Tom gets romantic at The Arches

I took an overdue trip to The Arches on Fairhazel Gardens the other night; always such an interesting venue to enjoy some good food and wine, with elements of mystery and intrigue to go with the fun and craziness of the place.

As ever, a waitress directed our gaze to the mobile specials board, and I instantly locked onto the fisherman’s stew. There was a slight error when ordering; enquiring as to whether the stew came with anything, I was told no, and hence ordered chips, but in fact a large side of rice accompanied the dish (and indeed worked very well with it). Even by my gluttonous standards, powering through all that lot would have been a little too much – though I did my best!

Look at those "proud, glowing" prawns.

Look at those “proud, glowing prawns”

The stew was wonderful; large, proud, glowing prawns (perhaps just a fraction well-cooked), swordfish, and mussels, nicely accompanied by some al-dente, attractively sliced carrots, and bell peppers which had been grilled or baked first to get some charring on the skin. It wasn’t a particularly wet stew; more a seafood and sauce affair, but the latter was intense and well-seasoned, and of a most satisfying orange-red colour. A simple, but soulful meal, great for people like me always complaining about the weather.

Shock of the day was my remarkable decision to share a dessert for the first time ever… who says romance is dead?! In fact, I…oh hang on, incoming text message..

**Sorry, rather not c u tnight, yr table manners are questionable to say the least, & difficult to hold a conversation if u will drink 2 bottles of wine that quickly. Bye**

Oh well – back to my window seat with a newspaper in La Brocca!

Tom is entertained at The Arches

The Arches was excellent last night; I had the special of cod fillet in tempura batter, with chips, and the whole thing was a demonstration in perfect execution – superb – right down to the quality of the rich tartare sauce. Friend loved his smoked duck salad starter and meatball linguine, and we managed dessert too (I’m full of surprises!)

We happily absorbed a Marlborough Pinot Noir, then a Malbec, and “entertainment” was provided via the adjacent table, from where Keith Floyd’s apparent long-lost brother proceeded to bombard us with a series of ever more ludicrous tales, whilst his partner looked on, nonplussed. Landing planes without lights in total darkness, unlikely prison terms, unlimited wives, and relatives seemingly inventing everything but the wheel. With his penchant for adventure, I was tempted to politely request that he headed for The Kilburn High Road without delay. 

Tom visits The Arches

I had an impromptu dinner at The Arches last night…good food.. I had a Moroccan chick pea soup to start, then baked whole sea bass – very nice. Excellent sautéed potatoes, with that dry, crisp outside. I wondered if they did those with goose fat or something but the waitress just said “deep fried in oil”. Pleasingly large cheesecake to finish, and 4 glasses of Pinot Noir which I was surprised to find later on was Chilean (I thought it was French, but not a Burgundy). Looking back, it did have similarities to that Chilean drop I like to guzzle in Brocca. Checked the bill today, a bit cheeky, the 2nd two glasses were large ones – I was drinking 175s at first – no wonder I have a frigging hangover! 

The Arches – restaurant review

The quirky interior of The Arches is certianly different to anything else in the area. A multitude of lampshades dangle from the ceiling, interspersed with what look like dolls of witches. There are even (fake – please say they are fake) cobwebs on the shelves above our table. “It would be a perfect place for a Halloween party,” commented someone.

This wine bar-cum-restaurant has been a fixture of the South Hampstead scene for many years. It’s  a healthy 10 minute walk from West Hampstead tube station (Swiss Cottage is much closer) and has a loyal local following who enjoy sitting outside on Fairhazel Gardens with a glass of something good. We were there to road-test the food, however.

There is a bar menu, a restaurant menu, and a specials board. There’s no particular theme to the food, with some Asian, Mediterranean and resolutely British offerings. Never a great sign – I would rather have a chef who can focus on one cuisine.

Sarah and Laura plumped for the pumpkin soup of the day, which was deemeed to be woefully lacking in seasoning. “It tastes of cream and hot and pepper”, said Laura having added the pepper herself.

Not a good start. Tom and Holly went for the fried halloumi – a change from the squeaky grilled treatment it usually gets. Both seemed very happy, with Tom praising the salad dressing and the presence of sundried tomatoes, “always a winner”. This certainly looked the most attractive starter. The rest of us went for the smoked duck caesar salad, which worked well and was a generous starter portion, but was otherwise unremarkable.

Several of us went for main courses from the specials board. I had the pork chop with mash and apple sauce (a large quantity of both). Sadly the pork was overcooked and dry and any flavour eradicated. It wasn’t unpleasant, and the crackling was decent enough, but I was glad that there was an overdose of the very nice mash.

The roast cod special looked the best dish of the night. Tom, Lisa and Sarah all said it was very well cooked, although Sarah thought the portion was on the small side and was lusting after someone else’s side order of diced sautéed potatoes to replace her own boiled new potatoes.

Gary and Justin both went for steak – which was presented rather unattractively alone on a plate with quite a lot of similarly brown sauce (or was it “jus”?). Vegetables are included but, like the potatoes, they come separately to share. Mercifully the veg (beans and broccoli) were perfectly cooked. Justin declared his steak to be “fucking amazing” (he’s Australian so forgive the language!) and Gary also seemed happy (if not quite so demonstrably ecstatic) with his. Holly’s chicken wrapped in pancetta was on the dry side, but tasted good. Once again, Laura was unfortunate – her prawns from the bar menu were uninspiring and she reckoned she’d had much better for less money.

Full as usual after dessert we shared one each of the three specials: an almond and mango crumble (good taste, but too dry), a creme brulee (very good) and a cheesecake (dull).

As a wine bar – and allegedly with one of the best wine lists in north London – the choice of wines verges on the overwhelming. You can drop £1500 for a magnum of 1990 Chateau Latour if you want, but obviously most wines are more affordable. However, disappointingly, most of the cheaper wines beyond the most basic house wines have “Sold” pencilled in next to them. Even our first choice red (a Sicilian Nero d’Avola) turned out be sold out as well.

It’s a shame they haven’t updated the wine list to reflect the gaps in the cellar – or replenished the missing bottles. We ended up with a South Africa Pinotage and a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc both of which were good value.

Sadly, the woman who runs The Arches wasn’t working that night. She is a very welcoming character and without her the service was a little lacklustre, although in my previous visits that’s never been an issue.

Everyone liked the vibe, with its quirky neighbourhood atmosphere. There was a consensus that the food didn’t quite deliver on expectations, but as a local wine bar it’s hard to beat – and if you do need something to soak up the alcohol then the menu offers plenty of choice but you may want to choose wisely.

Food 7.2
Service 6.4
Value 5.9
Overall 7.8
Good for: wine lovers
Bad for: clutterphobes
The Arches
7 Fairhazel Gardens
Swiss Cottage
T: 020 7624 1867
Arches on Urbanspoon