Sunday, 24 July 2011


Oxford is full of pubs. Most of those pubs serve food and I was fooled into thinking that because the pubs had unique names and were famed because so-and-so drank there back in the day, their menus would all be unique and they wouldn’t just be chains. Unfortunately, I was wrong on this point. However, in the environs of the city centre there are lots of little villages each which has its own famed gastropub. I hate that term, it makes me think of Twitter and hashtagging and other things which are ‘in’. I get the impression they probably all make a big deal of sourcing their inredients locally. But I got nothin’ against that trend – some trends are good even if it is annoying when Jamie Oliver harps on about them. And also I might be wrong about this, I’m making sweeping assumptions here.

Anyway, I’ve eaten at a fair few of these pubs. The first one I went to was the White Hart. Two friends and I drove there. Initially we thought we were going here and we were a bit worried because the place looked deserted and all we could see in the window was a little sticker saying how microwaved pizzas were served there. Thankfully, our destination was a pub in the next village along. This place looked more like what we were expecting. Still deserted but also quite pretentiously decorated: designed to look homely but in a calculated way. After being ridiculed for ordering a vodka tonic with lunch, I opted for a white wine. It was probably a house white wine and probably vastly similar to all other white wines I’ve had because I have an unsophisticated wine-palate. My friends opted for ales. There’s a lot of that around in Oxfordshire. Soon after came the overpriced, unspectacular bread and olives. Of the three main-courses available, we all went for the Oxford pie served with mash and vegetable
s. It was fine, well-seasoned, and the portion was big (which I like), but just not worth what I paid for it. The problem with pubs like this (and I didn’t think I’d find a problem with pubs which serve much better than average pub food) is that the food all tastes the same boring kind of good. There’s rarely anything that stands out in how it tastes. It’s all fine but very vanilla and difficult to feel enthused about.

The Fishes fared better although that might be because it was a lovely day and a lovely experience. I know the food was good but I can’t remember if it was the generic gastropub good where it wasn’t worth the price I paid or if it was genuinely praiseworthy. The day I spent there was fun all the same and I liked the idea of the ‘picnic boxes’ you can get to enjoy in the ‘playground’ area.
I had a similarly lovely day at the Victoria Arms. To get there, we punted. And by ‘we’ I mean the two men of the group did the hard work while we lay in the boat sunning ourselves. It made for an idyllic birthday (bar the controversy over the Mornington Crescent game) but even despite that I have to say that the food was markedly gastropub average. I had the potato skins and it’s quite damning to say the £4 for 12 Sainsburys potato skins had fuller flavour despite being mass produced. The Puntsman's board (pictured below) which, appropriately, the two puntsmen shared, might have been a better choice.

I still have faith that some gastropubs stay true to their aim and produce actually exceptional food. I’ll write in detail about the Magdalen Arms again when I go there again (hopefully very soon) but I had to mention it because it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten in Oxford. The Magdalen Arms is the one pub spoken of in this entry which I don’t think is a jot overpriced. The food is both less expensive and a great deal better quality than that of the other pubs mentioned. The menu is constantly changing and I think on this particular day I had the coq au vin and I want to say that my companion had pigeon. Or was it pheasant? It was definitely a game bird that wasn’t duck.
What I remember of the food is that its rich, buttery, glossy and exactly what I want from ‘Modern British Cuisine’.

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