The Chester Arms Reviews & News
Jacqui – Dec 2014
Back in April last year I wrote a piece on my personal blog about ‘The Steak Platter’, a now almost legendary sharing plate that I’d stumbled upon months earlier, before I started blogging. At the time of writing, the dish was being served at Port Mahon and I was four months pregnant, hankering desperately to tuck into another of those big plates of glistening red meat.
It would be a whole year and a half later before I’d satisfy that craving, as mere days before my due date Hamzah, Chef at Port Mahon, left the pub for pastures new. It wasn’t all bad news though, as Hamzah and partner Beccy, at the time Bar Manager at Port Mahon, were planning on reopening The Chester Arms alongside Drew Brammer. Delays ensued, and months later the pub was still unopen. One opening date delayed, then another, the steak platter was starting to become a distant memory. Then rebranded and almost a full year after Hamza left Port Mahon, The Chester Oxford reopened its doors.
When opening day finally arrived, the kitchen remained closed, with yet another frustrating delay. Weekend hog roasts and homemade sausage rolls kept hungry bellies appeased while the full menu was on hold – finally launching a month later to the delight, and sheer relief, of both customer and management.
I know some of us (see below) were pretty bored of it all by now. So after such a long wait, was the food worth it? Given I’d previously only tried two dishes at the Port – the platter plus a venison stew, both excellent – this time around I’ve been more thorough. Upon direct orders to try Hamzah’s roast dinner before I could have the platter, as comparison to an earlier search for Oxfordshire’s best roast dinner, I’ve since had roast beef (my acid test for roasts), THE steak platter, at bloody last, plus a full English breakfast (another good acid test).
I’ll start with the breakfast (£10 including tea/coffee and orange juice). One local sausage, two rashers of smoked streaky, one fried egg, two small slices of black pudding, sauteed potatoes, half a slow roast tomato, homemade baked beans and a slice of griddled toast with butter. All cooked perfectly, all well flavoured. The bacon is served just crispy enough and the homemade beans, while usually not a favourite of mine, were excellent – spiked with smoked paprika and bathed in the perfect amount of sauce for inter-plate mingling. I’d happily eat these simply on toast, which with others I’ve tried I would not.
The roast beef (£12) was definitely one of the better I’ve had in Oxford, with flavoursome ‘fluffy on the inside and crisp on the outside’ roasties, blushing roast beef, side veg that was all on the right side of ‘al dente’, proper gravy made with meat juices and majestic looking Yorkies. My only quibble being the base of my Yorkie, which was a little thick and undercooked – not an issue with hubby’s Yorkshire pud though, so likely an exception rather than a rule.
The long awaited Steak Platter (£30 for 2/3 people, £45 for 3/4) was all that’d I’d been dreaming of. It only fell short marginally in one matter, in that it tasted slightly underseasoned compared to previous tastings. Other than that, it was stupendous. Ample butcher’s steak (also known as onglet or hanger steak) served beautifully rare for tenderness and full of flavour fries hand cut, crispy and golden; accompaniments of cabbage and bacon, salad and Bearnaise all perfectly executed and well matched to support rather than overpower the main event. Utterly, bloody, brilliant.
There aren’t many places in Oxford that serve consistently good food, but The Chester manages it. Each of the dishes I tried I would recommend, each dish able to hold its own against its nearest competitors. I’d still put the steak platter up there as one of the best dishes in Oxford, and would go so far to say the breakfast was the best I’d had in Oxford too. But the best thing for me? None of the food left me with that overindulged feeling, it almost felt…dare I say… healthy? Even the steak platter, though basically a big plate of meat and chips, felt almost light. Nothing was too rich, or too salty, or too fatty. Just great ingredients, cooked well, served simply. Boom.
So are there any faults to find at East Oxford’s latest gastro venue? Only one as far as I could see. When we visited one evening for the Steak Platter, the pub was pretty cold. There aren’t many soft furnishings and, while very stylish, the lack of curtains and minimal furniture make the cold feel all the more pressing. This is something I think will change in time, as the new owners settle into the space. They’ve already made changes for the better, like directing people to the garden via a side door, rather than french doors next to the dining booths – thus ensuring diners aren’t in the middle of a through road for drinkers. I also understand a new wood burning stove is now in place and heating things up nicely.
If you haven’t been yet, go soon. Go for breakfast, go for lunch, go for dinner. Hell, just go for coffee or a pint. Just get in there fast before the rest of Oxford catches on. Leave me a seat though.
Becca – Dec 2014
After hearing from Jacqui SO MANY TIMES about how amazing the steak platter was at the Port Mahon, I finally tried it in July last year. Hubs and I are both steak fans and are extremely picky – we both like our steak blue. Cooked so little that it is still mooing. Very few places are able to do this and err on the side of caution by serving it rare, which then makes their rare a medium and so on and so forth. That is of course if they actually agree to serve it blue at all. Just this weekend on a pub lunch, I asked for my steak blue and was told they would only cook it rare as they weren’t “allowed” to serve blue! That should have set alarm bells ringing as to the quality of their meat but I was cold, tired and hungry and so grudgingly agreed to have it rare. Of course, it arrived medium….
Anyway, I digress. And as much as it pains me to say it, Jacqui was right. That steak platter at The Chester Oxford was nothing short of amazing. And as is always the way when you discover something amazing, it was promptly whisked away from me as Beccy and Hamzah decided to up sticks and go off somewhere else. Sigh.
Fast forward EIGHTEEN months and their new place was finally open and actually serving food. There’d been a few false starts and to be honest, at this point I was totally over it, really not interested and there was no way it was going to measure up to what my memory was. Except my husband really wanted to go and try it so off we went.
You’ve already read Jacqui’s description of the decor so I won’t go through that again except for two things. One, it’s a little sparse. Two, it was bloody cold. One may well contribute to the other.
You’ve also already read the blurb on what the steak platter entails. I have nothing more to add to that. But what did it actually taste like? Honestly, it was better than I remembered! The steak was perfectly cooked and also perfectly seasoned. The chips, usually the part I care least about, were amazing especially when soaking up those meaty juices. Cabbage with bacon is just genius and the Bearnaise polished it off perfectly. Perfect.
The evening didn’t end there. Drew beguiled us into having creme brulee dessert – each. That shouldn’t have been too bad as they’re usually delicate little ramekin sizes. Not here. Here they were the size of a side plate! Thick, crunchy caramelised sugar masked a vanilla bean flecked custard where my only complaint was that I would have liked it warmer.
After all this, it was two days before I could eat again! Definitely recommended but wear your elasticated waist trousers…