GASTROPUBS are two a penny and it can be quite difficult to distinguish one from another.
Many public houses have attempted to revitalise themselves and make the transition from a watering hole to a classy establishment which specializes in high-quality food. Some have been more successful than others.
The Fox, in Harpenden, is one of those which has got it spot on and if you are looking for your archetypal gastropub, then this is it.
Located towards the Luton end of Harpenden Road - the A road that takes you across the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire border - The Fox is in rude health after its recent refurbishment.
A relaxed gastropub that retains a traditional feel of a country pub yet is coupled with a slightly more contemporary feel. It is upmarket, as you would expect in such a leafy corner of Hertfordshire, yet low-key, with minimal decoration and practical but stylish furniture.
Entering through a slightly cumbersome entrance, the soft lights immediately provide a relaxed, becalmed atmosphere and the lounge' music is played at just the right level, without encumbering conversations. You are immediately struck by the open plan nature of this eating house and the stylish interior.
With its closely packed tables, and dark decor, there is a cosy homely atmosphere to The Fox. A beer garden, with heaters in the parasols, is available for outdoor drinking and mingling in the summer months.
My boyfriend and I went along to try out the new-look restaurant on a Wednesday, and for a mid-week rainy July night the restaurant was surprisingly full.
The waiting staff were warm, friendly and attentive and the service was efficient and speedy without making you feel like you had to vacate the table as quickly as possible for the next sitting. And the warm bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar brought to your table why you wait will assauge anyones impatience.
The menu had eight starters, ranging in price from £4 for some Freshly Made Soup to £8 for Black Pearl Scallops of the Day. Those two choices epitomize how the restaurant caters for homely tastes and those with a more contemporary, global palate.
My boyfriend almost always chooses soup to start and this time was no different. The classic tomato and basil soup from the specials menu, which is changed on a daily basis for both lunch and dinner, proved an inspired choice. In fact he went as far to say it ranked in the top two of anything he had ever tasted. He practically licked the bowl clean, as if he was shelling out the price of £4 for the dish and wanted to make sure he was getting his monies worth. As well as trying his creamy soup, I went for the tempting crab cakes which came with cleverly coupled chopped mango and chilly to dress it, giving it quite a bite but with a tangy after taste.
The white list was extensive, containing offerings from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Italy. Continental draught beers include Amstel and Stella while ale drinkers are catered for in an impressive selection. The average pint costs £3.
Moving on to the main courses, diners are spoilt for choice with exciting dishes. Those after a lighter bite are well catered for in the extensive salad and pasta selection while connoisseurs of pizza will not be disappointed, especially when you can add your own extras for a pound each. The grill section, bristling with a range of tasty options, will have carnivores licking their lips.
As a fish fan I went for the catch of the day - grilled Barramundi which I admit I'd never tried before. But I was pleasently surprised and with a good squeeze of lemon it really did taste delicious and the slightly salty saffron potatoes did it justice. My partner opted for the beautifully presented Morrocan Lamb Cutlets that were propped up against some soft saffron potatoes and complimented by a smattering of chorizo, peas and mint. It was one of the more adventurous dishes on the grill section and proved a sound choice for a someone who has a penchant for choosing classic, conservative food.
We opted for some honey roasted root vegetables to accompany our mains, which complemented both our dishes and were particularly tasty, though we did have to fight over the carrots which were a little on the sparse side.
The portions are sized so you can eat without being too stuffed. The Fox does not make the mistake of overindulging its diners with large portions. There was therefore plenty of room for dessert which looked too good to resist.
There were the traditional list of desserts with nothing too out of the ordinary except maybe the mango pavlova which I chose to suit the season. It was packed full of mango and sweet cream but I was a little dissapointed with the lack of merangue, which for me would have really made the dessert. My boyfriend went for warm chocolate pudding which was garnished with a chocolate cup filled with dark chocolate sauce. He assured me it was perfectly cooked, with the sponge moist and the chocolate sauce rich and seductive. I had to take his word for it as he had devoured it before I had chance to ask to try it.
We concluded that we definately eat here again, and we're temepted to try out the relaxed lunch menu, particularly the salads which looked huge.
The only trouble The Fox may have is that it could be in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. Finding a parking space on a dark evening in July was difficult enough and could be nigh on impossible on a balmy summers evening, particularly if word of the quality of food on offer starts to spread like wildfire.