The Fishes in North Hinksey is an odd place for me. One of those venues that’s irrevocably linked to my memories as somewhere for a summer pint, a Christmas work lunch or an after funeral glass raising and so I tend to forget that I actually like it there when it’s just a normal visit. It’s great in the summer, a huge garden with river access, dog friendly, outside bar and plenty of seating. In the winter, there’s fires and twinkly lights and that Cotswold Living style of checked cushions, stone walls and Farrow and Ball muted shades. Staff are friendly and unobtrusive and it’s very much a community hot spot for the locals, with an audible backdrop of greetings and village news. Thankfully it doesn’t have that Slaughtered Lamb feel where everyone goes quite when a newcomer walks in! It’s actually one of the friendliest pubs I’ve been in for some time, we were there with one of the locals but even before she arrived, people had chatted to us at the bar about smartwatches, comments about Matt’s t-shirt and various chats about dogs.
You can eat at the bar area but there’s a more formal dining area at the back, overlooking the terrace and garden. Tables are quite close together and the lighting is very dim, lovely for a romantic evening but not so good for menu reading and food photography!
The Fishes is part of a small chain, Peach Pubs, which have twenty venues across the middle of England, ranging from Edgbaston to Surrey. In Oxfordshire there’s The James Figg and The Thatch, both in Thame, The Fleece in Witney and they’ve just taken over The Bear and Ragged Staff in Cumnor. The menu is the same or at least very similar across several of the venues which does give a slight hint of chain restaurants, especially with the expected pub menu classics. However, there are some twists to be discovered and it’s worth keeping an eye on the specials board which allows the chef team more free rein.
We decided to start off our dinner by sharing – unusual for us as we’re usually quite plate protective. A mini bloomer, made in house with a punchy garlic butter arrived, £3 and was quickly demolished along with a bowl of big puttanesca olives, also £3. The Butcher’s Board £14.50, comprised of black and blue bavette steak with Bearnaise sauce, spicy glazed chicken wings, chorizo and manchego swirls, and crispy lamb, pomegranate and mint salad.
The chargrilled and rare steak slices were perfect. Bavette is such an underused cut and this dish showed why it should be on more menus. Chicken wings were moist, gently spiced and sticky. Crispy lamb was another winner, with the salad providing an explosion of flavours and textures. The only downside for me was the swirls which were cold, had they been warm you’d get more of the smoky sweetness from the chorizo with the creamy nuttiness of the cheese, all encased in a buttery, flaky pastry. But serving these cold was just a little unpleasant and we ended up leaving them. A shame as everything else on the platter was flipping good.
On the other side of the table there’d been a little heated discussion on who was having what as a starter as they both wanted the same thing! A compromise was reached by ordering two different dishes and agreeing to swap halfway through. Warm crispy Camembert with fig relish and rocket £7 had divided opinions, one comment being that the fig relish cut through the creamy richness of the cheese whilst another thought the relish too sweet. Both agreed that the crispy coating and the molten cheese worked well.
Pan fried native scallops with Clonakilty black pudding and apple salad and a caramelised apple dressing was more warmly received although more scallops would have been welcomed, especially as they were sharing. For one person, it would have been sufficient. Scallops and black pudding are a regular pairing and this was done well.
Onto mains and we all decided to go in different directions for this. Braised pig cheeks with kale, cider jus and parsnip crisps £14.50, was a dish I’d had a few weeks earlier and loved, it went down just as well on this occasion too. Soft, succulent cheeks with apple, iron rich kale and crunchy parsnip accompanied by a side of baked new potatoes with sour cream £3.75, this was a proper winter’s night dinner. A really good blend of flavours and textures.
A slightly unusual fish dish of pan fried hake fillet with Bombay potatoes, spinach, onion bhaji and curry cream sauce £17, also went down very well, being described as a fancy kedgeree without the rice! The hake was firm and flaky, spinach was mouth squeaky and the bhaji provided a good crunch to what could have been a slightly textureless meal. Definitely a dish to be ordered again.
Also off the regular menu was a 28 day dry-aged ribeye steak £26 served with chips, rocket, slow roasted plum tomato and a choice of either Bearnaise or Charcutiere sauce. Bearnaise and a medium rare steak were the preferences, the sauce was rich and well flavoured with tarragon whilst the steak was cooked as requested but could possibly have had a little more caramelisation. Brownie points for not serving up generic frozen chips. These may well have been bought in already prepped but they could also have been prepared by hand on site, I genuinely couldn’t tell. It’s a bugbear for me when a menu describes hand cut chips but you get a portion of equally sized, evenly coloured, bland potato chunks. Homemade chips have an entirely different flavour, a crispy and fluffy texture, with an assortment of browning. I get rather miffed when a bowl of yellow slabs arrive on my table so these were a pleasure to see.
On the specials board that evening was lamb rump, potato rosti, spinach, parsnip and thyme puree and salsa verde for £21 and this was my choice. Succulent pink lamb with a good smoky crust, atop a pile of that squeaky spinach, a crisp rosti and a smooth, earthy, fragrant puree with dollops (there’s a more cheffy term but it escapes me right now!) of salsa verde. A generous helping of sweet and tender lamb, this was a very good dish and I polished it all off happily. Writing about it now and looking at the photo makes me want it again asap. All the dishes on the specials board were a little more inventive and it’s down to the kitchen team who have the ability to go a little further than what is passed down from Head Office. I’d highly recommend checking that board out when you visit.
We had managed to save enough room for dessert and unsurprisingly I went straight for the espresso martini ice parfait £5.75. This was a parfait in the French style, made with cream, eggs and sugar to create a smooth, frozen custard. There was a good strong coffee flavour and a quenelle of thick cream accompanied it which was far too much cream for me
Vanilla panna cotta with poached rhubarb and a homemade shortbread biscuit, £6 was very good if a little too sweet. The rhubarb cut through the richness of the sweetened, vanilla flecked cream well but was deemed to be a little too soft for personal tastes – although it was accepted that in general rhubarb is preferred softer rather than al dente. Lovely shortbread!
Finally, an espresso martini to round off the evening. We’ve become connoisseurs recently and are always intrigued as to which ingredients are used in this cocktail. The Fishes use Tia Maria but also add sugar syrup which was too sweet for us as the coffee liqueur is already sweetened. It’s drinkable but that caffeine kick is muted by the excess sugar.
To round up, a great venue with many bonus features. We’d definitely recommend going for something different on the menu rather than the stalwart pub menu choices and remember to check out the specials board to see what the kitchen team have come up with that day.
We dined as guests of The Fishes, all views remain our own.