The High Table clearly wants to be something of a destination: going by our visit, it succeeds in some ways but not in others. The pub-style signage outside advertising its set lunch deals is a bit incongruous, for a start. Also, smart (and many less smart) restaurants tend to have confident service; while the staff here were pleasant and fairly efficient, they didn't seem especially authoritative, or organised (within five minutes of each other, two people asked rather timidly how our main courses were). Hungry though we were, we were not offered bread, and certainly not brought it unasked, until shortly before the starters arrived. It was rather lacklustre bread - flabby and in meagre slices, though it was warm - that might have been saved by some salty butter but instead came with the standard oil and balsamic. The wine list was also surprisingly short.
(Just one tortellino)Did the food reflect this hesitancy? Again: yes and no. My 'Brixham White Crab and Apple Tian / Brown Crab Bon Bons, Apple Gel, Salt and Pepper Honeycomb' (£7.95) was a good fresh pile of crabmeat and toast flanked by blobs of apple and more crab. Nothing spectacular, except for the salt and pepper honeycomb, which was an amazing mix of sweetness and salt, like the inside of a gourmet Crunchie bar. I could have eaten much more of it. The Photographer had 'Tortellini of Oxfordshire Wood Pigeon / Blackberry, Celeriac, Candied Hazelnut, Red Wine' (£7.25). As the photograph shows, whoever wrote the menu is in need of a basic Italian lesson (on singulars and plurals). The pasta wasn't bad, but the filling had a rather uniform and underseasoned texture and taste and it needed to be eaten with the other components.
More unevenness followed. My 'Gressingham Duck Breast / Celeriac Rosti, Pickled Chocolate, Spinach, Blueberry Jus' (£16.95) was a winner. The duck was perfectly cooked - moist, meaty and succulent - and the rosti was a pleasant savoury accompaniment. In case you're wondering, pickled chocolate tastes a lot like normal dark chocolate, but perhaps that's no bad thing. The only slight blemish was the spinach, which was salty and bitter. Unfortunately, a similar fate had befallen The Photographer's 'Lemon Thyme and Poppy Seed Risotto / Wild Mushroom, Parmesan Tuille' (£9.95). It was far too salty (and The Photographer is no stranger to the salt cellar): that was the dominant flavour.
The puddings continued in this vein. I had 'Marjoram Creme Brulee / White Chocolate and Praline Semifredo, Shortbread' (£5.95), which came chilled. I've had enough cold crèmes brûlées (pretentious about plurals? Moi?) for this to seem virtually normal, but it's still disappointing when you order one and it obviously hasn't seen a blowtorch recently. Since standards of presentation here are obviously high, I'm surprised they didn't make the extra effort. There was nothing wrong with the brûlée itself, but once again it was overshadowed by its accompaniments. The praline ice cream was really special, gorgeously creamy with crunchy, sugary bits of praline dotted through it. The shortbread was pretty good, too. However, while The Photographer enjoyed his 'Sticky Toffee Pudding / Vanilla Ice Cream, Toffee Sauce' (£5.95) I didn't think it was rich enough: it tasted steamed, not baked.
The decorative mishap suffered by the pudding as it was set on the table (see above) exemplifies how the High Table is. Someone here can cook well and creatively, and knows how to pay attention to the details - the duck and the ice cream, as well as the variety of flavours in each dish and their generally elaborate presentation, clearly showed this. It's not cheap, and I wouldn't wanted to have paid any more than we did, but I didn't feel short-changed. However, in addition to my reservations about the service, there were too many flaws for the High Table to become what it wants to be. That's a shame, as with a few improvements it would be a contender for the best restaurant I've tried in Oxford.
The High Table Brasserie and Bar, 71-73 High Street, OX1 4BE
(I've just noticed that some of the dishes are priced differently on the website menu and on our bill - generally the difference was in our favour. The prices given are what we were charged).