Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Magdalen Arms

If you live in Oxford, you'll have heard of the Magdalen Arms. If you're interested in food, you'll no doubt have heard the story of how Florence Fowler and Tony Abaro of London's Anchor & Hope transformed a formerly dingy drinking den into what Guardian critic Matthew Norman labelled 'one of the finest gastropubs in the country'.

High praise indeed. With such grand claims to live up to, punters arrive at the Magdalen Arms with high hopes; expecting to tuck into the best meal they've ever had in the supposed culinary wasteland of Oxford. And with a menu of seasonal and largely locally-sourced dishes that changes twice a day (yes, twice: there are some differences between the lunch and evening menus) from an acclaimed chef and his team, you can understand why. In recent months, however, it seems that a fair number of diners have disagreed with Mr Norman's assessment: for almost every online review waxing lyrical about the guinea fowl, there's another bemoaning the slow and sometimes surly service or the cost of dining there. Which camp was I going to fall into, I wondered?

I must confess that this wasn't my first visit to the Magdalen Arms. After popping in for a drink on a few occasions (house wine is just £3.15), I dined there one evening in January. As a pescetarian, I was disappointed to see that there was only one vegetarian and one fish dish on the menu; a rare sight in the UK these days. The fish was mackerel, which I don't like, so by default I had the vegetarian option, which was pasta. It was pretty tasty pasta, but being of the 'why order something you could make at home' school of thought, I wasn't thrilled at paying £11.80 for the pleasure.

On this visit, there was once again one fish and one vegetarian dish among the eight main courses. And again, the vegetarian was pasta - a pretty lazy meat-free option, if you ask me. The seven starters were slightly more balanced, with asparagus and pea soup (£5) and new season's beetroot and horseradish salad (£5.80) nestling among another appearance from my mate mackerel and meaty treats such as pork and rabbit rillettes served with cornichons and toast  (£5.60). I wasn't inspired and they'd run out of the chicken liver parfait that D & N wanted by our 8.30 booking, so we skipped ahead to the mains.

Half of the mains are individual dishes, half are to share. Ranging in price from £35 for the Hereford steak and ale pie for three to share to £70 for slow cooked local lamb shoulder for four or five to share, these jumbo portions certainly make good business sense, but unless you and your dining companions have similar tastes and significant appetites, you're left with a restricted menu. Not wanting to review the Magdalen Arms based on another pasta dish (tagliatelle with aubergine, capers and parmesan, in case you wondered), I asked if the roast pollock with chorizo, potatoes and aioli could be made without the chorizo: it could. D & N both chose baked Gressingham duck leg with bacon, carrots and turnips, and we ordered a dish of spring greens (£3) to share.

The forty minute wait gave us time to polish off the home-made sourdough bread basket provided on the table: tasty, but salty. We also noted with raised eyebrows that it's not just the vegetables that carry a £3 price tag: while the first portion of bread is free, a second one will set you back the same amount. Bread devoured, we had ample time to cast our eyes over the other diners in the red-walled, 'shabby chic' dining room ('this chair looks like one of my grandmother's', observed D). A mixture of couples, families and groups, our fellow punters seemed to be enjoying the sharing dishes (a definite bonding experience for the couple on a date next to us), but we spotted one customer's plate of braised beef going back to the kitchen almost untouched.

After an apology from our friendly waiter, our dishes arrived. The duck was well-presented and just fell off the bone, so I'm told - N praised it highly, while D was more reserved in his judgement. 'It's almost the perfect dish. The texture's right, the consistency... but it's too salty. It irritates me'. Ah, when a pesky salt cellar stands in the way of perfection.

Baked Gressingham duck leg - excuse shocking camera phone photography

The chefs are clearly fans of sodium chloride, as my pollock also had a definite tang. The portion of fish could have been more generous, but its taste made up for its medium size: meltingly soft, flaky, delicious. The new potatoes were buttery and an excellent complement; the aioli gorgeously garlicky, and some unexpected salad leaves were a nice touch. After our moan about the price of the spring greens, they were served in a generous portion and tasty enough to quiet our complaints.

Roast pollock without chorizo but with new potatoes & aioli

Guided through the desserts (6 and a cheese selection) by our waiter, we plumped for a cherry and almond tart served with homemade vanilla ice cream, chocolate and hazelnut cake with creme fraiche, and a baked vanilla cheesecake with strawberries (£5 each).

Cherry and almond tart

The cherry and almond tart was the star: the bottom layer was rich and slightly sticky, adding moisture to a beautifully flavoured slice of delight. The ice cream was also excellent and would be well worth ordering on its own: far from synthetic, it actually tasted of vanilla.

Baked cheesecake

The other two desserts divided opinions, with N labelling the cheesecake 'thick' and D and I disagreeing - as a baked cheesecake, it's expected to be dense. The chocolate and hazelnut cake was nutty yet flaky, but I felt its rich flavour was slightly (and unexpectedly) overpowered by the creme fraiche. Weak points aside, I'd order them all again. Especially that tart. We almost had a plate-licking situation.

Chocolate and hazelnut cake

The bill came in at £72.70 for two courses each, one side dish and a bottle of wine. It's certainly not a budget-busting bill, but nor is it the usual tab for a Wednesday night, even in a gastro pub. The pricing of the Magdalen Arms' menu makes it treat territory rather than an ordinary meal out. As we paid, we debated its value: although we all agreed that our meals were of a high standard, we agreed that a reduction in cost would make us more likely to return, but understandably good quality local produce doesn't come cheap. It's not quite worth the hype: yes, the food is very good (if on the salty side), the use of local meat and vegetables is commendable, as is the fact that everything is homemade with care. But perhaps Mr Norman ultimately didn't do the Magdalen Arms any favours with his lavish praise: there's now a slight sense of importance about the place. The limited vegetarian and fish options are a personal stumbling block for me: surely 2 fish dishes or the occasional includion of another vegetarian choice isn't too much to ask? And while the daily changing menu is a selling point for some, it makes life more difficult for those with specific dietary requirements as the menus aren't available online. Imagine the potential for disappointment on securing a coveted table only to find that you can't actually eat anything. But if you're a flesh fan, none of this is an issue: you have the run of the menu.

Verdict: a much considered and debated 7.5. Go, but go with an open mind and rein in those expectations.

The Magdalen Arms is at 243 Iffley Road. Closed all day Monday and Tuesday lunchtime. Reservations recommended. Tel: 01865 243159.


  1. As a fellow pescatarian, I think you've been v generous to the Magdalen Arms - I've been there three times, and each time been disappointed. There's never a big hearty sharing dish unless you're a carnivore, the fish is ok, but not always to my taste, and the vegetarian mains are boring and overpriced. The vegetarian starters can be excellent, and twice I've had a starter followed by another starter, and been fairly happy with that, but you never get away from the fact that if you don't eat meat, you're an afterthought. And in the 21st century, in East Oxford, that's not good enough. I'm not giving them a fourth chance.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jo. The thing is, I did actually really enjoy what I had, but I completely agree about it not being good enough for the century (!) and the area. There was a sea bass to share when I was there though. I'm not in a rush to go back, as I'd rather go somewhere where I have more than a potential 2 choices. It also annoyed me that the only (non-sharing) fish dish came with meat - not very well-considered.

  3. Really interesting review - thank you! I totally agree with your point re: not having even a sample menu online (as we discussed on twitter), and I think your point about the dominance of sharing dishes is really important. Yes, sometimes it's dramatic and lovely to have a big dish to share, but it smacks slightly of a restaurant that likes a little too much to dictate to its customers how they can consume their food.

  4. Thanks Katy, I'm glad you found it interesting! I agree with your views about the sharing dishes, I do find it quite restrictive even for those who don't have any specific dietary requirements. Surely 2 sharing options would be plenty? If you visit, let me know what you think.

  5. I will do (although, as time goes by, I am less and less inclined to do so!)

  6. That would be frustrating to not have many options as a vegetarian. But Oh, the chocolate and hazelnut cake would make me a happy girl. :-)


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