A much-needed break from the Big Smoke was needed, and I booked an impromptu night away in the New Forest. Impromptu for me is a week in advance (I like planning...), and I had no time to look into restaurants for what would be our Friday night there, until we actually went. Time and time again, people on Twitter recommended The Pig - a hotel, but actually self-described as 'a restaurant with rooms'. Their website told me they were fully booked, but we decided to head over there for a mosey around and a drink.
It was incredibly cute. The main dining room was warm and cosy in the greenhouse, and the adjoining library and bar areas were lit with log fires, furnished with squishy sofas.
The spa was a little hut at the end of this bridge, surrounded by the vegetable gardens, mainly growing chard and kale for the restaurant. I swallowed my disappointment that even the waiting list was 20-person strong.
We did, however, realise that the Limewood Hotel was just up the road and was part of the same group. A little memory triggered that Angela Harnett was now heading up the kitchens there, at the restaurant named Hartnett & Holder. And they had a table free, hurrah. I had, originally looked to stay there on our visit but with the most basic room starting at £250-odd, I shut that browser window down quickly.
So impromptu was the visit that I hadn't anticipated such swank, and when we arrived in the great big swish courtyard, roofed with a retractable glass ceiling I wished heartily I wasn't in Air Maxes. I needn't have worried about much stuffiness though, as the bar staff were incredibly charming, and later we found the dining room very relaxed - filled with chatter and buzz. A copper pot of piping hot, crisp and mushroom-spiked arancini accompanied our aperitifs, as well as some juicy, fat green olives and some salted almonds.
The menu was long; split off into primi, pastas, secondi and sides, Hartnett's signature Italian. We had a lot of trouble choosing what to have, with waiting staff sent away a couple of times as we uhm'd and ah'd, before deciding that the polenta ravioli with black truffle at £42 was out of the question. My red mullet, pan fried until the skin was crisp, the flesh soft and just-warm, sat atop a rainbow of lightly pickled vegetables. Carrots, artichoke hearts and delicate onion semi circles made up the bed, and each bite was a lovely contrast of sweetness and sharpness, soft and crunch. Across the table, an enormous plate of smoked cod's roe, whipped into an airy mousse-like texture, was topped with pork crackling. Accompanying rye crackers were finished before a quarter of the plate was. As delicious a dish it was, it all became too daunting and was abandoned partway through.
When the gnocchi with game ragu arrived, my eyes widened at its bath-like appearance. This was one hearty dish. Nuggets of fat, I assume bacon, seasoned the meat and the gnocchi were few and far between. It felt like the proportions were all wrong on this - I had hoped for an abundance of gnocchi and a light coating of ragu but as it was, the airy-light potato dumplings were completely overwhelmed. A shame really, as the ragu was gorgeous; rich, intensely savoury with a hint of offal. It defeated me.
The agnolotti stuffed with squash, goats cheese and sprout leaves were almost sweet in comparison. The thin, delicate pasta burst pleasingly as your fork stabbed it, and it was a beautifully made dish. In stark contrast to the gnocchi, it was light but flavoursome, a hint of bitterness balancing the sweet from the sprout leaves.
We skipped dessert and retired to the bar for a digestif. By no means a flawless dinner, but the setting and ambience of the place made us forgive their flaws. The £148 bill was something of an eye-brow raise, though that'll teach us for bookending our meal with cocktails at a hotel with a starting rate of £255...
Hartnett, Holder & Co.
Hampshire SO43 7FZ