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The Earl of March in Lavant used to be a real dive - it was known locally as a pub to avoid unless you had a fully paid up membership to a Hell’s Angels chapter. In fact, going inside was remarkably akin to going into the Slaughtered Lamb in the film “An American Werewolf in London”; you know - all black looks from the locals and the sound of a pin dropping. Therefore we didn’t go there very often….and even then it would only be on a very sunny day when we could sit outside. Inside the place was just too run-down and far too unwelcoming.
Unbeknown to us, sometime in the last few years the bikers were banished and the Earl of March arose from its former ashes and reinvented itself as a gastro-pub. We’d put it on the list to try one day soon, but it was moved up into pole position when a Groupon deal appeared in my inbox. The deal was for a three course meal for two plus a glass of Prosecco apiece, all for £37. Like the Partridge in Singleton, the Earl of March is owned by Giles Thompson (who used to be the executive head chef of the Ritz in London), but having eaten at the Partridge in the summer and been somewhat underwhelmed (see http://travel.ciao.co.uk/ The_Partridge_Inn_Singleton__Review_6091607) we hoped for better things this time around. As we were planning on visiting the Earl of March on my birthday I booked the table at least a month in advance and then rang up the day before to check that the reservation was still good.
*** THE HAIRY BIKERS ARE NO LONGER IN THE BUILDING… ***
The Earl of March is an old coaching inn near the Goodwood Estate in the tiny village of Lavant (which is about 3 miles outside of Chichester). Its slap bang on the side of the busy main road (the A286) from Midhurst to Chichester and traffic does tend to hurtle past at some speed. However, most visitors don’t tend to go into the pub through the door fronting onto the main road as the car park is tucked to the side of the pub and most will enter via the garden. If you visit at the right time of day (which certainly isn’t at 7.30pm on a dark and a rainy night in October) you’ll get to see the stunning vistas this pub enjoys. The garden has absolutely glorious views of the countryside - rolling green hills as far as the eye can see. In fact I’d go as far as to say that this pub has the best views in the area and you’d need to look far and wide to find a nicer spot for a drink on a warm summer’s day. The pub also has one main claim to fame with legend having it that William Blake wrote the words to “Jerusalem” here back in the 1803. One wonders if looking at the delightful downland views from this pub inspired famous lines like “And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen” and “Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green and pleasant land”.
Inside the pub appears to have been completely gutted and redecorated since my last visit. None of the dark gloomy corners or the shabby paintwork remains. Best of all is the removal of the dreadful star shaped neon coloured hand written signs they favoured in the olden days. Instead we have a modern and sparkling décor - all wooden floors, subdued lighting and cream walls. The walls are now decorated with racing prints from Goodwood’s annual motoring events, the Festival of Speed and the Revival Meeting, which is a vast improvement from the tatty posters advertising some “concert” from an amateur death metal band. The décor now oozes understated luxury instead of screaming loudly for a tin of paint and a touch-up. I liked what they’d done inside - it was warm and welcoming, although it has to be said that I did find the lighting a little too dim; it was hard to read the menu and see the daily specials blackboard.
*** MENU ***
We visited the Earl of March on a Monday night at the end of October in order to celebrate my birthday. Although it was fairly early in the evening, the pub was rather quiet with only 3 or 4 other parties dining. It didn’t get much busier as the evening progressed and we resigned ourselves to eating in a virtually empty pub. There were no lone drinkers either. In fact the Earl of March doesn’t really come across as the kind of place you’d pop into just for a drink and a bag of crisps. There is an arrangement of comfy looking sofas
set around the fireplace next to the bar, but it looks more like a communal area where you gather for an aperitif before dinner rather than anywhere for someone to have a pint. To be honest such is the layout of the sofas that it would put me off having a drink there as you’d feel obliged to make polite conversation with a complete stranger sat across you on the opposite sofa. That sort of arrangement works fine in a youth hostel but not if you want to talk amongst yourselves.
So, onto the food. Having established that this pub is not so much a drinker’s den, it’s fairly clear early on, that it doesn’t really do that much in the way of cheap bar snacks either. The cheapest thing on the bar snacks menu is a bowl of chips for £3, and they’re not just any old chips, these are “Hand Cut” chips. You can enjoy a bowl of soup but it will cost you £6.50 and a ham sandwich will set you back £7 as it’s been gussied up to become a Honey Roast Ham, Grain Mustard and Wild Rocket extravaganza. So not the ideal venue for a cheap pie and a pint then, but definitely a place for ladies who lunch or pensioners with plenty of pounds. There are a nice range of salads from £9.50 and a range of hot dishes from £8.50 (Sussex Ham, Free Range Eggs and Hand Cut Chips or Beer Battered Haddock, Hand Cut Chips, Tartar Sauce and Minted Garden Peas or to name but two).
With the bar snacks menu offering the cheapest options, you then move onto the dearer stuff with a full à la carte menu entitled “The Earl’s Favourites” and some seasonal specials entitled “The Chef’s Pick of Season”. Obviously I’m not going to list the whole menu here as it’s all online at their website should you wish to tempt yourself with what’s on offer. Briefly starters tend to range in price from £8 to £12, main courses will set you back from £14 to £25 (with side dishes costing an extra £2.50) and desserts conclude the whole affair at around £6 to £7. Cheap dining it isn’t.
*** THE BIRTHDAY DINNER ***
As I stated earlier we had a Groupon deal for this pub which had cost us £37 for two. It was totally unclear which menu we qualified for at the pub so I’d downloaded both “The Earl’s Favourites” and “The Chef’s Pick of Season” menus before we went so we’d have some idea what to expect. All we knew was that our voucher entitled us to a three course dinner and a glass of Prosecco.
When we arrived we were shown straight to our reserved table, which was in a very nice position in the corner of the pub overlooking the garden (not that we could see much as it was a very dark and rainy night). As they already knew we were on the Groupon deal we were each given a specially printed menu which I recognised as being a pared down version of their “Chef’s Pick of Season” menu.
For a Groupon deal, the Earl of March was rather limited and there wasn’t all that much choice about what you could eat. When I purchased the Groupon deal it tempted us with descriptions of starters such as Rabbit and Duck Confit with Fois Gras Cream or Pan Seared Tuna Loin flavoured with Wasabi and Coriander and served with Red Cabbage and Straw Potatoes and desserts such as Chocolate Brownie with Ice-cream or White Chocolate Mousse with a Milk Chocolate Jelly, Apricot Sauce and Orange Sorbet, all served on Chocolate Cookie Crumb. Main courses included a Locally-sourced Roast Lamb Loin served with a Braised Lamb Shoulder, Caramelised Sweetbreads and Pea Mash all drizzled with a Mint Dressing or you could have Pan Fried Fillet of Sussex Beef, Rosti Potato, Sautéed Wild Mushrooms and Peppercorn Sauce if you paid a £7.50 supplement. Sadly none of the above dishes were on the menu we were offered which was a little disappointing, but we made do with the selection given.
For starters we got to choose from three dishes - namely Wild Mushroom and Swede Ravioli, Feta Cheese and Blueberries with Honey and Mustard Dressing (usually £8.00), "Fish & Chips" - Tempura Sea Bass, Pea Gel, Tartar Sauce Salad and Sweet Potato Chip (£8.50) or Slow Roast Belly of Pork, Crisp Duck Egg, Sorrel and Scrumpie Poached Apples (£8.50).
My partner and I both chose the Pork Belly dish which was a very tasty if somewhat small of portion starter. We received a nice looking long strip of pork belly with a large rotund duck egg presented at the end of pork. To say that the presentation looking a little phallic would be an under-statement and it wouldn’t have looked out of place in that photographic book “Rude Food” that did the rounds several decades ago! The pork belly was very tasty but there just wasn’t enough of it. It was decorated by tiny little poached apples, small dollops of some kind of apple purée and scattered with Sorrel leaves. The sweetness of the tiny apples and the apple purée was tempered back by the Sorrel leaves which had a sharp, lemony flavour (Sorrel in French means 'sour'). The pièce de résistance with this dish was the crisp duck egg which was simply delicious. The whole egg had been encased inside strips of potato so it had the appearance of a small round basket. Once you cut into the egg the yolk inside was deliciously runny and a lovely dark golden colour.
My parents both went for the “Fish and Chips” starter which comprised two pieces of sea bass in a light tempura batter sitting atop a large piece of sweet potato. Alongside the fish and chips was a smear of pale green pea purée and a small tartar salad which appeared to be made up of chopped tarragon leaves, parsley, gherkins and capers. They both enjoyed the Earl of March’s take on fish and chips and said it was as tasty as it was whimsical.
For main course we had another choice of three dishes including one vegetarian option. No mention was made of the upgrade to Fillet Steak so we didn’t bother asking. Here the choices were Pan Fried Herb Crust Pavé of Cod, New Potatoes, Crisp Vegetable Salad and Ponzu Dressing) (£18.50), Roast Breast of Partridge, Confit Leg Croquette, Watercress Mousse, Cavolo Nero, and Parsnip Sauce (£18.50) or Roasted Butternut Squash, Parmesan Risotto, Sage Butter, Chestnut Agnelotti, Sage Crisps and Truffle Oil (£14.50)
My mother and I both choose the cod dish. Pavé means slab in French so what you get here is a big old chunk of cod in this dish. The herb crust was a nice addition to the fish as it gave it a bit of flavour. Sadly once you’d eaten all the crust the fish underneath was completely tasteless. It was a generous portion of cod, but it took some eating as it just tasted of nothing at all. It would have been better if it had been doused in some kind of sauce just to give it a bit of depth. Unfortunately there was no sauce with this dish - just a Ponzu dressing on the plate. Ponzu dressing is basically a sour sauce made by mixing citrus juices with soy sauce and to my mind it was more for decorating the plate with a dark brown zigzag pattern rather than adding any flavour to the dish. The cod was served on top of a pile of crispy vegetables and they were rather nice. Underneath the vegetables was a pile of mashed new potatoes that also tasted of nothing and were rather cold. On the whole the majority of this dish was completely tasteless despite the generosity of portion and the beautiful presentation. It would have worked so much better if the cod had been served with some kind of sauce just to take away the boring blandness of it. My mother agreed and stated that she’d eaten tastier hospital food…and that’s saying something.
My father and my partner decided on the partridge dish and this scored a bit of a hit with both of them. The portion of partridge wasn’t as generous as our cod, but what it lacked in size it made up in flavour. A small breast portion was served atop a rather nice pale green watercress mousse. To the side was a rather large croquette potato which had also been filled with some partridge leg meat. The dish was finished off with a small portion of Cavalo Nero and a deliciously creamy parsnip sauce. I tried a tiny bit of partridge which was delicious. I also tried a small portion of the Cavalo Nero, which is a strong flavoured Italian cabbage with dark green leaves. As Cavalo Nero is a member of the Kale family I wasn’t sure I was going to like it as I find Kale rather bitter, but it had a really nice flavour and it worked well with the partridge.
For desserts we had a choice of two items or we could pay a £2 supplement and have a cheeseboard. Choices were Toffee Pudding with Toffee Sauce and Royal Bourbon Vanilla Ice Cream (£6.50), Vanilla and Star Anise Poached Pear, Caramel Soil, Popcorn Ice Cream and
Pictures of The Earl of March, Lavant, West Sussex
A rather phallic looking Slow Roast Belly of Pork, Crisp Duck Egg, Sorrel and Scrumpie Poached Apples
Wild Berry Purée (£7.00) or we could pay £2 extra and have Regional Cheese Slate with Biscuits, Celery, Apple and Fig and Almond Cake (£8.50).
We all went for the Toffee Pudding as none of us fancied a pear poached in star anise. I would have been interested to both see and try the caramel soil, as soil and foam seem to be all the rage nowadays. In fact you can’t switch on Masterchef nowadays without being bombarded with all manner of foams, soils and things cooked three ways. The Toffee Pudding was served in a large bowl and was a large square of sponge soaked in a generous amount of dark brown sauce. Sitting on top of the pudding were several fresh strawberries, a generous blob of vanilla ice-cream and a mint leaf. It was a nice enough dessert, but not one I’d usually go for. To be honest I was rather disappointed yet again by the lack of choice on offer. I’m not a great lover of steamed puddings and would have preferred that Chocolate Brownie or White Chocolate Mousse option mentioned in the original Groupon deal. We rounded things off with two cappuccinos and two green teas.
*** DRINKS, SERVICE AND EVERYTHING ELSE ***
The Earl of March is a free house and offers draught lager in the form of Peroni, Stella Artois or Becks Vier and cider is from Westons Stoford Press or Aspall. Real ale lovers can sup on London Pride, Summer Lightning or Harvey’s Best. After they’d necked down their “free” Prosecco, my partner ordered a pint of Becks and my father had a pint of Harvey’s. My mother and I made do with the complimentary glass of Prosecco we received as part of our Groupon deal. Our waiter also supplied us with a jug of tap water (without us asking) so I had some of that too.
The service at the Earl of March was very attentive. We were served by a young lad for most of our meal and nothing was too much trouble. He was attentive yet he didn’t hover annoyingly around us. Far too many places seem to want to bounce up to your table every five minutes to ask your opinion on the food or try and fill your glasses, but he gauged the mood just right. As it was my birthday I had presents to open and lots of news to catch up on so we didn’t want too many interruptions. However, when our server was with us he was able to answer any queries we had on the dishes on offer knowledgeably and authoritatively.
Our bill for the evening came a reasonable £25.60 and we left a £10 tip. Adding in what we’d already paid out to Groupon, our meal for the evening cost us just shy of £110 which was rather excellent value. However, if we’d paid full price the same meal would have cost us nearly £200. I’m not entirely convinced the food we ate would have been worth nearly £200 as it was nice, but it was not really all that special. At £50 per head I would expect to be rather more “wowed” by the food rather than thinking that was “nice enough”. Yes I would go back to the Earl of March if there was another deal to be had, but I really don’t think it was anywhere special enough to make a return visit at the full asking price.
*** WOULD WE GO BACK AGAIN? ***
The Earl of March is definitely worth a visit. Turfing out the hairy bikers and giving the place a bit of a makeover has made this pub much more welcoming and hospitable. It’s now a rather nice gastro pub with a rather lovely outdoor seating area with some stupendous views.
The service is attentive yet not at all cloying. I was rather disappointed that none of the dishes described in the original Groupon deal were actually on offer on the night we dined there. However, I originally purchased the Groupon voucher in early September and I suspect they were quoting from the Earl’s Summer Menu. As we dined there in late October, they’d since switched to the Earl’s Winter Menu.
The Earl of March gets four stars from me - the food is good, beautifully presented and full of flavour (cod aside). However, the place is expensive to eat at and I’m not entirely convinced the quality of the food matches its price-tag. I’d go back in a minute if there was another Groupon or similar deal to be had, but I really would baulk at paying full price here. In all honesty I really think they need to up their game a tiny bit if they want their dishes to be considered worthy of the prices they’re levying.
Four stars from me.
*** FURTHER DETAILS ***
Lavant is a tiny village on top of the Downs very near to the Goodwood Estate - home to the real Earl of March (and his parents the Duke and Duchess of Richmond). Lavant is approximately three miles outside of Chichester in West Sussex.
The Earl of March Lavant Road Lavant West Sussex PO18 0BQ