I have tried to get in here at least half a dozen times. It’s always at the last minute though and I’ve never been successful. Until last week, when they managed to squeeze us in for an early lunch.
I had been expecting something good from the reviews and the local chatter, not to mention the Michelin star (not a guarantee of quality, as we all know) and I went with a completely open mind because I haven’t actually spoken to anyone who had been there.
The first impression is of large, pretty, thatched country pub. There’s a massive car park at the back and it’s clear that this is quite a big operation. It’s about 20 minutes drive from Oxford and 15 minutes from one of my guilty pleasures– Bicester Shopping village.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to BSV, but it’s worth a blog in itself. Not for the food mind you, which is, frankly, execrable. They don’t need to try.
Japanese tourists are bussed there in convoy, directly from London. It’s the most successful shopping centre in Europe. Not the most successful outlet shopping centre, the most successful shopping centre development full stop. And there is a reason for that. But I digress.
But if you find yourself inexorably drawn to the retail heaven/hell combo that is BSV, think about stopping off here.
We could only get in at 12. Not a great time. Too late to be a real brunch and too early for a proper Sunday lunch. But, given how many times we had been disappointed, we took it.
First impressions –walking from the car park at the back , through a slightly bizarre outside garden. Part eating area, part garden, part bizarre fountain arrangement. It’s not pretty pretty cottage garden, nor is it manicured prettiness a la Manoir. There is no view to speak of. Late January is never kind to gardens but I was surprised at how sorry it looked.
And I wasn’t expecting to see two sets of male bumcheeks in the toilets. The picture bore the legend “Hand & Flowers”. It might have been funny once. It just looked odd in the context of a country pub.
And the welcome from staff was extremely warm and unpretentious. The pub is dark, beamed and (at least in the room that we were in) traditionally decorated. There is still a proper pub area. The part where we were seated had an open fireplace and you could see a modern conservatory leading off it. I can’t say it looked inviting and I was glad we hadn’t been seated there, saving me the bother of having to ask to move.
And the menu. There is a seven course tasting menu at £55 per person, which looked interesting but I’ve had my fill of tasting menus recently and 12pm on a Sunday doesn’t seem like the right time for that type, or indeed amount of food.
So we looked at the à la carte menu, which had a fair amount of choice on it and I went for the winter salad of roasted roots with vegetable crisps, with honey mustard dressing and C had cauliflower soup with curry butter and onion bhaji.
First, we demolished the complementary popcorn with truffle flavouring. I could probably have eaten a bowl as big as my face so I was quite glad that this was only as big as my fist. Home-made bread followed, brown and white. The white was excellent, had a thick crust and a great crumb. It reminded me of one of my very favourite breads of all time, that at Moro. Of which I sometimes dream. I managed not to eat all four pieces, but it was a struggle. My resistance was made somewhat easier by the slightly odd-tasting butter, which I think have been in the fridge too long and had taken on the flavour of something else; something not butter.
The soup was good, well-flavoured and balanced. C thought the onion bhaji was unnecessary. I can’t really imagine an onion bhaji ever being unnecessary but there you go. The roasted vegetables were delicious – prettily presented, deep intense flavours but not, as they often are, over-roasted. This was a good example of a simple dish, well presented and done with delicacy.
I followed with a smoked and fresh salmon fish cake on a bed of spinach and cream in a tomato butter sauce. The fishcake was good, with big flakes of fish – it could have been a little hotter and I’m not sure that I would make that dish with smoked salmon. I think I might be a fishcake purist at heart.
I’m not sure that it was a £17 fish cake either – it didn’t come with any accompaniment and wasn’t massive. The tomato butter sauce tasted exactly, and I mean exactly like Heinz cream of tomato soup. I am absolutely sure it was not that, but they have managed to recreate the taste perfectly. And I quite like Heinz cream of tomato soup, in a retro way, I just wasn’t expecting it here. I made C taste it, just in case it was me and my faulty taste buds. Nope.
C had the roast sirloin of Charolais/Angus beef, with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. Personally, I felt 12.30 was a little early for that plateful but I got the “I am me and you are you “ speech so I left it alone.
At £20, he was happy with the plate and whilst the dish wasn’t groundbreaking or inventive in any way, it was properly done and highly competent. Everything as it should be.
And it is a very comfortable place for a Sunday lunch/dinner, perhaps after a visit to Oxford, for the high-minded or BSV, for the low.
It’s not cheap, but it isn’t noticeably expensive either. The food is unchallenging and the service was excellent and enthusiastic. The clientele appear to be mainly locals and regulars, I suspect that it has many local enthusiasts and that the £18, 2-course set menu, available Tuesday to Friday lunch or Tuesday to Thursday evenings is very popular. I liked it. I wouldn’t rush to become a regular (it’s a 35 minute drive) but it’s another to add to my rather limited list of Oxfordshire eating places.