It’s been a good year or so since I’ve been to The Punter. Or at least that’s what I thought; turns out it was SIX years ago. Clearly, I wasn’t hugely inspired for a revisit; not because it was bad – it wasn’t, it was actually very decent.
We have a lot of decent pubs and restaurants in Oxford serving decent food though. We even have a number of exceptional dining venues now. The difficulty is, this makes it tough to tempt people back, having so much to compete with, plus a proportion of the local population that is transient.
But, there’s been a big change at The Punter that I was keen to check out – it’s now entirely vegan and vegetarian.
It’s a big change for a neighbourhood pub; and for a pub that sits beside a river, with a name fundamentally linked to water, and a local fish market as nearby-neighbours, you’d maybe expect a fish-based menu. The decision to move to a fully vegan and vegetarian menu may seem brave, but it’s a growing trend in a city that feels increasingly more attuned to a meat-free or fully vegan lifestyle.
So how does a vegetarian version of The Punter stack up?
Head Chef is Max Cooper, who’s food we’ve tried and loved previously at Sneaky Supper Club.
The menu reads well: garlicky mushrooms on toast, burrata salad, arancini (which I’m finally learning to love, after being served too many dry ones!), crispy chilli tofu and poached duck eggs, to name just a few items that caught my attention.
We’d taken the kids along, too, so the appearance of a mezze board (£10 for one, £18 for two) on the menu hugely appealed.
The Punter have two veggie burgers on the menu – an almond, chickpea & courgette version, or a beetroot, fennel & dill option. Both come served in a charcoal brioche bun, with a side of rosemary fries, both cost £14.
We went all in: sampling both burgers; ordering a mezze board for one; the crispy tofu noodle dish (£14); the mushrooms with garlic & tarragon on sourdough toast (£7); grilled peaches with labneh, fried capers and rocket (£7); the Burrata and heirloom tomato salad (£12); and goat’s cheese arancini with courgette ribbons and red pepper sauce (£14).
Yeah – we were thorough!
I’ll start off by saying this – we were not persuaded by either burger. The buns were too soft to hold everything together, the burger toppings lacked enough texture to counter the softness of the burgers and buns, and neither burger patty pleased. I love beetroot, but it’s a strong flavour that turns many off. It also overpowered other ingredients; like an apple and kohlrabi slaw – which sounds amazing, and would probably sing on its own or with something else.
That’s the only thing we disliked. The mushrooms on toast were flipping amazing – fried golden, properly garlicky, with both the chestnut and oyster mushrooms easily distinguishable. The Burrata salad was perfection – rich, creamy Burrata on herby tomatoes. The arancini, a blissfully oozy centre, salty from the goat’s cheese and offset wonderfully with its courgette and red pepper plate buddies.
The mezze board and crispy tofu noodles fared ok with the kids – I enjoyed the bits I tested.
Neither I nor Andrew had room for pudding at this point, so we appeased the kids with a couple of puds to share between us all – a strawberry and pistachio parfait (£7) and a crème caramel (made with coconut milk) with walnut & orange biscotti (£7). Both were excellent – light and sweet, just what you want to finish a meal.
Overall, it was great.
It’s a lovely pub, with an outdoor terrace, beside the river. It’s nicely decorated and the staff are pleasant. The menu shows some really interesting glimmers of something that I feel needs to grow and develop.
If I was going back again, which I definitely would, I’d order the Burrata, the mushrooms on toast, or the arancini. They also had stuffed courgette flowers on the menu recently, which looked fantastic but not available when I visited.
I’d call it a very promising work in progress, and look forward to seeing it develop.
We dined as guests of The Punter, all views remain our own.