The Cherwell Boathouse is absolutely beautiful. If you’re looking for a quintessential, idyllic Oxford setting, then look no further. It’s tucked down a side street in the leafy north of the city, hidden away at the end of a path that leads to the river. It couldn’t be closer to the water; punts bob against the dock on the landing, the building is strewn with candles and fairy lights, and you sit at a white-clothed table in a cosy dining room overlooking the Cherwell while the sun sets above the meadow on the opposite bank.
I’d never been to The Cherwell Boathouse before, not for any particular reason except that I had a vague impression of it as the sort of place visitors to Oxford might come, looking for this picturesque experience rather than for innovative food, and that as a resident of Oxford who’s not that fussed on the views anymore and is looking principally for exceptional or exciting cuisine, it wasn’t really a place for me. Unfortunately, I’m afraid our meal rather proved this assumption to be correct.
I have only been to the Cherwell Boathouse before to punt, and always peeked into the restaurant and marvelled at the prettiness of it. It looks special in there – the kind of place where people dress up properly and drink champagne. And our first impressions bore this out. The couple next to us told us they were back in Oxford visiting old haunts for a wedding anniversary. They had a table by the window and talked animatedly about what wine they’d ordered. They were clearly having a lovely night.
And so to the Food
We were seated warmly and given bread and a herb butter, which I thought was great, but Hannah found under salted. Wine by the glass has a nice selection (including a local wine, from grapes grown in Cowley!) and was very reasonably priced given the setting. Service was friendly and I was impressed that there were two vegetarian and two fish options for the main – if you came here with family, it’s likely that everyone could have something that they wanted.
The menu here is simple and traditional, which is absolutely fine if that’s what you’re looking for, and if the execution is perfect. I’d really like to be able to say that it was, but sadly there were a fair few let-downs throughout the meal.
My starter of Cornish mackerel, harissa spiced crab salad, fennel and lime chutney and coriander was cold. Not in an intentional way; either the fish had never been hot enough in the first place or it had been sitting on the pass. While the mackerel itself was excellent quality, the skin hadn’t been crisped or salted, which I feel is particularly essential with an oily fish like this. I actually found the whole meal – from the butter with the bread right through to dessert – under seasoned, although my caveat here is that I, like most people who’ve been through culinary school, have a salt-tooth and generally like things to have more seasoning than most.
I was particularly looking forward to the crab salad that came with my starter, but, although it was delicious, there was absolutely literally a teaspoon-full of crab, barely enough for one mouthful. £6 is not an unreasonable cost for a starter, but mackerel isn’t an expensive fish, and it was a shame that they weren’t more generous with the accompaniments.
My starter of asparagus and duck egg (£6) was also cold. This was particularly disappointing as it really marred what could have been a lovely dish – the grilled asparagus spears were plump and fresh, the hazelnuts in the dressing creating a lovely contrast to the textures and flavours, but still – it is hard to enjoy a cold egg. Like Hannah’s, I found the pricing reasonable but the portion quite light, even for a starter.
On to the Mains
For my main course, I chose the Cotswold chicken breast with cheddar cheese rosti, grilled spring onion, baby turnip and wild garlic emulsion (£17.75). I was interested to see what the chicken breast – generally, I find, the least flavorful part of the bird and the most prone to drying out – was like, as it seemed to me like a surprising choice for their poultry dish. There was actually quite a lot to like on this plate. The meat itself was tender and moist, although, as with the starter, sadly the skin was not crispy and definitely under seasoned. The cheddar cheese rosti was delicious and possibly the best thing I ate that evening, and the garlic emulsion was beautifully silky smooth. However, the whole dish felt quite unbalanced. The chicken was a really hefty portion, which is not a bad thing in itself, but such a huge lump of protein really needs to be balanced out with more vegetables than were provided.
For main I chose a smoked haddock tagliatelle with samphire, fennel and langoustine bisque (£17.75). Unlike the starter, this was enormous – a decent portion of nicely poached smoked haddock on a huge bed of tagliatelle and samphire (I didn’t notice any fennel). I would have liked this dish to be richer. The bisque was thin and not creamy, and the proportion of pasta was much higher than that of the fish or vegetables. I also didn’t love the pasta, which was doughy and bland. It overwhelmed the bisque, so the flavours lacked punch. The samphire and fish were perfectly lovely, but this main, while pleasant, felt like a missed opportunity.
And for Dessert
The dessert, I’m sorry to say, didn’t quite deliver. While the plate of blackcurrant éclair with Bramley apple compote and lemon thyme ice cream was absolutely beautiful, it didn’t carry through to the eating. The ice cream was lovely, and the best part of the dessert, but the éclair itself was a bit disappointing. I expected it to be a filled éclair, perhaps containing a flavoured cream or a blackcurrant mousse, but instead it was a fairly dry, solid, unflavoured baton of choux pastry, topped with the (very tasty, actually) apple compote and, confusingly, blueberries. I like blueberries well enough, but the menu did say blackcurrant. Sure, things happen, maybe blackcurrants weren’t available, but if that’s the case then you should mention this to a customer when they are ordering rather than randomly giving them a different fruit to the one listed on the menu. For all they know, I could be allergic to blueberries.
My dessert, a rhubarb and elderflower mousse with pistachio biscuit (£7.50), was much better. It was a layer of light pink jelly covered with a generous heap of mousse. The whole thing was topped with a biscuit, bright green with pistachio crumbs. The jelly and mousse were delightful, delicately flavoured with elderflower and rhubarb and evoking fond memories of jelly and ice cream at childhood parties. The biscuit was less to my taste – I would have preferred a crisper biscuit, and with the pistachio baked in rather than as a topping.
I’ve been very picky about the food here, but that feels appropriate for a restaurant which isn’t cheap and is offering itself as a fine-dining experience. I would also like to emphasise that we had a lovely evening. Everyone was friendly, the atmosphere was pleasant, and it’s a very beautiful setting to while away a few hours in.
I think, overall, what was lacking from the experience was a degree of attention to detail. Little things. For example, even though a lot of people in Oxford cycle and the restaurant has limited parking so more people travel there by bike, there are no bike racks, meaning that there’s an unsightly pile of bikes propped against walls and hedges at the entrance to the restaurant, and that you have to take your chances with security since there’s nothing to lock to. The restaurant wasn’t totally full on the Friday evening we visited (though it was fairly busy), and yet the service was slow and we, a table of two speedy and decisive eaters, were there for two and a half hours. In no particular hurry and enjoying my night, I didn’t mind that, but others might.
I think that if what you’re looking for is setting and experience, then The Cherwell Boathouse is a great choice. It’s perfectly possible to be heading to a restaurant for a lovely family lunch where everyone will have something perfectly decent and not be overly fussed about little details of the cooking. However, I’m usually out on the hunt for food that’s very high in quality or something pleasingly new and different to things I’ve had before, and for me, this restaurant isn’t leading the way in either of those categories.
As Hannah says – this is a lovely place and we had a very nice night. There are certainly some circumstances I’d recommend the Cherwell Boathouse for. A dinner with someone new to Oxford I thought might be dazzled by the river, a lunch with new in-laws I wanted to impress… Sadly though, these would mainly be guided by the setting. Although the food won’t ruin your night, for the price point I would expect the execution to be approaching perfect, and it isn’t. You might well choose to go there anyway – I can’t readily think of a high-end restaurant with a nicer setting. But I can think of places where I would rather eat for a treat.
We were invited to review as guests of The Cherwell Boathouse. As always, they agreed to Bitten maintaining full editorial control and all views remain our own.