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.
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.