In the no-man's land between Gloucester Green, Beaumont Street and George Street, The Red Lion was until fairly recently The Goose, an establishment serving over-chilled Stella and food of the 'ten-item full English for £1.99' variety (its full history is here). But after a major refurbishment at the beginning of 2011, it was reborn as a more upmarket dining pub.
(photo from www.redlionoxford.co.uk)
As the photo shows, the outside hasn't changed much, and neither has the inside: entering still felt like walking into a Wetherspoon's-style pub, with its stripped wood fittings, colourful furniture and office party-goers congregating at the bar. Still, the food has clearly acquired something of a reputation as all the restaurant tables were occupied and we ended up eating from the same menu but in the bar area, in a little alcove separated from the rest of the pub by a wall of giant strands of chain mail. No complaints there - the service was well organised.
There were numerous tasty-sounding dishes on the menu, but the selection was startlingly wide-ranging: it seemed poised between pub grub (burgers, fish and chips, sharing platters to start with) and more refined fare (e.g. chorizo and potato hash, blade of beef, scallops). I wasn't so much worried whether the kitchen would manage to cook everything to the same standard as disconcerted: was I in a gastropub or somewhere more down-to-earth? Of course, that's not to say that gastropubs can't do simple food, but there was something about the mixture of dishes, and the chain pub-style decor coupled with the 'modern British' gastronomic vibe, that induced a touch of cognitive dissonance.
The starters didn't really resolve this confusion. The Photographer had 'Pan fried garlic prawns accompanied by watercress and chilli jam' (£6.95). He was very happy with the jam, which was nice and hot, but the prawns were vaguely disappointing, lacking a crispy garlic flavour. There were a few bits of mushy vegetable mixed with them. That was, it turned out, the garlic. I had 'Crispy fried pumpkin ravioli with parmesan and tomato salsa' (£5.95), which was pleasant - the fried pasta had an interesting texture, and the salty cheese and sweet tomato worked well together - but nothing more. I couldn't taste much pumpkin in the ravioli filling.
As the pictures show, both the main courses came in neat(ish) piles, in what may have been another gastropub touch. My 'Spit roasted sweetcure gammon with smoked salt seasoned fries, confit tomato and fried free range hen[']s egg' (£12.95) was a slightly odd take on the 'ham, egg and chips' theme. Instead of the usual thick, juicy joint the gammon came in thin slices, like bacon rashers, and was a bit dry, but had a decent flavour and wasn't too salty. I could have done without the charred but soggy pieces of pineapple hidden at the bottom of the heap.
The Photographer had fillet steak with mushrooms, watercress and the same 'smoked salt seasoned fries' (about £18 I think). The steak was fine, if a bit on the rare side when he'd asked for medium. We both thought that the chips didn't live up to their 'smoked salt seasoned' promise: they were pale and slightly undercooked. Still, as The Photographer observed, their appetising name meant that half the pleasure had been in the anticipation.
As a connoisseur of the chocolate brownie, he was in no doubt over what to have for dessert, while I hesitated for a little longer, eventually going for the 'White chocolate brûlée' (£5.25). Both came garnished with the same strands of dried orange peel (sweet and crunchy, but I wondered if someone had bought a job lot for the kitchen). The brownie (£5.75) had the correct squidgy consistency, but The Photographer has had better. It tasted more of cocoa than of good quality chocolate.
It was a shame that my brûlée was cold and didn't bear recent marks of a blowtorch, but the Red Lion wouldn't be the first place where this has happened. Beneath the sugar topping was a hefty serving of what tasted like caramel: the addition of white chocolate meant that the custard was sweeter than normal, with a slightly sticky texture. In sum, it was (after a fashion) magnificent, but it wasn't a brûlée.
It wasn't an unsatisfying meal by any means, and perhaps some of my comments look like nitpicking. Still, most of what we ordered didn't quite live up to the expectations raised by the descriptions on the menu, or didn't quite taste as it was supposed to. Given that starters are mostly priced at £7-8 and mains at £12-18, this is not a place that offers excellent value for money. As we left there were plenty of people still eating, but the music had been turned up and at the bar the lager was flowing freely. I felt the same confusion as I had when walking in: suddenly the place felt less like a gastropub and more like the old Goose. It's as if the Red Lion wants to be too many things at once. Perhaps a simpler, cheaper menu of food that doesn't try too hard would resolve what looks like an identity crisis.
The Red Lion, 14 Gloucester Street, OX1 2BN