Before we were offered the opportunity to review The Plough at 38 for Bitten, I’d never even heard of its existence. This is pretty weird, given Oxford is a small place and I am fairly invested in the local restaurant scene, and yet somehow it had completely passed me by. I think partly it’s because I rarely have any call to go down Cornmarket Street, so I’d not seen it pop up, taking over the old Austin Reed shop. And it’s a shame that I hadn’t heard about The Plough, because this is a restaurant that deserves to have noise made about it. I’m going to start redressing the balance now by giving it a rapturous review. I’ll say it at the top: we loved The Plough.
We really did. I had actually been keeping a beady eye on The Plough for a while because I’d heard it was a new pub, and I LOVE pubs. I’d tried to go in on a family beer mission with my parents and in-laws a couple of months ago, but while the bar with its gleaming copper tuns peeking out at us was extremely pretty, and the Cornmarket location is perfect for mid-shopping drinks, there didn’t seem to be enough seating so we drifted away again. I was vaguely aware that they also did food, but I didn’t think it was a particularly big deal. That was a mistake. It IS a big deal.
When we arrived, we were led past the downstairs bar area to the upstairs restaurant, which is a light, spacious room with a gorgeous vaulted ceiling and original windows that look out onto the bustle of Cornmarket Street: an ideal spot to watch the world pass by (read: spy on people creepily). Steve, who looked after us very well all evening, showed us to our table and got us set up with some really excellent gin & tonics from the restaurant’s extensive selection.
We set about enthusiastically perusing the menu while devouring a happily surprising amuse bouche of beetroot sorbet on a homemade cracker. What I really appreciated about this menu was that it was a very well thought-out mix of classics for those who are that way inclined (chicken liver parfait, mussels, steak and so on) and more adventurous options for those of us who like to try something a little bit different (cod cheeks, black cardamom confit and pressed duck, artichoke and gypsy potato risotto and so on). I do think it’s the sort of place you could take a variety of people to and satisfy them all.
My gin and tonic was an Ophir with a spiced tonic, and managed to taste at once fresh and distinctly Christmassy. Hannah’s was a fruitier watermelon tonic and Tanqueray Ten, which was also perfect.
My starter was the torched Cornish cod cheeks with cauliflower, buttermilk bagna cauda and sea fennel, and it was the sort of incredibly reassuring dish that tells you’re in capable hands, and that you can relax into the meal because the chef knows what they are doing. The cod cheeks were meltingly tender, buttery and rich, elevated by the carefully deployed charring of a blowtorch, the accompaniments all beautifully judged and well-balanced.
I will let Lucy rapturise about her starter properly, but I did want to note that I tried a bit of her goats cheese honeycomb and it was so incredibly good that I asked the chef how on earth he’d made it because it’s basically the only thing I want to eat in the world going forward and I cannot rest now that I know it exists.
To start I had a beetroot pannacotta with honeycombed goats cheese. This was a really wonderful combination of flavours, textures and colours. The beetroot pannacotta, while unusual, was oddly satisfying, and the goat’s cheese honeycomb was salty, crunchy and incredibly moreish. Steve told us that the head chef was formerly of the Fat Duck, which made sense of the innovative and special feeling vibe of all of the food.
I plumped for the lamb neck and fillet with celeriac fondant, peas and onion, mint, prune, and jus for my main course, mostly because the chef had recommended it and I am not one to ignore such advice. It was beautiful; the fillet pink and soft, the neck falling apart and crowned with crispy lamb fat that was stupidly tasty. The whole thing was expertly put together by someone who treated the ingredients with care and respect. I also had, at Steve’s recommendation, an almost maddeningly delicious glass of Pinot Noir alongside the dish, which complemented it wonderfully.
I went for a pave of stone bass with rainbow chard and Chinese artichoke for the main. This was mainly because I’ve never had stone bass before – or heard of it. It turns out it’s very much like sea bass, but even nicer. I was extremely impressed by the care the dish was put together with – there was a puree, a foam and a herb oil on this, all perfectly balanced and delicious. On this occasion, I went with fish, but normally I eat vegetarian, and so I had an eye on the menu with regard to this. There were a good couple of interesting, delightful looking vegetarian options, which I’m looking forward to coming back and trying. I had this with a recommended white Rioja, which was bright and almost creamy tasting. Absolutely great.
The Plough’s signature dessert is apparently their orange tart with fennel ice cream. You will not be surprised, by this point, to hear that it was excellent. I feel like this review is getting boring and I am running out of new positive words to use but, what can I say? It was great. I know desserts and I am picky about them and this one was really, really good.
For dessert, I had a lovely chocolate cremeaux (like a mousse), which was incredibly nice and finished with tiny meringues, coffee cream, micro greens and a tuille. It was like a chocolate mousse of dreams and, like all the food here, incredibly pretty. We were also given a sweet amuse bouche of an olive oil shortbread with rhubarb and an almond foam. Also, a stunning dessert wine. I was DEEPLY impressed by this many sweet things in the course of a meal!
It’s not cheap, but it shouldn’t be. This is really high-quality food; a menu clearly designed with knowledge and skill, and dishes made with passion and precision. There’s a really very reasonable set lunch option Monday – Friday of two courses for £14.95 or three for £18.95 which, believe me, is great value for such good food. Obviously, it’s more pricey if you’re ordering à la carte, and it’s certainly not an everyday restaurant by any means, but for a treat or a special occasion, it’s ideal. I’d be perfectly happy to pay these prices for a meal of this quality.
Another thing to note is that the portions were very well-balanced. I finished the three-course meal feeling replete and sated, but not painfully full and regretting going the whole hog with three courses, plus nibbles, and alcohol. We had a memorably lovely evening, in a great setting with expertly-cooked food and brilliant service. I will henceforth be telling everyone I know to go to this restaurant immediately.
This place is such an absolute treat. The drinks we had, every course, the service and location were all perfect. While it’s not the kind of place we’ll go for dinner every Monday night, it’s really pretty perfect.
We dined as guests of The Plough at 38