Yarrr! Here we be at Ye Olde Elme Tree in Cambridge Towne, enjoyin’ a wee jug o’ grog. Shiver me timbers and avast me hearties!
Right, I’ll get my coat now.
After meeting Andrew in DC the week of Obama’s inauguration, we fell immediately into a lovely daily email habit that was only slightly fraught, on my part. Before stepping fully into my role as the pushy American girl and buying the fateful airline ticket to London, I happened one day to wander into one of several local liquor stores just inside the DC line, to buy a bottle of red wine for a recipe. There, as in a dream, I looked up and beheld the most colorful array of beers from seemingly every country in the world that I have ever seen, arranged bottle by bottle to show off the full variety; among them were at least half a dozen shelves of beers from the UK. I immediately thought of Andrew’s interest in beer, and knew he’d be fascinated at my find, so I asked the proprietor if I could snap a few pics with my phone and he was happy to oblige. Andrew’s first recommendation from the lot was to try all of the Sam Smith’s beers, particularly the Oatmeal Stout, and sure enough, I loved it: with its full body and dark caramel-coffee-slightly-sweetness, it did indeed taste breakfast-y, though a lot easier to clean up than a pot of porridge! (KIDDING; I only drink IPA for breakfast.)
The same Oatmeal Stout has now won the 2010 Washington Post’s Beer Madness competition. According to the article, this beer was developed by the Sam Smith Brewing Company in Tadcaster, UK, by commission and in collaboration with an American importer, based on (British) historical notes about what it should taste like. Originally, it was only available in the US, but now you can get it in imperial pint-sized (read: big) bottles on both sides of the pond, and there are many Sam Smith-licensed pubs around the UK.
I’m not sure it’s fair to call this a review, because we’re a little biased. On the other hand, though we love coming to The Castle, we do have standards, for food, beer and, well, pub-ness – G*d knows there are many pubs in our area that we wouldn’t set foot in – so I hope I can persuade you to read on.
We don’t go that often – it is a bit of a shlep – but we love walking up Harrow Hill and leaving behind the higgledy-piggledy high street to see trees, carefully zoned streets, lovingly maintained old buildings, and posh boys with blue jackets over their tennis kits. As good lefties we feel a little guilty about it, because what’s nice about this environment implies money and exclusivity. Many of the boys at Harrow are the spawn of Tory MPs and Saudi emirs, and money undoubtedly does play a role in how nice the Castle is. So we tut-tut at unforgiveable grammatical errors in posters on the school doors, note that there is an Indian restaurant in evidence – ok, a posh one – and move on toward our destination.
The Castle (here’s what it looks like from the outside) is the only non-chain pub in Harrow that offers real ales, and they usually have four or five on draft, and others available in bottles upon request. It’s one of Fuller’s flagship pubs, and they almost always have lovingly maintained ESB and Gale’s HSB (Gale’s is now brewed in the Griffin Brewery in Chiswick). The first time we went, around mid-day on Saturday, we had both of these beers before lunch, and though I can usually handle two pints on my own, I was useless for the rest of the day. Having had a similar experience there a couple of times since – and after lunch as well! – I attribute them to the 400-foot gain in elevation of Harrow on the Hill.
The Castle’s pub-ness can be summed up as warm and welcoming, historic-feeling, tidy, quiet, non-chain, unadorned with combo-meal posters, and offering the sense that you can sit there for hours and not worry that you’re taking up too much space. (On our last visit, we noticed a young couple snuggling and even, at one point, falling asleep, on a low couch.) It doesn’t have the same entrance or financial requirements as the school; we’ve seen all kinds of people looking equally comfortable there. I particularly like looking out the windows and seeing bits of mossy old English stone walls and gardening tools tucked behind corners.
Yesterday, after a dreary week of hard work and lousy weather, Andrew had promised an outing to the Castle not just for beers but – for the first time – for lunch. Though I might have tried one of the basic dishes – for example, a sandwich with homemade fish fingers – I saw an item with goat cheese and decided to call their yuppie bluff. I didn’t order the goat cheese, but decided to try one of the three curries from their special board, Kathmandu lamb curry. The waiter came back to tell me they were out of it and asked me for an alternative. I gave him a complicated instruction to discuss with the chef: if the chef could confirm that the chicken curry was spicy, I’d try that, and if not, I’d have the lamb meatballs. But in the end, they brought me the lamb curry after all, and I was very happy with it; it came with a big sail of papadum, a couple of bits of naan, and perfectly cooked basmati rice. The curry itself was dark, just spicy enough, and meaty.
Andrew had the chicken and mushroom pie with mash – basic pub food, really, but homemade and, indeed, homey and comforting. It came with a pitcher of cream-based sauce that covered up the main flaw of the plate, a margarine taste to the mash. I also thought the veg was a little overcooked – but what do you expect when you order a pie in a pub?
We had read a review in Serious Eats (reposted here), we tried London Porter, which was brought up from the basement in pint bottles. Andrew describes it as dark, smooth, and very quaffable, with flavors of treacle toffee, chocolate, coffee, and licorice; he had two pints. I had one, and then a draft pint of ESB for dessert. We keep ESB at
home in bottles, but the draft version is a different animal, fragrant, elegant, just a little hoppy. A bellyful of curry later and, what do you know, I was still quite merry after my two pints. Andrew told me early on in our relationship that he liked women who drank pints, so how could I disappoint him?
Next time, we’ll try the actual puddings.
30 West Street
Harrow, HA1 3EF
020 8422 3155