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The Coy Carp (Harefield)

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Coppermill Lane / Harefield / Uxbridge / UB9 6HZ / United Kingdom / Tel: 01895 821471

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      14.05.2010 10:27
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      A popular Hertfordshire haunt

      I'm not entirely a very big fan of chain restaurants. To me the phrase 'chain restaurants' means carbon copy, mass-produced, uninspiring food. Such restaurants seldom have what I'd call a trained chef; more often than not, they're run by a team of cooks, heating and re-heating prepared dishes according to a standard specification mandated by head office. But that doesn't mean I *won't* use them. When you're out with friends, colleagues or family and it's their choice then unless they're suggesting something like Wetherspoons, it would be a bit mean to keep refusing their every choice. So it sometimes is that when visiting a good friend of mine who lives in Hertfordshire that we end up in the Coy Carp.

      'Vintage Inn' is a chain of pub/restaurants, scattered across the UK, specialising in what they call country pubs. Bear in mind that these are a combination of purpose-built or refurbished buildings as well as quite old public houses, but whilst they're not all entirely authentic, they do all tend to be comfortable and welcoming. There are Vintage Inns across England and Scotland, with a few in South Wales also. They tend to be in semi-rural locations, green enough to fall under the spell of that country tag, but urban enough to be serviced by reasonably busy roads (and the potential customers they will therefore bring).

      As far as the big chains of pubs and restaurants go, Vintage Inns exhibit a small amount of individual character. They at least seem to have individual names, unlike, for example, Wetherspoons that doesn't seem to able to muster anything more original than The Moon Under Water in countless locations. They don't 'over-egg' the country theme either. In Harvester restaurants, for example, they always used to overload the place with those fake rural props - you know the sort of thing, old, rusty-looking haymaking equipment that was actually fabricated out of paper mache. All the pubs carry the same food menu. I've rarely seen any with individual specials, but the pubs do, at least, stock a small selection of regional real ales.

      When you've controlled yourself with the mirth over the name of the pub (did you see what they did there?) what you'll then find yourself with is a very pleasant drinking and eating house. Nestled in the Thames Valley, The Coy Carp is fiendishly close to London (about 7 miles from the outer limits) but it's something of a country haven. The pub (originally known as The Fisheries) dates back to pre-1900 and was there before the Grand Union Canal (which now runs alongside it) was built. It's a sizeable enough building, set next to the bridge over the canal, which means that pedestrian access is via a pretty little wooden bridge over the water.

      Unfortunately, it's not very accessible by any means other than a car or by foot. There's no reliable public transport nearby to speak of and the quiet, rural location means that you'll almost certainly have to drive here unless you're within walking distance. The nearest train station is Denham, which is around half an hour outside London Marylebone but it's a good 20-30 minute walk from the station. If you're coming along the M25, exit at junction 17, follow the signs for the A412 and then cut through Lynsters and Pynesfield Lakes. If you're coming for the first time, use the satellite navigation or print off a map as although it's reasonably easy to find, you can go wrong pretty easily too.

      The pub is relatively similar to other Vintage Inns, with a comfortable undemanding finish and a sprawling layout that occupies a number of different areas. The 'carp' theme is maintained in a subtle fashion with a few fish-themed ornaments, vases and pictures but otherwise it's pretty typical of the chain. To the exterior, there's a large, sun-baked patio area next to the water, which is hugely popular in the summer, particularly with ramblers who love the area. The plethora of ducks and swans certainly gives the little ones something to enjoy, although the concrete slabs on the ground make it a little harsh. In front of the foot bridge is a larger grassy area, which is much better for running around with little people who have a tendency to fall over.

      Inside, there is a large dining capacity, with a host of different-sized tables and eating areas. One thing that I have always liked about the Vintage Inn chain is that the restaurants cater superbly for different-sized parties. There are cosy, intimate tables for couples, larger round or square tables for families or small groups and then large tables seating up to twelve for larger parties. It's very flexible and although, clearly, larger parties should probably book, you seldom seem to have to wait long to get a table otherwise. The bar area is surprisingly compact and when it's busy, the volume of people can clutter the area a little. You get a wide range of people in here. The canalside location makes this a perfect stop-off for boaters. The local lakes attract walkers and ramblers and you also get a lot of younger couples, particularly at weekends. This is not as child-friendly as some other chains, but does attract families too.

      I can't say that, generally, I find the bar staff members particularly friendly or welcoming in here. There's often a very terse atmosphere around the bar, with no banter or chat and you tend to get summoned round to one of the pay points as though you are in the school dining hall. A couple of the barmaids are downright rude and offhand, although the others are pleasant enough. The brisk attitude to service does mean, however, that you tend to get served equally briskly and even when it's busy, you don't seem to wait that long. Unsurprisingly, the pub doesn't really go in for any local events - no quiz nights or such like. This is really a place where they want you to come and drink, eat and then go.

      The table staff members are marginally better and seem more suited to that kind of work as they actually seem to enjoy interacting with people. They're always terribly busy and harassed though, rarely lingering for longer than a few seconds and none of them is really able to help with specific questions, particularly when it comes to dietary/allergy questions. Again, the service is prompt and thorough, if not a little rushed. I have to laugh at their claims of a roaring fire. Far from being a big, log burning number, it's a rather small, artificial gas fire, which has a rather different effect, but there you go.

      The drink selection is terribly average, seldom straying from the mainstream. On my last visit I noticed three real ales - Greene King (from Suffolk), London Pride (Fullers in London) and Wadworths 6X (from Wiltshire). Given the location, it's a little disappointing that they don't have a few more local drinks although all three go pretty well with a wide variety of food. I've also seen Wells Bombardier (good, strong ale) in here. Otherwise, on tap you'll find the usual suspects; Fosters, Stella Artois and a couple of mainstream European lagers (Staropramen and Peroni). The drinks are averagely priced and you should expect to pay around £3.00 for a pint.

      The wine list is very mainstream but this tends to reflect the food menu. The most expensive bottle of white is around £20; the most expensive red is much the same (and to be honest, as a Chateauneuf du Pape, a little predictable too). The good thing about a simple wine range like this, of course, is that all but the most expensive wines are available by the glass or the bottle, so you can mix and match a little according to what everybody likes and is eating. Curiously, the drinks menu tends to be peppered with random retro cocktails with things like Kir Royale popping up. The spirits are the main brewery lines only by and large, so it's Smirnoff Vodka and Gordons Gin all the way. I've noticed that they've now introduced some 'premium' spirits, but given that this is actually only Bombay Sapphire Gin and Finlandia Vodka, I remain decidedly unimpressed.

      If you decide you want something to eat, you need to decide where you're sitting. No table numbers are required, just a general location. This always strikes me as a bit daft, as they then issue you with an order number, painted onto a big wooden spoon that you then take to the table with you. Why not just use table numbers? Anyway, you take your order to the bar and place it with or without drinks, paying up front for all the meals that you have ordered (with cash or card). I'm always vaguely uncomfortable about doing this. I think that it's better to pay AFTER you have eaten, when you are satisfied that nothing was wrong, but in fairness, in the event of a complaint, they do seem to respond quite well and offer a refund. Once you've ordered, you then go back to your table and wait for the food to arrive.

      Even at its busiest times, the food here is delivered very promptly; almost too promptly, in fact, as it becomes pretty evident that this food is cooked from a pre-prepared format. The waiting staff members also bring over a tray of different condiments and sauces when they first deliver the food. It's a good selection and you have plenty of choice, but many diners will struggle to decide what they want when put on the spot like that and before long, they whisk it all away again. Colour me paranoid, but I quite like this system overall, however, as I can remain confident that other diners haven't been 'playing' with the sauces before I get to have some.

      There are two menus in use, one for lunch (served 12:00 to 17:00) and one for dinner (17:00 to 22:00). The two menus are largely the same, with the exception that the lunch menu contains sandwiches and a deal on fixed price lunches and the dinner menu has a slightly larger choice of starters and main courses. The food selection is good; it's a varied selection of tastes and styles, intended to cater for a broad spectrum of appetites and flavours. It's almost entirely perfect for one of those outings where everybody wants something different because, realistically, there's something for everyone here. The downside of this, of course, is that they don't really specialise in anything, although the food definitely falls on the 'comforting' side of the healthy eating scale and is intended to reflect pub classics, both modern and old.

      I've been eating on an infrequent basis in various Vintage Inns for quite a few years now. Today's menu isn't that far removed from previous years, although the range has become a little more adventurous in places. It changes seasonally, although not particularly radically and the changes are pretty much as you'd expect, with a few more salads cropping up in summer, and turkey roast dishes appearing around Christmas. The Vintage Inn menu seems only to pay lip service to healthy eating/food ethics without any real emphasis on either. The only organic item on the current menu, for example, is organically reared salmon, but none of the side orders is organically sourced. There is nothing that indicates any kind of sourcing policy for any of the dishes. Indeed, because a restaurant in Hertfordshire is selling the same dishes as one in Glasgow, you can be rest assured that there is no real provision to use local suppliers, and I find this very disappointing. As part of the true 'country pub' ethos, I think all the pubs should be encouraged to work far more closely with local suppliers. It's worth bearing at mind that the Coy Carp, for example, is located very close to some renowned nature reserves and breeding grounds for rare birds. The clientele is likely to be highly interested in ethical, locally sourced food.

      I quite like the concept of the sharing platters, with a small selection of items best shared with a few friends over beers. In reality, the selection is a little odd. Mixing breaded camembert with onion rings and duck liver pate just seems a little bizarre to me and there's no real rhyme or reason to it. The ingredients are very 'mass-produced'. You can just tell that they're pre-packed and whizzed into a deep fat fryer (where appropriate) before hurtling out onto your table. The seafood sharing plate is better - but Marie rose sauce is a bit 80s, don't you think? The warm Mediterranean breads are a bit of a joke too - a few slices of a very average ciabatta and a French stick are about as far as it goes. There's tremendous opportunity to expand this further for hungry drinkers who don't want a full meal.

      The starters are very predictable, and (to my mind) overpriced. Although only around £4 a portion, when it's a few breaded mushrooms or a tandoori skewer, I can't help thinking that you'd be better off going without. The Tempura tiger prawns are average at best - certainly not the juiciest, tastiest prawns you can find but I do like the plum and coriander dipping sauce that goes with them.

      Generally, the main courses are very filling but vary in quality. They've been serving open chicken pie and Hunter's chicken for as long as I can remember. The concept of the 'open' pie has always rather puzzled me but it loses points for being served up with (very obvious) oven chips and frozen peas. The quality of the meat isn't too bad but I do wonder where it comes from. The Hunter's chicken is a curious affair. The butterflied chicken breasts are served in a hot ceramic bowl, smothered in BBQ sauce and cheese (which is rather overpowering) and then the ubiquitous chips and peas. As a result of getting/seeing the whole breast fillet here, you can tell the quality isn't up to scratch. Stringy bits are not uncommon and the way that they cook it means that whilst the centre of the fillet is soft and tender, the outside tends to be burnt and dry. I'm more inclined to go for the Beef, Mushroom and Guinness pie. The flavour of the Guinness isn't as strong as I'd like, but the fact it comes with mash makes it a little healthier and sometimes the vegetables are freshly cooked rather than frozen.

      The beer battered fish and chips are cheap and nasty. The batter does not taste of beer in any way whatsoever and the fish tends to be greasy and flavourless. The waiters can never tell you what kind of fish it is either. The salmon is much better. It goes extremely well with some baby potatoes and steamed greens and is one of the healthiest dishes on the menu. The tuna steak simply isn't up to scratch and to be honest, I'd avoid this. They've currently got a Spanish chicken dish, which features a breast stuffed with goats' cheese and chorizo, but it's quite poor chorizo and there's not much of it. The sausage meat simply doesn't have that lovely mature kick that good chorizo should exhibit.

      Curiously, I'm a big fan of the Sunday roasts (pictured). Available in turkey, lamb or beef variants (as a rule) I quite enjoy this. Aside from the fact that I have no idea where it comes from, the meat is usually tender and lean (notably in the case of the lamb) and it's all served with completely fresh vegetables and proper roasted parsnips and potatoes. This might sound obvious, but it's surprising how many of these places use frozen vegetables and potatoes. It seems just a bit fresher than many of the other dishes you can order as a main course and the vegetables change seasonally too. I particularly like the inclusion of Chantenay carrots, for example. They have a much better flavour than normal carrots. Generally, however, I would say that the main courses are a good size, always piping hot and nicely enough presented. There is a reasonably varied children's menu too, largely comprising smaller portions of the adult dishes but the pubs don't seem to go in for free crayons or goodie bags.

      Vegetarians aren't terribly well catered for here. There are normally only one or two vegetarian starters or main course, and they tend to be a bit hit and miss. I don't remember seeing a vegetarian Sunday roast option either, which seems odd these days when vegetarian diets are quite common.

      The desserts are ordered in a slightly different way. When collecting your empty dishes, the waiters will ask if you would like to see the dessert menu, which is actually a large chalk board that they carry over and plop on your table. This gives the impression that the desserts are changing all the time, when in fact they are as constant as the rest of the menu, but there you go. The desserts are nice enough. There's nothing terribly adventurous, but classics like fruit crumble and sticky toffee pudding usually go down pretty well and they're quite good portion sizes too (with things like cream, custard and ice-cream usually offered as standard accompaniments.)

      I quite like the overall experience of the Coy Carp. I think the location is beautiful, particularly in summer, and if you've been walking or boating around the area this is a welcome respite. It's cosy in winter and bright and airy in summer and I love the variety of tables and eating locations, which make this perfect for any sized party.

      I don't rate the food hugely. It's perfectly OK, but I'd love to see more attention to using local suppliers and more ethical menu options too. They don't cater well for vegetarians and with only one organic dish, there's a lot left to be desired here. The food is filling and generally tasty but it's still very much on the mass-produced side of things and I'd like to see more local variation in the pub. The bar staff needs looking at too. This is hardly the welcoming hostelry that the web site would have you believe.

      So this is perfect for a summer drink or maybe a Sunday roast and the occasional lunch or dinner - but it could be a lot better.

      The Coy Carp, Coppermill Lane, Harefield, Uxbridge, UB9 6HZ

      Tel: 01895 821471

      www.vintageinn.co.uk/thecoycarpharefielduxbridge/

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