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.

Starters

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.



Gravadlax
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.




Desserts



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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice way to decorate your walls. I have never done that. My effort to beautify the walls in my house was to order big-sized canvas prints from wahooart.com, from images of western art. I use the same angel motifs in all of the rooms painted by different painters, such as this one by very interesting English artist Stanley Spencer, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT7K6.

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