The head chef at Magnolia, former Masterchef: the Professionals finalist Nick Bennett, wasn’t around during my recent visit, but it was a pleasure to find that his kitchen’s stylish food could speak for itself with tasteful elegance. Forget any sort of local celebrity buzz, this was a smooth introduction to good dining in a simple setting. Magnolia is tucked quietly inside the unprepossessing Sudbury House Hotel in Faringdon, but will invite you in without fuss and treat you just right.
We started our evening in summer mode, sipping chilled Taittinger brut rosé and sampling Spanish olives outside in the garden. It was time well spent, allowing me to consider the importance of attention to detail (the luscious olives) and the difficulty in making a selection when there is such a varied choice (the menu).
Magnolia boasts an oddly eclectic range of small and large plates, refined British classics, upscale pizzas and burgers, and some Asian-infused dishes. The common theme is a pride in known, local suppliers, rather than a particular style – meaning there are options to cater to most tastes assuming you can finally make a choice.
The starters confidently announced that we were in for a fine meal. Fosseway Fleece custard (£8.50) was silky smooth on the first chilled bite, after which the salty tones of its namesake cheese kicked in and wrapped around the asparagus and jersey royal potatoes. Pressed pulled pork (£7), our warm starter, pleased and surprised at the same time. A BBQ and bourbon sauce enhanced the tender meat without smothering the little pork package, elegantly tucked into a crunchy, breaded exterior. The sparing use of the sauce allowed me to thoroughly enjoy the accompanying salt-baked pineapple – essentially a chutney – on the side.
Equally importantly, the side of bread (£4.50) from Sourdough Revolution in Lechlade was a delight of tangy dough and crust. The waiter’s attempt to remove the last piece before the mains arrived would have been met with a wild growl if I hadn’t been on my best behaviour.
Moving on, it was clear that we should try a pizza from the Gozney pizza oven fired up in the open-plan kitchen at the back of the restaurant. Our small prosciutto and mushroom pizza (£6.50) arrived with the enticing aroma of dough super-heated to almost 400 degrees and came closer to the thin, crispy bases found in Naples than most restaurants around Oxford. The topping was intense with pickled black mushrooms that imparted a sweet quality and nicely balanced the salty ham. The whole thing was eaten in a few short minutes, but luckily, we had a side dish of truffle arancini (£4.50) to fill in the gaps. They were small, two-bite portions – not too strong on the truffle flavour but definitely for people who enjoy a bit of salt. Luckily I do, and the rice balls became quite addictive as the meal went on. The second side of seasonal greens (£4.50) gave a nice contrast in buttery freshness.
Our other main course was one of the more classic items on the menu: braised pork osso bucco with baby leeks and mustard mash (£17). When prepared right, good pork can work well in osso bucco instead of the traditional veal, and with Kelmscott Pork listed as a supplier, it felt like the right choice.
In this case, it was beautifully tender around the marrow bone, sitting on a bed of smooth mash atop a delicate, glossy sauce. My main quibble was that the mash wasn’t particularly mustardy, and I would have liked more contrasting textures. My overall impression of the dish was that it felt a little soft. It enveloped me in the comfort of gentle flavours rather than wowing with any bravura, and I’d suggest ordering it if you want to feel cosseted.
The five pudding choices (all £7 or £7.50) were crowd-pleasers. My dark chocolate mousse was heavy and rich – more akin to a pot de crème than light and airy – but the pairing with hazelnuts and ice cream was well designed. And overall, it was beautifully nutty and chocolatey without being too sweet, so I would have it again. The warm cherry Bakewell tart, however, was a bit more mixed. It looked lovely, and the filling had the balance of flavours about right, but the crust was a touch too heavy, even chewy. The best part was the marzipan ice cream on the side, and the cold explosion of almond in each bite had us scooping up every last spoonful.
For our wine, we were lucky to have Ronan Hunter, the general manager, available to share his knowledge and advice on pairings for each item. I enjoyed his choices and recommend relying on Magnolia’s input if you feel like trying something new to you. Special mention goes to the glass of De Martino Gallardia Muscat that was full bodied enough for the pulled pork. A Biferno Rosso Riserva DOC Palladino (2014) added a warm touch to the pizza, while a Uruguayan Vinedo de las Vientas Tannat (also 2014) was polished but fruity enough to match the osso bucco. Post-dinner drinks were an option I regretfully had to turn down.
Throughout our dinner at Magnolia, we felt that we were in good hands and it was worth the rush-hour drive out of Oxford. Top ingredients and careful execution produced attractive dishes that hit some high notes; service was low-key but attentive. I’ll look forward to visiting again soon when I want a special-but-relaxed meal, and I’ll happily go with a group of friends, knowing that the menu can cater to a variety of tastes and appetites. Here’s hoping that we can have a bit more al fresco time on the terrace.
We were invited to review as guests of Magnolia. As always, all views remain our own.