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Table Talk with AA Gill: Hart’s, Nottingham

By January 2nd, 2011News

This weekend AA Gill from the Sunday Times has given Hart’s Restaurant 4 stars for food and 4 stars for atmosphere following his recent visit to us for Sunday lunch.  He says that ‘The first thing you notice about the menu is that, from top to bottom, it’s really edible.

Not just edible, but moreish.  And second, it’s absurdly cheap.’   He says that his main course of ‘sea bass with mushroom gnocchi, leeks and a port reduction  was brave and well made….  Best of all was the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish hollandaise.  Smart, authentic, but special for a Sunday lunch off a set menu of 3 courses for £23.’  Finishing by saying that ‘Hart’s is a commendably accomplished dining room: it is, as the Michelin guide used to say, worth the detour.’

Correction: The article below referred to Nottingham’s as having a history of high violent crime records, whereas in fact the city’s crime rate fell by 50% from 2002-3 to the year ending in February, and the city was ranked 25th in Home Office figures for violence against the person in 2009-10.

Because of the syncopated schedule of Christmas, I’m not quite sure when you’re going to read this. Maybe there’s been a sudden heat wave and the airports are all closed due to melting tarmac. Maybe there’s a hosepipe ban and skin-cancer warnings.

Or, alternatively, you’re still holed up in the kitchen, rubbing lard on the kids, while outside, across the murderous tundra, wolves howl and Richard Branson is busy opening an ice hotel down in Penzance.
I’m assuming it’s still snowing, so I’m going to write about snow. Cast your mind back. Remember when the snow first came, and it was “ahhhh” and magical and Dickensian, and the papers were full of pictures of frosted Stourhead and robins. That was the first media ice age.

After that came the heroic ice age: postmen struggling through drifts to take hot toddies to pensioners; people getting to work by sledge and sleigh.

Then came the third ice age: the dark ice age, when we returned to the 9th century, the country became a terrifying place, the snow was like Viking raids, the known world shrank into legend as communications faltered and civilisations dwindled to a guttering candle, surrounded by the bleak, deep fear and frozen corpses in the hedgerows.

The final media ice age is when David Davis gets up and says: “Enough is enough. The country can’t take any more of this foreign weather. Is anyone keeping count of how many snowflakes have arrived illegally, and why can’t we shovel it back to Brussels?” And Vince Cable asks why we have to pay for the economic incompetence of the weather? Isn’t it time the government levied a windfall tax on the wind? And Boris Johnson points out that if we tax the winter, then it will be made glorious summer by the sun in New York.

I want you to remember when the snow was fresh and wonderful, and snowmen were a smiley joy for the kiddies and not the markers of unburied motorists. I was up by Whitby, on the edge of the North York Moors, shooting. This is the most wildly wonderful bit of England: iced and sound-muffled, with the dogs bounding through drifts, bright pheasants in the blood-speckled snow.

It was like walking through a Bruegel. Have you noticed all the analogies for winter landscapes come from art? Caspar David Friedrich, Beatrix Potter, Ansell Adams, postcards and calendars. It’s as if the art came first and the snow is mimicking pictures: Oscar Wilde always said nature copied art.

I’d cadged a lift back to London with my film-mogul friend Emeric, who had been lent a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost on appro. He was with his son, Jake, a keen cook, and Allegra, who wanted to be a journalist, and was young and fresh enough to think I might know something about it, which pathetically turned me into a smarmy Terry-Thomas caricature of Rod Liddle.

Never wanting to miss an opportunity to sample the victuals of England, I suggested we stop for lunch and asked the office to find somewhere to eat between Pickering and London. My only stipulation was that it came with more than one piece of cutlery and had a roof. For all of you who write furious, expert letters to me and the editor about the wealth of excellent indigenous food to be found in England, well, let me tell you: it took the best part of a day to find a single decent dining room in more than half of Britain. And if you think you know better, bring it on. (By the way, it was Sunday. It has to be open for Sunday lunch.)

Hart's Restaurant booths set for Sunday Lunch

Spotlights hit the tables inside the bar at Hart’s in Nottingham (Handout)

Finally, we got a table at Hart’s in Nottingham. I haven’t been to Nottingham for 30 years. I went then for the Goose Fair — charming locals in smocks doing exciting things with black puddings, miners having exciting lung cookie-spitting contests and lots of Maid Marians giving merrie men a quiver. Nottingham was once famous for the prettiest girls in England: lace-workers with nimble fingers and fine underwear.

But, my God, it’s been hit with the ugly stick since and got a bad dose of the Detroits. As we rolled through the town centre, Emeric, who rarely leaves Oxfordshire, moaned: “We’re going to be made to squeal like pigs and stomped with ultraviolence.” He’s good with film analogies. The crime statistics for Nottingham are shocking: the Rolls was three times more likely to be broken into here than the rest of the country. Personal violence is a short-tempered 3.5%, while nationally it’s only 2%. This was until recently Britain’s capital for drug- and gang-related gun crime; unemployment is a convivial 5%. But it’s not all bad. There are good things about Nottingham. Su Pollard and Torvill and Dean came from here, and then left.

Luckily, Hart’s has secure parking. We disguised the Roller as a skip and walked in. It doesn’t look promising, next to a hospital, under a modern hotel, presumably built for family members visiting their machine-gunned kids. It’s a municipally modern room that might have been one of those community drop-in centres for single mothers, clog dancers and adult literacy classes. It’s jolly and hopeful and bright and a bit dotty.

As we sat down, I realised I knew the eponymous Harts: Tim and Stefa opened one of the first and best country-house hotels, Hambleton Hall on Rutland Water, and their sons took over and made good Quo Vadis in Soho. My expectations rose. The menu was delivered by an attractive waitress. Ah, Nottingham’s famed rosy-cheeked beauty. Where do you come from, I said, still sounding like Terry Thomas. “Lithuania,” she replied. Of course. Famous Liths include the Nobel prize-winner Aaron Klug and Hannibal Lecter, who technically isn’t real.

The first thing you notice about the menu is that, from top to bottom, it’s really edible. Not just edible, but moreish. And second, it’s absurdly cheap — well, it is if you come from civilisation. We kicked off with a pigeon salad, which was a Waldorf salad made with a dead bird and a blackberry, and a leek, potato and haddock soup, which should have been given its correct name, cullen skink, and was overfussily made with fish balls and the soup bit in a separate jug. But a seasonal salad was fresh and attractive and chunkily replete and inventive.

The seared tuna was slightly overcooked for metropolitan palates, but came with an excellent wasabi mayo and a fennel and spring onion salad. The best starter was a pork terrine with piccalilli and fried bits of black pudding.

For main course, there was a sea bass with mushroom gnocchi, leeks and a port reduction that was brave and well made, venison with beetroot and quince — I’m noticing venison on every other menu I review now — and, for a Sunday this far from the sea, an ambitious fritto misto, which was crisp and hot and faultless. Best of all was the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish hollandaise. Smart, authentic, but special for a Sunday lunch off a set menu of three courses for £23. Looking round the packed room, most people were eating it. They all seemed to be local, in their Sunday-best T-shirts and tracksuit bottoms.

Pudding was not quite as assured as the savoury courses. There was a tooth-melting pecan pie and a quince soufflé that rose impressively but tasted only of quince. Hart’s is a commendably accomplished dining room: it is, as the Michelin guide used to say, worth the detour. The service was the best Lithuania can boast. Allegra asked if I was ever recognised in restaurants. Occasionally, I purred, but certainly not up here. Functional literacy hasn’t improved since DH Lawrence wrote poetry with a wax crayon. At that moment, a man came over and asked Emeric if he was AA Gill. “No,” he squeaked, imagining he might be about to become a crime statistic. “It’s him.” The man turned to me.

Who are you, I asked. “I’m Norman Cook. I’m doing a gig here.” Ah, well, you’ve come to the wrong place for a fatboy to get slim, I shot back, sadly after he left the room. I think the youngsters were impressed.