Saturday 20th January, 2018 – The Oxford Kitchen, Oxford
Finally, 8 days after my birthday, we actually got to go and have a celebratory dinner. We had intended to do it the previous weekend, but I was outsmarted by OpenTable, and my booking at The Harrow in Little Bedwyn somehow got transposed from Saturday to Thursday. Now as we don’t live in the vicinity, that was not a lot of help, especially as we didn’t find out until our lovely AirBnB landlady dropped us off there, a mile down the road from where we were staying and a very long way from any other eating establishment. Now it’s only fair to say the staff at the Harrow went above and beyond attempting to salvage the night for us, telephoning several other places to see if they could take us, and then actually driving us back to our accommodation for the night. There followed a somewhat dispiriting drive/trawl round Marlborough, before we eventually found somewhere offering good enough pub food (rather than the £5.99 for two courses offering in a pub in Marlborough). The Who’d a Thought It looked after us very well and we had a good enough meal, but it wasn’t the one Michelin-starred experience we’d geared up for.
So on Monday I started trying to find somewhere that would prove a good substitute but would not be too far from home. Oxford is a 40 minute drive, which is not too far for a good meal (it’s not even close to too far for a good meal) and although it used to be a culinary desert it has improved greatly in recent years. The Oxford Kitchen is even on the right side of town from us, and they had a table available too. It would have been churlish not to book a table.
And so, on a wet and unpleasant night, we pointed the car at Oxford and 40 minutes later fetched up on the Banbury Road, where the restaurant is located. We then spent a good 10 minutes trying to find a parking space, but there’s nothing unusual about that in Oxford. We finally stumbled upon a space in a side road, next to a funeral director’s shop! We then picked out way around the icy puddles until we reached the venue, at one end of a row of nondescript shops. It looks very unobtrusive from the street, but inside was warm, cosy, decorated in shades of brown and caramel, with tables upstairs and down. I’d been told the upstairs section was the nicer of the two spaces, and was pleased to be taken to a table in the middle of the room.
With our coats spirited away we were offered menus and aperitifs. I chose a Chambord royale, which came with a lovely, plump, sweet raspberry and a blueberry on a cocktail stick by way of tasty decoration!
Lynne decided she needed a rose royale which was made with rose syrup and decorated with a couple of fresh, red petals. It looked very stylish.
We set to with our study of the menu and decided that we would go for the tasting menu, because it all sounded delicious, and it would take the decision making process out of the evening. We also chose to take the wine pairing because it sounded interesting – in fact the relatively short wine list is a generally interesting document and I could have happily worked my way through it. We placed our order, and then concentrated on our aperitifs. As we were doing this, the amuse-bouches arrived. They gave confidence, as good amuse-bouches do, that we were in good hands. First up was a glass of shards of fennel flatbread, golden and crisp with whole fennel seeds studding the surface. They were accompanied by a beautifully smooth humus, in a small glass bowl. There was a slight hiccup there as the waitress doing the introduction of the foods was certain it was apple jelly. I was certain it wasn’t but didn’t contradict her. I had the impression she was brand new, and she was certainly nervous, so I figured it would be kinder not to call attention to the fact she’d got it wrong.
Also on the table were two glossy-looking brioches, crisp on the outside and moist and fluffy on the inside, served with a quenelle of caramelised butter, with caramelised breadcrumbs scattered on it. And then there were two gorgeous cubes of pulled pork, breadcrumbed and fried to a crisp outer coating, the meat inside tender strands of pig, with apple gel above and below (and not in the glass bowl of humus).
I could have quite happily dispatched a plateful of these, and not just one each but there were several courses yet to come so it was probably just as well! And then, before we’d quite finished the amuse-bouches, the first course arrived. This was a quenelle of crème fraîche, a granola-like scattering of seeds and nuts (pumpkin seeds and pinenuts mostly), and an arancini of truffled rice. To pour over it was a jug of butternut squash velouté, a stunningly bright yellow liquid that blended beautifully with the other constituent parts of the dish, the sweetness of the velouté offset by the bite of the crème fraîche and the crunch of the nuts and the arancini.
There was a short awkward moment when we realised that the waitress had failed to leave us any spoons, but that was very quickly remedied by another member of staff. It was a slight service misstep to my way of thinking, but it was the last one of the evening. It all went very smoothly after this point.
The velouté was served with a glass of Valle Berta Gavi, Piemonte, Italy 2016, for which I can find no link or reference. It was light and dry and went well with the velouté.
Next up was the first of two fish dishes, in this instance sea trout cured in gin, with dill, lemon, and puffed wheat to add texture. The fish was meltingly soft with an aftertaste of juniper berries from the gin, and a lemon hit for contrast. It was glorious and even if it was just a matter of plating it rather than having to do any serious cooking to get it on the table, it was still a delight from first bite to last, refreshing and clean on the palate.
With the trout we drank a Baron de Baussac, Viognier, Couteaux du Languedoc, France 2016, which was pretty much a typical Viognier, dry, refreshing, and cutting through the fatiness of the fish well enough.
The real pièce de résistance on the fish side was the next plate of loveliness, a with distinctly oriental shadings to it. We were served a chunk of roasted halibut, sitting on kohlrabi and apple, with brown shrimp and chicken oysters adding flavour to the dish. The chicken oysters were an intense, chicken flavour, which went perfectly with the meatiness of the halibut. The whole thing was decorated with discs of kohlrabi, and a dusting of rock samphire, and it was brought together by the application of a deep, intense apple dashi.
The accompanying wine was a 2016 Fernlands Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough, New Zealand, with a tropical fruit aroma and taste that meant this was a very enjoyable Sauvignon. The fact that it was from the other Marlborough seemed appropriate given the reason we were here! The Sauvignon, in fact, was so nice that in the gap between courses we had an extra glass.
Next we moved to the meat course. This was lamb in two ways, a piece of rump, presumably pan-fried, and some slow cooked shoulder stuffed into an onion, and topped with crunchy strands of onion. There was also broccoli prepared three ways including an intensely smooth puree, freekeh grains and a lemon and cumin gravy. My only reservation at this point was that I thought the lamb fat could have been rendered a little more, but it was otherwise very tasty indeed.
The wine now remained on the other side of the planet in origin terms, with a Wirra Wirra “The Good Catch”, Shiraz and Cabernet, South Australia 2014. It went down very well, being a robust flavoured wine, but smooth. I was now stopping taking mental notes however, so you’ll have to take my word for it!
And now for the first of two very pretty desserts. First was a mandarin, sparkling wine, Grand Marnier custard and lemon thyme confection. The custard was underneath a disc of mandarin sugar work that needed a sharp crack from the spoon to break through it.
It was not especially sweet, more citrussy than that, and you could taste the sparkling wine in each mouthful. It refreshed the palate after the richness and stickiness of the lamb course. It came with a glass of Chateau Monbazillac, France 2013, which was just what was needed along side such an orange-inflected dish.
The final flourish came in the shape of a chocolate cremeux, with several intensely tasty pieces of banana, sesame seeds in the shape of a crispy, light tuile, and blobs of sharp, green yuzu caramel that lifted the sticky blobs of banana, and stopped the cremeux from sticking to your teeth forever. Oh, and they put a birthday candle in mine!
With it we drank an Elysium, California Black Muscat, USA 2014. And we were almost there. We’d been wondering whether we’d get as far as the cheese, and although we were now more than a little stuffed, we decided that as it was a tomme, one of my favourite cheeses, we’d share a portion and have the matching wine, this time a glass of tawny port.
The cheese was delivered, made all frilly, and brûléed along the edges. It was pretty, and somewhat hid just what a large portion of cheese it was. There were apple slices, hazelnut biscuits, and a chutney to go with it too.
While we were finishing off, we got into conversation with the waitress who had been giving us full information on our wine and food, and who was obviously Polish. We then found out that Agnieszka had worked before at Studio Qulinarne in Krakow, where we ate last month, which seemed to be stretching coincidence quite a long way! Anyway, she was lovely, very professional, very good indeed, and I’d say they are lucky to have her.
We were now at the end of our meal, so I ordered a coffee and Lynne finished off with one more port before we headed for home.