Saturday, 29th February 2020 – The Oxford Kitchen, Oxford
We haven’t been to the Oxford Kitchen since it got its current – and much deserved – Michelin star, partly because we’ve not been in Oxford much, and partly because as a result of the award it’s a lot harder to get a table now than it used to be! In town for the Rembrandt exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, we took our chance and made an early booking for dinner, arriving at 6:30 to what was an empty but clearly ready restaurant. We had a table upstairs in a nice cosy corner, and were soon settled in and having a serious look at the tasting menu in front of us while we drank a nice glass of Merlot.
The menu is £59 each for 8 courses, with some extras available if you are feeling greedy. We were feeling greedy so we decided we’d go with the extras (and the extra charges) as well as the matching wines for an extra £42 each.
We started with the Snacks and Nibbles, which turned out to be a couple of spectacularly shiny beetroot macarons, chewy and savoury and glued together with a layer of soft and pungent goat’s cheese. There were also squid ink biscuits with the texture of soft shortbread, and which were the sandwich around a filling of taramasalata (which has me thinking that I really need to do something with the smoked cods’ roe I still have in the freezer and what could be better than home made taramasalata?). These were little treasure troves of flavour; the kitchen really does seem to be on song right now.
There were also a pair of delicious arancini, tiny, crisp-coated and soft and savoury inside. They came with a pistachio-flavoured blob of bright green puree that gave them an extra fillip.
The bread that came with the snacks was pretty damn good too, with silky smooth malt and yeast infused butter and pumpkin ketchup. We did try not to eat all the bread in one go, and actually managed to stop ourselves rather more effectively than we sometimes manage. This was quite a hardship because the bread was very good and the butter was something you would not want to leave!
The extra items started here too, with a briliant sesame prawn toast, with ponzu, and a Victoria plum sauce. Imagine the best prawn toast you’ve ever had and this was better. By miles. The prawn flavour was massive and the plum sauce was sticky and fabulous.
We started the meal proper with the gin-cured halibut, small curls of thinly sliced fish, with a chilled kaffir lime and oyster cream, flavoured with tonic, and shot through with dill. I don’t like gin but this was subtle enough to be enjoyable, and the taste of the fish came through perfectly. This came with a classic New Zealand Ribbonwood Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. It was just right for the halibut, fresh, green, nicely acidic, just what you would hope for with something flavoured with gin.
The next course was another of the “optional” ones, with an extra charge. It wasn’t something we were going to refuse though, not with scallops and black garlic involved! Actually, when it arrived it was one plump, large perfectly executed Scottish scallop, with a piece of white asparagus, a cauliflower puree and lots of sticky, umami accented black garlic sauce. Lovely! The Berton Vineyards Winemakers Reserve Chardonnay from Australia was no slouch either, a proper “cool climate” Chardonnay, with tropical and citrus fruit flavours and just a hint of oak, giving a suggestion of vanilla. This was another well chosen wine.
We now arrived at the three “main” courses on the menu, starting with Irish Hereford beef, with spring onions and “Carroll’s” King Edward red potatoes. I think this was the only slight misstep for me, but only because the potatoes seemed slightly under and rather more crunchy than they ought to have been. However, all the other elements, including the broth, were spot on, so maybe I just got unlucky. Lynne was perfectly happy with hers. The addition of tiny mushrooms helped a lot as well! We drank a Sachetto Pinot Nero, from the Veneto, a red-fruit example of Pinot Noir, full of blackberry and raspberry flavours and smooth as you could wish.
We moved on to roast monkfish, with strands of sea-fresh salty monks beard, which I like because it’s less violently saline than samphire, in a Thai green curry, excellently fresh and punchy, and garnished with tiny shrimp. It provided an interesting contrast to the smoother, more “western” flavours of the preceding dishes. The Gerard Bertrand, Gris Blanc, from the Languedoc, was one of those beautifully pale pink, almost grey, rosés that remind me always of the south of France, though usually from Provence, not necessarily further west. It was really fine with the Asian flavour of the dish, made with a blend of Grenache and Grenache Gris. Apparently it comes from very close to Perpignan which makes me want to head off down there right now!
The final main was lamb, with smoked aubergine, ewes’ curd, a deep green brocolli puree, lemon and ras el hanout. The meat was perfect, just right in terms of cooking abd tasting of spring, and the wine choice was interesting too, a Chateau de Fontinelle, from Cadillac, in Bordeaux. Now if you say Cadillac to me I either think cars (inevitably – this is me after all) or sweet white wines. Not deep, dark reds. I’ve been missing out if this is anything to go by. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%) and Merlot (50%), there was a lot of black cherry and spice, the whole a glorious smooth, full bodied wine.
The ewes’ curd provided a nice bridge to the selection of British cheeses that followed (also an extra, with up to five cheese available). I opted for three, turning down the cheddar and one other. We shared the cheese, with me eating most of it (Lynne was starting to fill up by now and managed a few slivers). We drank a glass of port with the cheese as the most appropriate partner, especially with the blue.
The first of the desserts could probably more accurately have been referred to as pre-dessert, a creamy mix of Yorkshire rhubarb, with a buttermilk cheesecake, and parkin, treacly and dense and sweet, with the rhubarb’s sharpness offsetting it nicely. It was soothing and slipped down easily after the density of the previous courses, but contained enough contrasts to remain interesting. The Ned Noble Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough, is another of those Kiwi takes on a wine that prove they can makes wines just as good as those made in Europe if not better. This is a botrytised wine, full of tropical fruit flavours, intense and rich, but with good acidity that means it went nicely with the fattiness of the buttermilk and the sharpness of the fruit.
The final pudding was a spectacularly good sticky toffee take, with salted caramel, and Pedro Ximenez, making it a sticky, grown up treat, the salt punching through the almost viscous sweetness of the caramel and the sherry (Christmas pudding in a glass, as Pedro Ximenez is known in these parts). The final wine was an Elysium Black Muscat, from Quady in Madera, California, a fortified wine (around 15% AbV), with flavours of red and black fruits (cherries, strawberries) and a fruity acidity, accompanied by a lychee-rose aroma. The grape is apparently also known as Hamburg Muscat elsewhere.
It was now pushing 11 o’clock and we were very tired. I took an double espresso to try and make sure I’d make it home awake, and we paid up and left. We were satisfied that the Oxford Kitchen is firing an all cylinders, and we’d had a fabulous meal; now we just needed to get home and sleep it off!