Roughly this time five years ago, I wrote a review of The Oxford Kitchen. Last week I returned for the first time since then, it’s taken that long and a newly awarded Michelin star to tempt me back.
It wasn’t because the restaurant was bad – I actually had some good food there – It was because it was confused. While one person at the table might be eating a plate of fine dining food with dollops here and dustings there, another could be eating pizza or a scarcely portioned plate of gnocchi. The menu at the time also featured a wagyu burger which required about two days noticed if you wanted to order it.
Jump forward five years and there’s a new Head Chef at the helm. You may recognise Paul Welburn if you’re a fan of Great British Menu, on which he appeared representing the North East. He’s trained with Gary Rhodes and Richard Corrigan; and has prior Michelin-star experience at W1, where he also held one star as Head Chef.
The new Oxford Kitchen (I say new, Paul has been there a year already) feels the same on arriving as it did when I last visited: formal, grown-up, serious. The menu reads differently though. Gone are the pizzas and confusion, replaced by fine dining lunches (ranging from £22.50 for two set-courses to £38.50 for three a la carte courses, available Tuesday to Friday) and set tasting menus (ranging from £45-65 per person, available Tuesday to Saturday for lunch or dinner).
Tucked away, in a high-backed private booth at the rear of the restaurant on a Friday evening, we kicked off the evening with an excellent glass of fizz. There for a pre-arranged review, we were allowed to sample both the Market Tasting Menu and Chef’s Tasting Menu, so ordered one of each to share between us. Usually, the tasting menus are designed for full tables to share, so you might like to agree with your group in advance which tasting menu you’re ordering.
As a side note, for anyone unfamiliar with Bitten’s review process, we are very clear with any restaurants inviting us to review that we are trusted for being candid. It’s always a good sign when a restaurant doesn’t flinch at this, which Oxford Kitchen did not – a positive start!
The six or seven-course Chef’s Tasting menu was priced at £65 per person (+£10 for the seventh course) and the six-course Market Tasting Menu at £55. Both menus started with snacks and nibbles, in the form of a freshly baked and warm country loaf, alongside a yeasty malt butter, herb butter, pork croquettes and delightful sweet beetroot meringues with savoury curd filling.
The gauntlet had been laid down, a mark in the sand drawn.
The tasting menus led us through land and sea, in the form of an oyster panna cotta with apple granita and an excellent, buttery Jamon Iberico. Then onto a fish course that delighted – a pretty plate of seared mackerel fillet, topped with radish discs and decorated with dill oil split with buttermilk; plus a you-must-try-this gin cured trout, served as a cylinder of tiny cubes with compressed cucumber, dill emulsion, lemon and tonic gel, and puffed barley.
On we ventured, through curried rabbit in little crunchy, pastry shells; then ‘beef tea’ with caramelised onion (a rich onion soup) and a Welsh rarebit arancini ball on the side. Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of arancini balls, but I make an exception for this one – a mouthful of one of those mixed with a spoonful of the beef tea was glorious.
Next up was an additional course of scallop with mango puree, pork belly, puffed pork and caviar. Well executed and pleasant on the palate, though a little tricky to eat served on a scallop shell set on a plate of stones – note to self, next time take the scallop shell off the stones!
We worked our way through Halibut in a sweet but piquant apple dashi, and a seaweed roasted monkfish with romesco sauce and langoustine. Then back to meats – duck breast with heritage carrots, carrot ketchup, wild garlic and ‘popcorn shoots’ on one side of the table; Cotswold venison with black garlic and blackberries on the other. Both meats cooked pink and melt in the mouth perfection.
The first of two dessert courses came next – Chef’s take on a ‘Pina Colada’ for each of us, with airy Malibu custard, pineapple granita, coconut and a pineapple crisp. This was followed by our final course of the evening – chocolate ganache with ice cream, caramel sauce and cherry sorbet from one menu; rhubarb sorbet with crispy kataifi pastry and vanilla custard from the other. I loved the combination of textures and flavours on the rhubarb, but could have happily polished off the ganache minus the cherry sorbet. I’m a big fan of cherries and chocolate separately, but combining the two brings back bad memories of Black Forest gâteau I’d rather forget.
There is an option to add a cheese course for an additional cost, but we were well and truly done. Well… apart from some petit fours, but who can refuse those. We enjoyed a selection of four to finish off the meal, including a very good chocolate and banana macaron; an orange sugar-dusted jelly sweet; truffle; and toasted marshmallow. A suitable ending to a meal that lead us through the skills of the chef, from top to bottom.
Would I return? Yes, I would; and much sooner than before. I’d return to try a two or three-course meal because, personally, I’m a little over the formality and rigidity of tasting menus. This one was enjoyable, not overly pretentious or inaccessible; cost-wise it’s also very reasonable for Michelin star dining. Neither of us found a dish we didn’t enjoy, some sang louder than others but none disappointed.
My main complaint is that the only menus available on a Friday or Saturday evening are tasting menus, and, as I said, I don’t often want that. I also don’t often want to eat the same as my companions – part of the fun is trying each other’s dishes. If you are all limited to the same tasting menu, it takes that away.
From trialling the tasting menus on this occasion, however, I got a firm idea of what I’d choose on return. Outstanding were the malt butter, mackerel fillet and gin-cured trout, apple dashi, venison, duck and chocolate ganache. If these were available as or incorporated into larger portions on an a la carte menu, I’d jump at them.
In a Michelin-star restaurant like this, it goes without saying that the service will be on point. The front of house team was approachable, with seriously impressive menu knowledge, while remaining firmly professional and courteous throughout.
Head Chef Paul obviously knows what he’s doing, and his cooking has earned my trust. Most importantly of all, I’m pleased to see a menu that makes sense in a restaurant no longer confused.
We dined as guests of The Oxford Kitchen