Before and after – Secret Drinker visited this village pub just before lockdown and returned again this week.
If your pub is closed for 10 years, then surely waiting a few months for a pandemic to pass should be an absolute breeze.
Just before lockdown I heard about a boozer, nestled in the sleepy hamlet of Ulcombe, between Maidstone and Headcorn, which threw open its doors for the first time in a decade last August.
The first thing I needed to work out was what it was called - not as straight forward as you might think.
It’s been The Harrow for as long as anyone can remember and, to some extent, still is, but since being taken over by a four-strong village consortium they’ve made an addition.
Presumably keen to promote its culinary qualities, it is now known as the Smoke&Cured. But equally keen to retain tradition, we now have the old name, an ampersand and an @ sign.
So, the Smoke&Cured@The Harrow it is – glad we got that sorted.
More importantly, was it worth the wait and what’s it like after lockdown?
There’s still parking at the front and the front door, which confused when it wasn’t in action last time I visited, is now clearly marked ‘way out’ - the main entrance on the right-hand side is now the way in.
When I visited pre-Covid the first person I met was Mark. And, right off I was reminded of the famous Carlsberg ad – as he‘probably’is the best local punter you’re ever likely to meet.
I couldn’t decide what to drink but as he’d just had a fresh pint of stout poured he insisted I try a mouthful first, what a generous gent. Of course, I wouldn’t expect such an offer post-lockdown.
And, having sampled the 4.5% Oyster Stout from Whitstable Brewery, my mind was made up and I instructed barman Tom, who Mrs SD thought looked a little like Lewis Capaldi’s better looking brother, to pull away.
Tom was our barman for our most recent visit too and made sure all the new rules were obeyed. This time I went for a pint of 4.5% Pearl of Kent from the Whitstable Brewery which slipped down a treat, even though it wasn’t overly flavourful.
There are absolutely no distractions, no pool, no darts, no fruit machines, no jukebox, not even a board game – if you’re not the sort who wants to chat with the locals then avoid the S&C@TH as they will definitely talk to you.
The Grade II listed building has been completely made over in line with the most modern, trendy fashions. Stripped floorboards have been laid over the old quarry tiles, candles are on each windowsill and the lightbulbs have those trendy filaments that give off little or no light.
It’s been superbly done up with great attention to detail and the villagers are obviously delighted to have their reincarnated pub back in action. Mind you, it has gone upmarket and is charging in line with the changes, so will need to continue to be supported to survive.
Our waitress Lina, originally from Bulgaria, has worked here since it opened in August last year. Informative and charming she was happy to share her thoughts on the menu and leaves you in no doubt about her personal favourites.
We both chose starters as our main course – I went for the slow roast pork ribs, marinated and cooked exactly as I like them. Mrs SD chose beef croquettes, again superbly cooked and presented, and we shared the bread basket, though I’m sure she snaffled more of the great freshly baked rolls. I’m convinced the main courses were great too, but for us starters and a desert were more than enough.
I particularly rated the chocolate fondant but Mrs SD insisted I should have been more adventurous, like her, who chose the cranberry tart with a scoop of pistachio ice cream.
Main man Errol has got a good team in place and his efforts to breathe new life into this great old pub deserve to be supported. He’s concentrated on getting the important things right – the food, the drink and the feel of the place.
One chatty local told me the pub had hosted its first music session just prior to lockdown with a female singer and her dad playing saxophone and, following this success, more musical Sunday evenings were planned. Sadly they’re now obviously on hold but will hopefully return in ‘normal’ times.
It’s still fairly early days for the S&C and to date it seems to have remained quite a well-kept secret. They probably need to shout about the place a little more and hopefully this re-borne boozer will once again be the very heartbeat of the village.
Smoke & Cured – The Harrow, The Street, Ulcombe ME7 1DP
Decor: The place obviously needed a complete makeover and looks good, hopefully the building’s all-important history has been retained. ****
Drink: I wouldn’t normally choose stout but Mark persuaded me and this one was a real beauty. The Pearl of Kent is okay and easy drinking enough. ****
Price: Quality costs, but those prepared to pay will not be disappointed by either the food or drink. All pre-lockdown, the ribs were £8.50, the chocolate fondant £8, the stout was £4.50 and a large white wine £9. ***
Atmosphere: Prior to lockdown everyone talked to everyone and they’re still pretty friendly now - you can’t help but get drawn into the infectious, upbeat feeling around the bar. ****
Staff: Both our barman, Tom, and waitress Lina were efficient, helpful and cheery – they clearly enjoy working at this popular new gastro pub. ****
Ratings out of five