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|
|Crab panna cotta|
|Serrano ham & figs|
|Pearl barley with wild mushrooms|
to favourites. The jus had a strong flavour which lifted rather than overpowered the dish, and the vegetables were a well-judged complement.
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.
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.