Having a man attempt to attach a carpet to the wall behind your head isn't exactly a typical Sunday lunch experience. But then again, not much about the experience of dining at a new establishment is typical. Based on this little incident at the Oxford Blue, I'm quite happy about that.
The former sports pub just off the Iffley Road has been taken over by the team formerly behind Bottega in Jericho and transformed into a chic but cosy spot for a drink and a bite to eat. With white walls and a few interesting decorative touches, it's inviting but still remains within the 'pub' realm. The wine savvy of the management team is evident on the menu, though: each dish is paired with a wine chosen from their list. With tipples including Spanish whites and Portuguese and Hungarian reds, it's an interesting selection – picking up exactly where Bottega left off. Prices are fair given the quality and wide range, but a touch steep for the area, with house wine £4 a glass (i.e. 50p more than in the lovely Rusty nearby).
The menu sticks to more familiar territory, with chef Mark Bradbury (formerly of Smiths of Smithfield and Branca, among other restaurants) cooking up modern British dishes with a gastro twist: the 'Bannister burger' (£10.95), Korean barbecue lamb with kale and baked smoked haddock with cream, spinach, cheese and a poached egg (both £14) feature among the 6 main courses. Mains are reasonably priced, but the starter selection is on the expensive side, with dishes from £5–7.50. Sides aren't included, adding to the bill by a further £2.75. The menu itself features an interesting reverse side, full of facts 'Oxford blue'-related facts: a nice touch.
Arriving on a reasonably quiet Sunday lunchtime, B and I were still basking in the glow of running our first 10k race that morning. We were ready to settle in, eat up and chill out. After seating us, the waitress returned a few minutes later to ask what we'd like to drink, and seemed a little surprised by our request to see a wine list. We were then given both the menu and the wine list, but as she hurried us in our drink choice, we didn't get chance to pair our wines to our lunch. I was pleased to note that 5 of the 7 starters were vegetarian, but by contrast only 2 mains were meat-free. Not in the mood for gnocchi with wild mushrooms and Jerusalem artichoke (£10.50) or slow-roast tomatoes with goat's cheese and sourdough (£11.50), we opted for a starter each followed by a vegetarian platter to share (£9.50).
As we waited for our food, we noted that almost everyone else in the pub seemed to know the staff except us: girls went into the kitchen to greet the chef; the couple next to us seemed somehow involved in the running of the joint (well, if not then one of them was definitely taking liberties with his decor rearranging). It was all starting to feel a bit like we'd gatecrashed a housewarming. The arrival of our starters rescued matters somewhat: my Welsh rarebit (£5) was a perfect post-running treat; toasted sourdough smothered with gooey, mustardy cider-soaked melted cheese. The salad leaves were neither here nor there, merely adding a token touch of health to such an artery-clogging slab of deliciousness. B's wild mushrooms on grilled sourdough with creme fraiche and mustard (£6.50) were similarly well-received, the variety of mushrooms and the smoky taste winning particular praise. Our vegetarian platter was tasty enough but failed to make a significant impression: the battered artichokes and imam bayildi (a Turkish roasted aubergine dish) were both well-prepared and moreish, the buffallo mozzarella was creamy and rich, but the asparagus mentioned on the menu was substituted for a celeriac salad topped with a boiled egg. I'm sure fans of these two foodstuffs would have been happy at the exchange, but I left them both well alone. After a few minutes, a chef trailed out with a pot of warm houmous he'd forgotten. Yes, warm houmous. Intentionally heated. As someone who loves the heavenly chickpea puree that is houmous more than you would think possible, I wasn't sure what to make of this cavalier attitude to my favourite food. It wasn't as bad as I feared, but certainly isn't going to rival the traditional presentation any time soon.
Desserts hit a much better note than the hot houmous. My flourless orange and almond cake (£5.50) was dense and full of flavour, well-complemented by the accompanying Greek yoghurt and honey. B's pressed chocolate cake with warm fudge sauce (£5.50) was another triumph: rich, satisfying and indulgent. Enjoying a post-dessert glass of wine, I suddenly became aware of the man on the table next to me placing a floor lamp next to my chair, before the aforementioned carpet incident. Sure, the decor in a new establishment is bound to be a work in progress, but ideally it shouldn't be in progress almost on top of a customer.
I've got mixed feeling about the Oxford Blue. It always takes time for new places to hit their stride; chefs have to find their groove with the menu, waiting staff need to settle in. It's certainly a lovely venue that has been well-restored, its wine list is exciting and its menu showed definite potential. I can only hope that as time passes the 'quirks' are ironed out and that the promising food and drink are allowed to come to the fore. And that the carpet stays off the wall.
Verdict: a tentative 6.5, with potential to improve - worth a second visit in the New Year
The Oxford Blue is at 32 Marston Street, OX4 1JU. Tel: 01865 460215.