Friday, 25 November 2011

The Ashmolean Café, Beaumont Street

The Ashmolean is looking pretty good at the moment, after its recent refurbishment. The interior sparkles and many of the dividing walls between rooms have disappeared, so that you can wander from one cluster of exhibits to the next and eventually come out into one of several light-filled stairwells.

The refitted museum prides itself on the spectacular setting (or not) of its rooftop restaurant, but I was with an American friend who had escaped from a busy conference schedule to have lunch with me, and we didn't have time for a full meal. In the café on the lower ground floor, the stone floors and gracefully arched ceiling made it feel as if we had descended into a - very busy, it being a Friday lunchtime - crypt. Large windows on one side allow plenty of light in, but I suspect that on a dull day it would have felt more gloomy. 

There's a fridge full of wholesome-looking sandwiches, and more food displayed at the counter: the usual chocolate brownie/rocky road/caramel shortbread selection along with some more interesting cakes (though their position right by the till meant that they would have been more appetising if covered up; it's hard to forget those swine flu posters that show people expectorating all over the place), and a selection of hot dishes. My friend and I shared penne with aubergines and courgettes (£6.50) and roasted vegetable couscous (also £6.50). Both came with a decent helping of fresh salad, drizzled with balsamic.

What we ate was tasty, but lacked imagination. The aubergine and courgettes had been chopped into small pieces that blended into the tomato-y pasta sauce: using larger chunks, adding some parmesan, and cooking the penne for a couple of minutes fewer would have transformed the dish into a rather more interesting combination of textures. The couscous was fine, and well flavoured, but again some cheese (halloumi?) would have contrasted with the dry grains and juicy vegetables. I know we were in the basement canteen and not the posh restaurant, but the café food in this shiny, new-looking museum could be a bit more exciting.

(Just to be clear, that's a extra-large fork, not an extra-small slice of cake on an extra-small plate)

Moreover, the refurbishment costs may well be reflected in the prices charged. £6.50 for each main course wasn't too bad (they were both surprisingly filling) but afterwards we braved the germs and shared a slice of bakewell tart. It was pleasantly moist and sweet, although the almond flavour wasn't strong and it tasted more like a victoria sponge encased in pastry. However, it cost £3.70. I suspect this reflects a desire to exploit (sorry, serve) the mid-afternoon 'I'd like a sit down and a nice cup of tea' market, but can an average-sized piece of cake be worth 57% of the price of a full main course? On the other hand, entry to the Ashmolean is free. The cultural sector is under severe strain. Is it churlish to complain about a few pounds on the bill and a few vegetables chopped too finely? Perhaps.

Update: my review of the Ashmolean Dining Room can be found here.

The Ashmolean Café, Beaumont Street, OX1 2PH
Open Tuesday – Sunday 10am - 6pm


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