your first visit, and of course for daytime visitors, the Roman Baths are over the road. They were discovered while the A1 was being built and archeologists were in a race against time with their brushes and whatever sophisticated tools archeologists use before the bulldozers and diggers moved in. And while it’s tiny compared to St Albans, the baths are definitely worth a visit. At the end of the village we are blessed with the wildlife area Singlers Marsh, complete with Welwyn’s Mimram river – a chalk stream – where there were some splendid long horned cattle that I haven’t actually seen for a while. But you should go and have a wander – it’s beautiful in all seasons.
The White Hart dates back to 1681 and it was Welwyn’s main coaching inn. It was a popular overnight stop for travellers going north from London and at one point it offered fourteen beds for humans and stabling for thirty four horses. It was equipped to manage eighty teams of coach horses per day! It was also home to the village courtroom. This is where the petty sessions were held, when misdemeanours may have included theft and assault and, ironically, drunkenness. Last year, James Bainbridge and his brother Tom took over The White Hart and they have refurbished it brilliantly. The courtroom is now the function room and while there is no longer stabling, there is a handy car park, and there are also thirteen bedrooms, including three boutique rooms. Four of the rooms are in the former stables and nine are in the main house. All of the bathrooms are currently being refurbished to boutique hotel standards. James has many years of experience gained at The Fat Duck, and he and Tom also own The Tilbury in nearby Datchworth where Tom Bainbridge is the chef. From the minute you walk through the substantial main door of The White Hart, you can feel the history, yet the design is contemporary and the refurbishment is thoughtful and has a light touch. It just feels right.
The White Hart is a pub, but we ate in the restaurant, and oh my, this is proper restaurant food. Every mouthful was greeted with a joy and one of the comments was ‘seriously scrummy’. There was some doubling up with ordering – hence the review of two dishes for each course. For starters, I went for crispy hake with steamed buns with a spicy slaw and it came with the tangiest of dipping sauces. Together the sweet and sour flavours and crisp and soft textures worked like a dream and I have to confess that I thought about these buns for at least three days afterwards. The hake buns would be the perfect bar snack, and they are on the bar snack menu, of which more later. The other starter was sea bass carpaccio with asparagus, confit tomato and a lime and soy dressing. Again, it was impressive. It looked great and tasted better.
A word about the drinks. The White Hart is gaining a name for itself as the place for Friday night cocktails. With this in mind, and taking the advice of the wonderful Martha, I ordered a Pinkster G&T. This is made with local Pinkster gin, elderflower tonic and freeze dried raspberries. My dining companions were totally stunned by the service and Martha’s knowledge about the menu. Whether it was wine recommendations or discussion about ingredients, she knew her stuff and it was a delight to enjoy such natural and intelligent service. As Natasha pointed out, being looked after by someone who has a genuine interest and passion for what they do is a rare and beautiful thing.
For the main course, Natasha and I had lamb neck fillet, goats cheese and lamb croquettes, with pea puree and sweet breads. I wasn’t sure about lamb on a warm summery evening, but this dish was light as a feather yet with intense flavours and perfectly cooked. All the meat at The White Hart comes from the award-winning and much admired Bridget B’s in Watton, a finalist in the Muddy Awards for Best Local Producer. At this point, Mary revealed that she’d had breakfast more than once at The White Hart and that she loves it and the coffee is amazing. Again I wondered why I’ve been going much further afield when such excellence is right on my doorstep.
Mary had sea trout and samphire with new potatoes, brown shrimp and sauce vierge. She declared it excellent. We then had a group discussion about the food. We all admitted that we were surprised to find such creative and contemporary restaurant-y food in a pub that is, on the outside, pretty traditional. Natasha said again that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d enjoyed service from a team that are clearly so passionate about what they are offering and how the answers to our questions were completely natural and interesting and informative. Martha’s approach and knowledge was shared by the whole team and clearly reflects the passion and professionalism of the Bainbridge brothers who I will be interviewing later this year.
Would we like puddings? Absolutely. Mary was in raptures with her strawberry parfait, basil and pepper meringue. This led me to share one of the old stories of when I was an au-pair in Brussels, and in summer strawberries were always served with black pepper. Try it and you’ll see. I tasted the parfait and meringue, and oh my goodness, it was yummy. Natasha had a very modest vanilla ice cream from the brilliant Dawlicious in Hertford Heath, and I reluctantly agreed to share bits of my honeycomb – it was amazing! – but was less generous with the lemon posset and shortbread. Again, the contrasting texture – unctuous posset and the crumbly rubble of the shortbread, combined with the tang of the lemon curd and slightly smokey honeycomb was memorable, moreish and very much appreciated. The puddings, as with all the courses, were inventive and an absolute pleasure to eat. Reeling from the deliciousness of it all, and having had more than our fair share of gin and wine, we hunkered down with mint tea and luxuriated in having time to spend together, saying that the whole experience had been delightful and had felt quite distinct and special.
We were there in the evening and on a school night, so there was only one younger diner eating with his parents. While there is no doubt that guests young and old would delight in the service and food, we thought that perhaps the restaurant menu might be too fancy for very young children. There is of course a children’s menu, and for some children, the bar snacks would be right up their street. We agreed that overall, the atmosphere is perfect for all ages and that during the daytime it would be perfect for families with young children and babies. The layout is great and there is loads of space. And the atmosphere is so warm and welcoming that you relax immediately.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Anyone who wants something a little bit special and inventive, and who appreciates excellent service and an experience that feels fresh and individual. This is creative and contemporary delicious food in a relaxed environment that has a few stories to tell. Gin drinkers. The gin list is impressive and extensive. Also good if you’re travelling from another part of the county – or even from another county! – is the fact that you can stay the night. And at £125 for two people for dinner, bed and breakfast, what are you waiting for?
Not for: People in a hurry. This isn’t to say that service couldn’t be speedy if that’s what you need, and of course you can eat in the bar, but we felt that the cooking and presentation and whole experience is so nurturing and thoughtful that it’s worth savouring.
This is proper food and the prices reflect the quality of the ingredients and care that has gone into preparing them. Starters begin at £7 and the most expensive was £9 for the sea bass carpaccio. Mains start at: £13.50 for fish and chips and lamb neck fillet with all the gubbins is £20.00. The bar menu is excellent. Equally inventive, and I will definitely be going back soon to try some of the things on it – although I might have to start with crispy hake steamed buns! In the bar you could also have dusted squid with sweet chilli sauce (£5.50), soft shell crab slider with crab burger sauce (£8.00) or battered halloumi and chips with mushy peas (£13.50). And there’s loads more to choose from. On Friday and Saturday evenings, cocktails are only £5 from 5-7pm. Puddings are all £6.
The White Hart, 2 Prospect Place, Welwyn AL6 9EN 01438 715353