Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Punter

When an Oxford pub's buzzing at 7pm on a Wednesday, it's a sign you're on to a good thing. And when it's a pub in a tucked-away location unlikely to attract passing trade, you better get yourself in there.

Formerly known as The Waterman's Arms due to its riverside setting, The Punter sits on the corner of South Street on Osney Island. Reopened with its new name and new look in 2010, The Punter has been reeling in both island residents and those in the know for months, enticing them with its pretty location, relaxed atmosphere and appetising menu.

Stepping inside, my first impression was of a bustling yet laid-back watering hole. The traditional interior has been enhanced with a neat blue and white colour scheme and eclectic decor; beams and church pews nodding towards country pub, a lived-in feel preventing it from seeming contrived.  Settling ourselves in at a large wooden table, we perused the menu over a decent glass of house white (£14 a bottle - wines here aren't cheap). If the decor has hints of country, The Punter's menu is much more smart pub-about town. Changing daily, offerings range from pub classics given a gastro twist (such as wild boar and apple sausages with mash, £11) to Italian and Spanish influenced dishes (including the sea bass fillet with panzanella salad, £12). With starters priced up to £6.50 and mains reaching a maximum £14, dining at The Punter is reasonably-priced, but when the three £7 dinner options are considered, it becomes positively good value. On our visit, the dishes on offer were at the simpler end of the spectrum yet still tempting: salmon fillet with new potatoes and green beans, chicken curry with spicy aubergine and gnocchi with mushrooms and spinach.

Feeling hungry, B and I opted for starters. Almost all of them sounded substantial, and I'd usually expect to see dishes such as red mullet with saffron risotto and salsa verde under the main course heading of a menu. My crayfish paella with alioli (£5.50) was well-presented and full of flavour; limiting the seafood content to crayfish alone worked surprisingly well and the hint of saffron combined beautifully with the garlicky, lemon-infused alioli. The rice was a little underdone though: a few more minutes cooking time wouldn't have gone amiss and would have reduced the slight excess of stock.

Crayfish paella

B's goat's cheese, tomato, red onion and caper bruschetta (£5) certainly wasn't short of topping: there was no skimping on the goat's cheese, which worked well with the tasty sundried tomatoes and sticky balsamic vinegar.

Goat's cheese and tomato bruschetta

When the main courses arrived, we noted that L's £7 chicken curry was served in almost as generous a portion as the other mains. Served with rice and yoghurt, she found it flavoursome (spicy but not too hot, the aubergine tasting slightly sweet) but perhaps a little lacking in sauce.

Chicken curry

S's grilled sea bass with panzanella (an Italian salad of bread, tomato, red onion and cucumber) was simple summer food done well, the salad adding a fresh taste to the dish. Osney Island resident S went as far as to say it was the best dish she'd tried at The Punter so far.

Sea bass with panzanella

B's lamb leg steak was well cooked; tender and slightly pink in the middle. It was given an eastern twist with harissa seasoning and accompaniments of imam bayildi (Turkish-style aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes), cous cous and tzatziki (£14). The aubergine complemented the lamb well, but the cous cous was slightly dry, although the addition of almonds and capers made up for it. Nothing could save the tzatziki though: it was a fairly flavourless contribution to the plate.

Lamb leg steak with imam bayildi

My whole plaice with lentils and salsa verde (£14) was huge: well-cooked and light, the fish slid off the bone easily. The lentils and salsa verde were simple but effective additions, but again there was a slight excess of liquid.

Plaice with lentils

Spurred on by the successful mains, we ordered desserts: a British cheese board (£6), a brownie with vanilla ice cream and a vanilla and chocolate semi freddo (both £5). The cheese board was poorly presented and served with Jacob's crackers, but the cheese went down well. The brownie was a bit chewy and undercooked and the less said about the semi freddo the better: a mixture of cream, chocolate and some sort of almond biscuit base, it wasn't quite what I'd had in mind.

Cheese board


Semi freddo

Although the desserts were disappointing and there are definitely some quirks in the kitchen that need to be smoothed out, the overall verdict was positive. The menu has definite potential: the simply-cooked, seasonal dishes stood out from the slightly over-ambitious ones. For me, it was the atmosphere that really made the evening, though: laid-back and inviting, The Punter's a perfect pub for a relaxed evening with friends. And apparently the cast of Lewis think so too: they were all down there the following evening. Well, if it's good enough for Kevin Whateley, it's good enough for me too.

Verdict: 7/10

You can listen to me discussing The Punter and other pubs and gastro pubs on Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford here until 2 September.

The Punter is at 7 South Street, Osney Island OX2 0BE. Tel: 01865 248832.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Ashmolean Dining Room: Autumn/winter menu

Can you ever be too discreet? In these financially hard times, it seems that almost everyone bar footballers and Z-list celebrities now subscribe to the maxim that less is more. And while I'm definitely of the opinion that these two groups would do well to get on board with this trend, I also think that the Ashmolean Dining Room could blow it's own trumpet a little louder. Not so loud as to be vulgar, you understand: just enough to be audible and to make its presence felt on the Oxford restaurant scene.

As part of the Ashmolean's extensive re-fit which culminated in 2009, the museum not only gained extra gallery space: it also acquired a rooftop restaurant. A swish, understated space looking out across the Randolph and beyond, the Dining Room has an ample terrace (shame it's in a country lacking ample summers) and even a patch of be-deck-chaired grass for those who fancy an al fresco aperitif of an evening. With a seasonal menu of British and European fare, the Ashmolean Dining Room makes a much-needed contribution to dining in the OX1 postcode: or at least it would, if more people actually realized it was there.

When one of my Twitter followers drew my attention to a new menu tasting and 'networking' evening event at the Dining Room, I put my name down almost as quickly as Peter Andre signs up to the opening of a letter. Although my curiosity hadn't yet been piqued sufficiently to make it through that discreet entrance on St Giles, I had caught the odd murmur that the restaurant was worth a visit. Expecting an hour of bite-size portions on a buffet table and a spot of mingling, I was surprised when our party of six was shown to a table, glasses of prosecco in hand. The one copy of the autumn/winter menu we were given revealed we were in for an evening of sampling a balance of hearty, comforting dishes and lighter, Mediterranean-inspired fare.


Cauliflower and pine nut salad
 Cauliflower isn't the most common salad ingredient, and dare I say rightly so: the salad of cauliflower and pine nuts with a raisin and caper dressing was universally judged under-seasoned, and I found the cold cauliflower a little undercooked. Much better use was made of this winter vegetable in the thick, creamy cauliflower and truffle oil soup. Served in a vintage teacup, this thick, creamy number was sophisticated cold-weather comfort food, the truffle oil enhancing rather than overpowering the taste of the cauliflower.

Crab panna cotta

Creativity certainly has its place in the kitchen, but sometimes the quality of the ingredients should do the talking. This was definitely the case when it came to the ill-judged crab panna cotta: the glutinous cream tasted of crab on first bite, but when applied to the accompanying toast it lost all flavour. As T pointed out, it was made with the crab's white meat rather than the more flavoursome brown meat, and I understand why - who wants a brown panna cotta? The brown crab meat served on a chicory leaf atop the glass was much tastier, proving that simplicity can pay off.

I'm not usually a gravadlax fan, but the Ashmolean's home-cured gravadlax with cucumber relish and a chive creme fraiche may have changed that. A further testament to the powers of simplicity, the flavours combined well and the quality of the smoked salmon stood out. Usually served with rye bread, this would be quite a substantial starter.

Serrano ham & figs

I couldn't try the meaty starters of serrano ham and figs with chardonnay vinegar and honey syrup or Trealy Farm air-dried ham with a celeriac remoulade, but my companions attested to the taste of both. Opinions were divided over preferred hams: M praised the contrast between the sweet figs and the salty serrano ham while S went into raptures over the remoulade. L was more prosaic: apparently the mini gherkins lifted the dish, 'otherwise it was just a plate of fancy ham and coleslaw'.
 I was very pleased I was able to eat the grilled squid marinated in lemon, garlic and smoked paprika and served with a rocket salad (also available as a main course). In Spain, squid is usually kept simple, so I wouldn't have thought to add the paprika, but its subtle, woody flavour made the dish. The excellent quality squid did all the ground work of course, but the spice stole the show and made it a universal favourite at our table.

Main courses

Pearl barley with wild mushrooms

As a pescetarian, one of my main gripes is the lack of inventive vegetarian main courses on the menus of many upmarket restaurants. So when I spotted a main of sauteed pearl barley with wild mushrooms, leeks and spinach, I had high hopes for the Ashmolean: and I wasn't disappointed. Another winner, this filling autumnal dish was understated yet full of flavour. T suggested it was merely a posh take on that veggie staple, mushroom risotto, but I disagreed - for me, the pearl barley took the dish to a different dimension.

The chargrilled bream with glazed lemon chicory and lime creme fraiche was served whole, and although to M it was one of the most appetising dishes on the menu, to me it looked like a plate of grey (hence the lack of photo). It was simple and well done, and although I remained unconvinced (sometimes a whole fish is just too fussy), everyone else polished it off with gusto. The lamb rump with chargrilled vegetables and a black olive jus was another hit: the meat-eaters were divided between this and the bream when it came
to favourites. The jus had a strong flavour which lifted rather than  overpowered the dish, and the vegetables were a well-judged complement.

More successful for me was the salad of candied beetroot and spiced pecans topped with a goat's cheese fritter. Perhaps better off as a starter (although presumably the salad will be beefed up for paying guests), this was an excellent flavour combination, with the beetroot adding an earthy tang to the dish and the pecans contributing a crunch (and tasting 'of German Christmas', according to S. Very seasonal, then).

The sole meuniere was another dud for me: bony and unappetising, I passed this one on quickly. The braised rabbit leg served with savoy cabbage, roasted carrots and a mustard and tarragon sauce was fairly well-received among the carnivores, but the monkfish tail saltimbocca got a universal thumbs down: a strange cut of monkfish served with a few carrots that brought nothing to the party.


After eating our way through the entire menu bar the rib-eye steak, I'm a firm believer in the existence of the pudding stomach. Somehow we found room for panna cotta with a cassis poached pear: the cassis was barely discernible, but the panna cotta was perfect in consistency and flavour. Simple but effective, this dessert was one of the most memorable dishes for me.
The Paris Brest (choux pastry filled with hazelnut cream) was perhaps more of an afternoon cake than an after-dinner dessert, but it was beautiful: rich and creamy with excellent pastry. A whole one may have been a little too much, but A and I were more than happy to devour half each.
The chocolate and amaretti sponge may not have impressed visually, but the taste was spot on: the subtle aftertaste of amaretti even won over almond-avoiding M, and T praised the crispy amaretti crust, which brought an unusual textural element.

With some well-judged, skilfully prepared seasonal fare, the Ashmolean Dining Room's autumn/winter menu offers more than a few worthwhile options. There were definitely a few dud dishes and others that disappointed slightly among the starters and the mains, but those that were kept simple and based around successful flavour combinations really stood out. As for the desserts, there wasn't a let-down in sight, although the prices are somewhat steep at £6-7: in my opinion, desserts should stay around the £5 mark. In general, prices are what you would expect of a rooftop restaurant, perhaps slightly less: starters range from £6-8, while mains go from £11 to £19 for the steak. It's not cheap, but the sophisticated setting makes the Ashmolean ideal for a celebration yet accessible enough for a slightly special occasion. In my opinion, the weekend counts as one of those. Next time you walk past that discreet entrance on St Giles, consider stepping inside: you won't be disappointed (as long as you avoid the crab panna cotta). And a bit of word-of-mouth marketing wouldn't go amiss either: just don't tell Peter Andre, will you?

Update September 2011: Returning to the Ashmolean as a guest on a 'normal' evening, the quality of the food was possibly better than that on offer at the new menu tasting. I chose a starter of  smoked paprika squid, and was again impressed by the taste - and this time, I got a generous portion all to myself. The pearl barley was just as good as I remembered, and the panna cotta even better: this time the pear was discernibly poached in cassis. Choose carefully from the menu and enjoy.

Verdict: 8

The Ashmolean Dining Room is at the Ashmolean Museum, OX1 2PH. Open Sun, Tues & Weds 10am-6pm and Thurs-Sat 10am-10pm. Tel: 01865 553823.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Radio show 26 August: Pubs and gastro pubs

I'll be back on BBC Radio Oxford this Friday 26 August to discuss the topic of pubs and gastro pubs in Oxfordshire. The county's certainly not short of great places to eat in this category, and although I'm doing my best to explore them all, it's entirely possible I haven't yet visited your favourite pub for a spot of grub.

Presenter Jo Thoenes is keen to hear from as many of you as possible, so if you could get in touch with your thoughts and recommendations of pubs and gastro pubs to read out on air, it would be much appreciated. Please leave your comments on Jo's Facebook page or email them to jointheafternoon[@]bbc.co.uk. Looking forward to hearing from you!

You can listen live here from 1pm on Friday or listen here during the following 7 days.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Fishes

When exactly does a pub become a gastro pub? Is it when the menu extends beyond shepherd's pie and fish and chips into more adventurous culinary territory, perhaps? We've all heard the term 'gastro pub' bandied around in the media, but nobody seems entirely sure of its exact definition. And to complicate matters further, when does one of these gastro pubs cross that blurry dividing line and become a restaurant? Defining itself as a gastro pub, The Fishes gave us food for thought on both these issues.

Located in the pretty village of North Hinksey just west of Oxford, The Fishes has a charming setting. With a large garden and a terrace for dining outside, it's a prime spot for making the most of the glimpses of sunshine that pass for a British summer. Stepping inside, the feeling is overwhelmingly upscale: smartly-clad waitresses swishing across polished wood floors, 'country luxe' decor in muted tones, silver fish hanging on the perfectly painted walls. There are no rough edges here: The Fishes is all gloss. We were seated at a corner table in the expansive dining room to peruse the menu, complemented on this occasion by the Wednesday steak night specials. Glancing from the few customers perched on stools by the bar and our well-heeled fellow diners, I knew we were definitely in 'gastro' territory. However, presumably to keep things (faux-)casual, the table was cluttered with side plates, water and wine glasses and a jar of cutlery. Not laid, you understand: they were all just sitting there, waiting to be used. An odd (and slightly lazy) touch.

Adding to The Fishes' gastro credentials, head chef Charlie Barr previously worked for Rick Stein in Cornwall, before moving to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Birmingham. Her seasonal menu is well-organised, beginning with deli boards to share and leading into starters, mains and 'either/or' dishes featuring both British and European influences. Many choices, such as free range sausages and mash, are classic pub grub prepared with high quality ingredients, while options such as duck breast with a warm apricot, courgette and potato salad move far beyond the repertoire of a bog-standard boozer.

We started with a tempting-sounding veggie deli board (£11), a selection of sundried tomato houmous, pitta bread, olives, spicy feta peppers, breaded courgettes and tomato salsa.

Veggie deli board

The portion size was generous and there were plenty of tidbits to try, with the courgette strips and chilli-infused peppers particulary tasty. As I had envisaged it would be, presentation was immaculate, but ultimately we were all left with a slight sense of style over substance. The pitta bread was all sliced into perfectly-proportioned strips but there wasn't quite enough of it, the sundried tomato houmous tasted a little of pizza base and we weren't really sure what role tomato salsa was meant to play in the whole affair: as a sharing platter goes, it was a bit on the fiddly side, prompting a few 'how do I eat this' dilemmas.

Our main courses hit a much better note. The caesar salad (large £10.75) was indeed large, with plenty of good quality chicken, bacon and anchovies sitting atop a bed of crisp lettuce, although there was a tad too much dressing for A's liking.

Caesar salad

My herb pancakes stuffed with tomato, courgette and ricotta and baked in a red pepper sauce (large £11.75) were available either with or without salmon; I opted for 'with' given the price tag. Although the salmon added substance, I don't think a purely vegetarian dish would have seemed lacklustre given the richness of the other ingredients: in fact, the dish may even have been improved with fewer flavours fighting it out. My only criticism of this hearty dish of comfort food was the slightly soggy bottom of the pancakes: a little too much sauce had been used perhaps. Although nobody likes a soggy bottom, it didn't really spoil my enjoyment of the meal.

Herb pancakes with tomato, courgette & ricotta

S's free-range chicken breast with a tomato, broad bean and pearl barley risotto (£14) was the stand-out main. A simple but effective combination of seasonal ingredients, crispy chicken skin and a healthy helping of the pearl barley risotto (an under-featured menu item) made this dish a success.

As we were clearly having something of a cocoa craving, we all bypassed the summer pudding and lemon posset (the summer 2011 dessert du jour, I've noticed) and opted for the warm flourless chocolate cake (£5.50) served with vanilla ice cream (or salted caramel in the case of S, who asked if they minded switching flavours: they didn't). Beautifully presented again, the cake was a dense, intense hit of chocolate - almost like a brownie. S was less convinced, but the salted caramel ice cream won her round.

Flourless chocolate cake

Even the coffee is beautiful at The Fishes

Over coffee, we pondered the gastro pub issue further. A pub, we all agreed, is somewhere you go for a drink. There's probably some sort of food on offer (sometimes pretty good quality food), but it's unlikely that you'd visit solely to dine. And you definitely wouldn't call to book a table: informality reigns at pubs. At a gastro pub, however, the focus is on food: you go there because you want to eat there. By this definition, The Fishes is most definitely a gastro pub, perhaps erring on the restaurant side of things. Yes, it serves real ales and has an occasional pub quiz, but the majority of customers visit to sample what's on the menu. And given the pretty location and the quality cooking on offer, I can understand why. It may not be exactly to my taste in terms of style, and the bill was definitely on the pricey side for a mid-week dinner, but after a visit I can see why The Fishes enjoys the reputation it does.

The Fishes is in North Hinksey Village, OX2 0NA. Tel: 01865 249796 or book online. Reservations recommended at weekends.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

On location: Eating my way around Cork

If there's one thing I enjoy more than a delicious dinner, it's a holiday. So it should come as no surprise that my travels tend to revolve around eating. The pleasures of food and travel are closely linked in my mind, especially as the relaxed holiday mentality only invites indulgence (hence one of my favourite meals being what I like to call the 'pre-dinner dinner'). As I like to escape Oxford on a regular basis, I thought I'd share my foodie forays with you in a new series of 'on location' posts.


While I was in Cork for a long weekend, the weather dictated that I spent most of my time indoors. If only I'd have packed my cagoule and a pair of wellies, I wouldn't have had to eat at all of these lovely places. Ireland's certainly not the cheapest country to eat out in, but portions are generous and as the Corkonians seem to love their grub, there are plenty of excellent dining options to be found in Cork.

Arriving somewhere at 4pm is awkward: too late for lunch, but too early for dinner. This is where the pre-dinner dinner comes in. Fortunately for us, Cork seems to have embraced the tapas trend, so we settled in at Bodega, a lofty-ceilinged bar serving a selection of small plates as well as bigger dishes. We opted for a Spanish tortilla with served with tapenade and a toast crouton (€5.90) and grilled garlic mushrooms topped with halloumi cheese, peppers and tomato (€6). Both dishes were beautifully presented and tasty; the different flavours involved in the mushroom dish combining particularly well. Set in a former market building, Bodega is an elegant spot for a drink or a bite to eat, without the hefty price tag such a venue could impose.

Bodega is at St Peter's Market on Cornmarket Street.

Market Lane
Several hours later, it was time for the main event. Wandering central Cork checking out menus on Friday evening, Market Lane was buzzing with customers. Trying our luck, we stepped inside and had a drink at the bar while we waited for a table. The split-level space is busy yet inviting, with low-lighting and plenty of candles making it an ideal venue for a date. It wasn't all couples though; plenty of families were dining, and the balance of local vs tourist clientele tipped slightly in favour of the former, assuring us we'd made a good decision.
Much of the tempting menu of Irish and European dishes is prepared with local ingredients sourced from Cork's gastronomic treasure, the English Market. As prices range from €13.50 to €22 for main dishes, we skipped the starters and ordered a butternut and feta gratin with polenta, caramelized red onions, sundried tomatoes and almonds (€13.50) and monkfish tempura with a lemon and herb potato cake and a tomato, olive and saffron ragout (€18.95).

Butternut and feta gratin

Monkfish tempura
 Both our choices were well-presented and substantial - so substantial in fact, that I had a slight twinge of regret regarding the pre-dinner dinner. The monkfish was clearly high quality and was perfectly cooked, while the polenta added an interesting extra dimension to the excellent butternut squash/feta combination in the gratin. No room for dessert afterwards though, sadly.

Market Lane is at 5-6 Oliver Plunkett Street.

Cork Coffee Roasters
There weren't many good things about our accommodation for the weekend, but its main advantage was definitely its proximity to Cork Coffee Roasters, a miniature gourmet coffee shop which packed a big punch with its smooth hand-roasted blends (and its staff were rather easy on the eye, too). Their coffee (€2.50) was so delicious I braved the Sunday morning downpour to return for more: I can't say I'd ever do that for a Starbucks.

Cork Coffee Roasters is at 2 Bridge Street.

The Quay

After an evening of indulgence, we thought we'd go for the healthy option at The Quay vegetarian restaurant for lunch. Set on the bank of the River Lee above a health foods shop run by the same team,  The Quay is what I'd call an 'old school' vegetarian restaurant, with a self-service counter offering spelt-based pizzas and tarts, lasagne, chickpea burgers, soup and salads. No gourmet affectations here, just well-prepared meat-free home cooking. All eggs used are free range, and many other ingredients are fair trade and organic. At around €10 for a hot lunch option with salad, eating at The Quay isn't a bargain, but the huge portions more than justified the price tag. My chickpea burgers (yes, 2) served with a curry sauce were both tasty and filling, while the spelt pizza with goat's cheese made an interesting change from a normal wheat-based one. The airy dining room with its river view is also a lovely spot to while away an hour or so.

The Quay Co-op is at 24 Sullivan's Quay.

Liberty Grill
Cork's twitterati are big fans of Liberty Grill: when I asked for foodie recommendations, I was surprised by the number of people who suggested it for brunch. Once I checked out the menu though, I could see why: with a wide range of Irish and American breakfast options, as well as an appetizing lunch menu, Liberty Grill is somewhere to come with an appetite.
A smart spot on a scruffy street, Liberty Grill is all varnished wooden floors, white walls and table cloths. It's still relaxed, though, with friendly staff and an unhurried air conducive to lingering and ordering cup after cup of their delicious coffee. After perusing the menu for longer than expected, I opted for a grilled fontina cheese and tomato sandwich (€5), while A went for the full American breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon on sourdough toast, served with orange juice and tea or coffee.
Arriving with an unexpected but entirely welcome pot of garlicky pesto, my sandwich was delicious: gooey and gorgeous, the perfect end to a weekend of food-related indulgence.

Liberty Grill is at 32 Washington Street.

If you're heading to Spain this summer, you might want to check out my Tales of a Brit Abroad blog for more dining recommendations.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne may be a chain, but with 42 branches dotted around the country, you won't exactly find one on every high street. Oxford's Loch Fyne is located away from the centre in trendy Jericho, setting it apart from the bulk of the city's chains in location as well as feel. The Loch Fyne menu varies slightly depending on location, and changes several times a year to reflect the seasons.

Keen to experience the pesecetarian joys Oxford has to offer, I followed my visit to Fishers with a trip to Loch Fyne to road-test their 2 courses for £9.95 offer. Sitting down at our table, we almost felt like we actually were on the coast rather than miles inland: the air conditioning was turned up so high my friend's hair was blowing in the breeze. A quick word to the friendly staff quickly calmed her barnet and regulated the temperature, but I couldn't help but wish we'd been placed on one of the tables around the edge of the dining space, rather than in the centre of the restaurant where the tables are a little too close for comfort.

Heating issues dealt with, I selected from the 2 course menu currently available Monday to Thursday evenings. With options such as Wiltshire trout with lemon and coriander butter and pan-fried salmon, the deal covers the classics, with the a la carte menu offering more 'exciting' options including fish curry and pasta dishes as well as straightforward fillets of fish. Both vegetarians and meat lovers are catered for on the offer, though, with both a meat-free and a meaty starter and a main among the choices (5 for each course). I opted for steamed rope-grown mussels with shallots (but minus the bacon) followed by Scottish hake with sauteed new potatoes and samphire in a mustard dressing, while my dining companions went wild and hit the a la carte menu.

Although my mussels looked perfectly generous for a starter-size portion, I couldn't help but feel a bit of mussel envy when I saw the size of AM's pot of cream and white wine-drenched molluscs. A little lacking in flavour (perhaps due to the omission of the bacon), they were decent enough but nothing to rave about, while AM's moules marinieres were decidedly tasty.

Steamed mussels
J's coarse peppered mackerel pate with oatcakes was not only perfectly presented, it was full of flavour and moreish - and I'm not normally a fan of mackerel. The portion size was also generous: no skimpy servings here, then.

Mackerel pate

Main courses followed a similar pattern: as is to be expected, the a la carte beat the offer's offerings on both size and taste. My hake was decent, with a pleasant enough sauce, but it was far from memorable. The seasonal addition of samphire had me thinking back to my meal at Fishers and its superiority: not their aim, I'm sure! AT's fish and chips was far more appealing, both visually and in terms of taste: although it was cooked with the skin on (can anyone explain why this is the norm down south?), the fish was light and flaky and the batter crisp without being too dry or too greasy. AM's scampi and chips received a rave review, with the superior quality of the scampi evident, while J's moules marinieres also went down a treat.

Hake with new potatoes and samphire

Fish and chips


Scampi & chips
As we polished off our mains, a couple nearby were cracking into the crustaceans in their 3 tier seafood platter: featuring crab and lobster as well as an array of shellfish, it certainly looked impressive - but so it should for a £55 price tag.

With a comprehensive menu of sustainably-sourced fish dishes (and a selection of meat and vegetarian options), Loch Fyne has something for everyone, from the least adventurous eaters to those happy to get stuck in and prise the heads off prawns. Its 2 course offer may help to keep the bill low, but to make the most of the experience, opt for a la carte dining instead: the portion size and taste make it worthwhile.

Verdict: 6.5 (5 for the 2 course menu)

Loch Fyne is at 55 Walton Street, Oxford OX2 6AE. Tel: 01865 292510. If you sign up to their newsletter, you receive a £10 discount voucher.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Rusty Bicycle

I first discovered The Rusty Bicycle one Sunday at the end of last year when, in the midst of moving house, my long-suffering dad and I tried our luck at the Magdalen Arms. There was no room at the inn, but the barman did me a bigger favour than he realised when he pointed us up Magdalen Road in the direction of the Rusty. With a more relaxed, friendly feel than the MA, we soon felt at home tucking into Sunday roast (dad) and a Moroccan bean and halloumi salad (me). And here's the disclaimer before you read on: I've been a relatively regular customer ever since.

As discussed in my review of sister pub the Rickety Press, I like a smartly decorated yet still casual pub with a selection of good food on offer, so the Rusty is right up my street. I have fond memories of devouring the tastiest fish and chips I've eaten below Birmingham (I maintain that northern chippies do it best) followed by a delicious Earl Grey infused sticky toffee pudding. I nearly had to be rolled home afterwards, but it was worth it. My mum has notoriously high standards, but even she deemed the Rusty worthy of a repeat visit after trying their mushroom risotto (the fact that they do fizz by the glass also helped).

Post-Rickety Press visit, I decided the time had come to review the Rusty's culinary offerings. On arrival, I was a little disappointed to discover that the menu is now more limited in scope: a selection of nibbles, sharing boards, wraps, burgers and a few salads and healthier bites are what's on offer nowadays (roasts are still available on Sundays, though). Everything sounded tasty and was reasonably priced, but the selection isn't exactly extensive. Perhaps the menu's been reduced for summer, but I hope the fish and chips makes a comeback at least.

A & I kicked off our evening with a pot of houmous with 'harissa rose relish' and pitta bread (£3), which was (not to put too fine a point on it) absolutely delicious, or as my rather sophisticated notes attest, 'fit'. Presentation was perfect, with the chickpea, onion and harissa relish adding substance and a touch of spice.

Yummy houmous
Stomachs suitably stimulated and half of my reduced menu-related toys back in the pram, we awaited the arrival of our wraps. And what wraps they were: nobody could accuse me of having a small mouth, either literally or metaphorically, but even I was unable to get my laughing gear round one of the Rusty's 'chunky khobez wraps'. That's the thing: they're not really wraps. They're more like flatbreads enclosing the customer's filling of choice: a visually appealing presentation device, yes, but not really designed for ease of eating. And I suppose 'wraps' is easier to fit on a menu.

Sweet potato falafel wrap

Lamb kofta wrap

Ease and elegance issues aside (this is pub grub after all), my sweet potato falafel wrap (£5) was both flavoursome and filling. The homemade falafel were moist and tasty, and the addition of a spiced yoghurt dressing and a pot of that gorgeous houmous were excellent complements. As for the wrap, I alternated between attacking it with my cutlery and tearing strips off it to smear in the dip. A's lamb and feta kofta wrap with tzatziki (£6) was another appetizing option, with high quality, well-cooked lamb enhanced by the Grecian accompaniments.

To conclude, we opted for a Sailor Jerry's chocolate pot (£3) from the small dessert selection, which also features G & D's ice cream. Expecting a miniature dish of chilled rum-infused chocolate, we were initially nonplussed by the espresso cup of what looked like warm milk chocolate mousse. And then we dipped into it. Don't judge a chocolate pot by its temperature: this cup of chocolatey, rummy goodness was delicious.

So, we had a tasty and cheap meal in a lovely pub with a great atmosphere. It wasn't exactly what you'd call a gastro delight, but it was a definite cut above standard pub fare, with high quality, seasonal ingredients served up in interesting combinations. I can't help but hope that the extended menu makes a reappearance come autumn, but I'll still be returning regardless - for the houmous if nothing else.

Verdict: 7.5 (but 10 for the houmous).

The Rusty Bicycle is at 28 Magdalen Road, Oxford OX4 1RB. Tel: 01865 435 298.
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