There are very few ploughmen left in the Western world as it is, but it's pretty safe to say that soon even they will be gone. Instead, there will be pasture rejuvenation facilitators who will sit in airconditioned offices in the megalopolis using satellite signals, surveillance technology and motion sensors to direct giant robotic equipment in the red-dust bowls of the Earth. But some things will never change. When they break at noon, they'll still want a ploughman's lunch, because a day's work is a day's work and a ploughman's lunch has long been its reward.
Hence the ploughman's is popping up all over town, from Cornersmith in Marrickville to Matt Kemp's Montpellier Public House in Randwick - and not always in its original incarnation of cheese, bread and pickles. Even in the southern Japanese precinct of Okinawa there is a bakery cafe called Ploughman's, which serves a bento box of breads, salads, pickles, soup and coffee. I think we can safely call it a trend.
The latest sighting is at the Paddington Arms Hotel, a one-time Irish pub recently transformed by the owners of the acclaimed Four in Hand. The Four's Colin Fassnidge has installed head chef Neil Thomson to turn out a similar style of nose-to-tail dining.
The ploughman's is a cracker: a big wooden board laden with good prosciutto, a slab of lush pork-and-chicken terrine, home-pickled egg, house-made piccalilli, Pyengana cheddar and thick chunks of grilled Iggy's bread ($20). It's big enough for a ploughman's dinner, let alone a lunch; and good to share with any ploughwomen who happen to be about.
While the front of the pub is your typical public bar, complete with sports screens, the real action happens down the back in a giant playpen of a warm, woody dining room, fringed by oversize booths gathered around a central potted olive tree. A giant wooden staircase is so suggestive of a saloon scene in a Hollywood western, we expect Miss Flower Belle Lee to sashay down any time soon.
The grazing menu is in the Four In Hand mould, running from roast bone marrow to black pudding and crumbed pork, roast pork belly and braised beef ribs. The slow food is juxtaposed with fast food, including a beef burger, battered fish and chips, pizza and The Arms' 'dog.
The best appears to be the nose-to-tail stuff. There's a bare, brazen beauty about the roasted marrow bones ($14), split down the middle to show deep channels of gloopy, giving, marrow to spread over grilled bread.
Slow-cooked lamb shoulder is a good cut-down of the Fassnidge signature dish, presented here with sorrel juice, confit tomatoes and braised fennel ($25), the meat so tender you could squish it with a fork. Golden crumbed salt cod fish cakes ($15 for six) are a clever cross between British comfort food and Spanish tapas.
Wines, on the not overly large list, veer towards the hefty and meat-friendly. It's impossible, given the circumstances, not to order something called Squealing Pig and the 2011 Marlborough sauvignon blanc ($10/$45) infuses its typical tropical fruit characters with an almost umami savouriness.
I match it to a beer-battered gurnard ($21) with chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce displayed on brown paper and wood, but the batter is oily and the fish is dull. "Attractive but tasteless" is the verdict at the table.
A regulation beef burger ($20) looks the business with its brioche bun, iceberg, cheese, onion jam, tomato and dill pickle, although the beef is dry.
The kitchen can't seem to get its head around the idea of salads: I've ordered a couple on the themes of bonito, radish and pickled cucumber, or shaved fennel, fetta and peas, and they haven't felt convincing. But at least there are salads and it isn't all hand-cut potato wedges and deep-fried onion rings. There's a cheese course for afters and a couple of fancy puds.
The Arms doesn't have the traditional charm of the bar or the finesse of the restaurant at the Four in Hand, but it's a pleasant place, with punter-friendly prices for slow-cooked pub food - as well as providing much-needed nourishment for an endangered species of agricultural fieldworkers.
Coming after the runaway success of the original, and potentially overshadowed by the imminent opening of Fassnidge's casual, interactive open kitchen and bar 4Fourteen in Surry Hills, it's left somewhere in the middle. Whether that's enough for the pasture rejuvenation facilitators of the day remains to be seen.
Best bit: Big, roomy booths.
Worst bit: Going for a trip on the split-level floors.
Go-to dish: Roast bone marrow with celeriac remoulade and grilled bread, $14.
Address 384 Oxford Street
- 9360 9668
- Prices - About $80 for two, plus drinks.
- Features - Bar
- Opening Hours - Open Lunch and dinner daily.
- Author - TERRY DURACK