Rumours abound that Witney does its best to keep chains out of the town. But is civic support for independent local restaurants and cafes enough? Nope. The team behind the Chequers Smokehouse took over the old Red Lion Pub in Corn Street in late 2014 and turned it into Koi, a bar and Japanese restaurant which was like Wagamama but… well… better. MUCH better.
The food was incredible but it was never massively busy, apart from on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights when it transformed into a bar with a dancefloor. I was gutted when, after a year, the team decided it wasn’t working and turned it into Rocket – serving stonebaked pizzas and gourmet sandwiches.
With Pizza Express right round the corner and Como Lounge less than 20 steps away serving similar sarnie offerings, I was frustrated at the lack of support for something different. Nevertheless, with the team’s pedigree and Rocket now screening family-friendly films on its big screen with bean bags and snacks at the weekend, I was expecting good things when we first tried it out last Spring.
I don’t know what happened that day – maybe teething problems – but the pizza I tried; The Bad Bronson with spicy local bronson burner sausage, chorizo, peppers and chilli, was massively disappointing. There was no zing, the crust was okay but not great, and at £12.50 I felt like I could have got a better offering in the black and white striped chain round the corner.
We love the Chequers Smokehouse and wanted to like Rocket, so last week we returned for an early dinner with the children. This place is heaven for kids, with the beanbags and giant movie screen you barely have to see your parents.
The kids’ menu is simple, well priced and almost everything on it is made from scratch, including the chicken nuggets. Plus (huzzah!) everything comes with some kind of veg. The boy’s Ninja Turtle Pizza (pepperoni and mozzarella) was great value for just a fiver – and the crust was 100 times better than I remembered with just the right amount of char, crunch and chew.
We went for subs this time – and started with the only disappointment of the entire trip: no subs! They had run out, so we were stuck with wraps instead which wouldn’t have been my first choice. We ploughed on nonetheless, unaware of the treat we were in for.
Let’s start with the thing I really fancied which my husband managed to convince me he should get instead. The very on-trend French Tickler (£7.45): Sliced roast beef, mushroom, shallots and garlic, and melted camembert. Yep, IN THE SANDWICH. It’s served with an incredible rich dipping jus (basically a gravy) which you smother the whole thing in before demolishing. Ridiculously good.
My own Po’ Boy (£7.95) involved soft-shell crab and giant prawns in a Cajun tempura batter with melted swiss cheese, thousand island mayo, lettuce and tomato. The seafood still had its freshness and bite inside a light but firm batter which held its own within the sarnie. This is seriously good stuff.
But the real stars for me here are the sides. OH THE SIDES! The Korean Hot Wings – a welcome leftover from the days of Koi, were lip-tinglingly delicious with a fantastic sticky, chewy coating. The chilli cheese bites (£3.50) with sour cream dip were something different though it’s a big portion to get through alone. And the House Chips are SO GOOD. I would literally recommend you go for these alone and it wouldn’t be a wasted trip. Wavy slices of potato dusted in a slightly seasoned coating and served with a garlic mayo – they are like curly fries squared. No, cubed! So damn moreish. They’re £2.50 on their own but only £1.50 when served with one of the above subs, so well worth it.
Add to this friendly, approachable staff, a great range of beer, cider, wine and cocktails and the easy walk home and you are winning. I’d recommend a visit – so that this is one local gem Witney manages to hang onto. There are currently vouchers on the Jack FM shop, which we used.
1-3 Corn Street, Witney, OX28 6BD
Tel: 01993 779419