Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Royal Oak, Woodstock Road

There was a time, two or three years ago, when I ended up going for early evening drinks on a fairly regular basis. After the first pint, and once an hour or so had gone by, people's thoughts would turn to food, and soon burgers and ham and eggs and other pub staples would be ordered. After a few weeks of such meals, I started to feel bloated at the mere thought of a pale oven chip or a floury bap.
Still, there is pub food to be found in Oxford that is a bit more exciting than this and - some slightly dubious desserts aside - less stomach-distending. Recently I went to the labyrinthine Royal Oak (there are at least half a dozen rooms, and three beer gardens, apparently), opposite the old Radcliffe Infirmary. The range of beers and ciders there is extensive, but I was more interested in the dinner menu. I don't think the Royal Oak actually describes itself as a gastropub but it's clearly aiming a bit higher than your average Oxford establishment:
(I managed to leave the prices off, but the starters were all about £5, and the mains £8-10, except for the steak. Note the cunning ploy of putting the date on the menu. I checked the website the following day and the updated menu was exactly the same.)

I was part of a group, but we all ordered at different times, so I'll focus on what I and a couple of other people had. It was a chilly night, and the 'Slow cooked Ox cheek & red wine pie with kale colcannon' (£9.75) sounded suitably warming. The Photographer had steak and chips (£15), while The Sceptic chose 'Shropshire roast chicken with herb butter, fries and red wine gravy' (£9.75), warning me from previous experience that the food would probably take a long time to come.
The Sceptic is usually right (so be warned), but this time my pie at least arrived rather quickly, almost suspiciously so. However, all doubts vanished when I tried it. It was delicious. Excavation of the puff pastry top revealed melting, fatty pieces of beef within a rich and savoury sauce. I think there was some onion as well. The kale colcannon was nice but was best employed soaking up all that sauce.
Just as I was finishing, the other two dishes arrived. The chips looked and tasted good (in a thin cut, 'posh Burger King' sort of way), and The Photographer's steak was tender and had more flavour than I expected (though it did cost £15). The Sceptic's chicken seemed to please him, although when I asked him about the gravy he replied that it was 'fine'. Did he mean 'fine' or 'Fine'? Merely 'fine', apparently.
After this generally impressive performance, The Photographer and I decided to try the desserts. I went for the 'Chambord black raspberry Eton mess' (£5.25) and, unfortunately, wished I hadn't. Eton mess is not meant to be nutritionally well balanced, but this version still got the proportions completely wrong: the liqueur-soaked fruit and pieces of meringue were overwhelmed by billows of unsweetened cream. Who likes eating neat cream?
The Photographer had 'Rhubarb and apple topped with ginger and cinnamon crumble' (£4.75). He thought there should have been more crumble; I like fruit so I disagreed. This was, however, before I'd tried it. At the first bite, the ginger and cinnamon came together, giving warmth and depth to the apple and rhubarb flavours. But the fusion of spices carried on, and I tried to identity the taste that resulted. Toothpaste? Air freshener? Sorry, that sounds cruel, and I should point out that The Photographer thought that I was being over-imaginative. Still, if you do come to the Royal Oak - and I'd recommend it, with a few reservations - I'd stick to the main courses if I were you.

The Royal Oak, 42-44 Woodstock Road, OX2 6HT
01865 310187

7.5/10 (and 9.5 for the pie)

Royal Oak on Urbanspoon

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