I'll start with the positives. There is a decent wine selection and we enjoyed a carafe of Australian Cabernet/Shiraz. Our starters were fine: 'confit duck pate' (£6) was light, more like rillettes actually, but with a subtle and not too rich favour. A girolle mushroom salad (£6) with pancetta and balsamic mayonnaise, which looked like alarming brown gloop but was rather tasty, was also good. It was quite a gutsy, savoury dish with pleasantly meaty mushrooms, but beans and watercress balanced this out. Chips (£3.50) were thin, crunchy and salty, if slightly desiccated. Oh, and the glass fronted-restaurant space on the fourth floor of the museum does afford a unusual and airy view of the Oxford sky, although this would be a lot more impressive if it were not for the imposing presence of the Randolph Hotel just across the road.
That, I concede, is not the fault of the restaurant. The same cannot be said of most of the other aspects of our meal. The problems started early on when there was a misunderstanding over the starters and two portions of the duck pâté arrived. These things happen, you might think; however, someone had already returned to double check the order. I didn't mind that but I was dismayed when it didn't resolve what was clearly a lingering problem, and to make matters worse a member of the waiting staff then told me I was mistaken and there was no mushroom salad available (admittedly it's called a 'smoked pancetta, watercress, fine beans, girolle mushroom salad with balsamic mayo' on the menu, but I hadn't committed all that to memory).
The salad's existence was subsequently confirmed but it then took twenty minutes to arrive, while I munched on a hunk of toasted ciabatta and tried not to get crumbs everywhere (a side plate would have helped). I should say now that while there were no more major service errors and the waiting staff seemed to be trying hard, most of them didn't have an especially professional air: we suspected that specific staff weren't assigned to specific tables and that this didn't help matters. Our main course plates were also left uncleared for far too long.
Desserts were a little better, but seemed designed for the very sweet-toothed. A pressed chocolate cake with toffee sauce (£7) was good in the way that a slab of neat chocolate truffle can't fail to be, but its richness was unrelieved by the sugary sauce. Blood orange and lemon tart (£6.50) came on flaky, crumbly pastry but the filling was uniformly sweet and desperately needed some lemon tang.
I admit that I didn't mention all this at the time. Perhaps I should have, but part of the reason is that while it's easy to complain about a hair in the soup or a chipped glass, it's much harder to draw attention to a slightly overdone steak and an unadventurous dessert without creating bad feeling, prolonging the meal, and quite possibly being told that the chef intended it to be like that. In this case I wasn't sure I would get anything more than a formulaic apology: although I may be doing the Ashmolean staff a disservice, I didn't get much of a sense that they were that interested in what was being served. It occurs to me now that no one actually said sorry for the starter mix-up and the resultant delay, and normally I would have pointed this out when paying: not in an attempt to get a reduction, but as a piece of feedback.
But on this occasion I wasn't paying, as I had been invited in for a review. You may think that this serves me right for accepting a freebie but I still would have wanted to speak to whoever was in charge. When we wanted to leave, however, it became clear that the staff weren't aware that I was there as a reviewer at all (n.b.: I had booked, so someone knew I was coming). Cue mutual awkwardness and a ten-minute wait for the duty manager who luckily believed I was who I said I was but didn't seem at all concerned about what my impressions had been. Still, at least the experience of this provincial food blogger at the Ashmolean was no different - for better or worse - from that of any other diner.
Ashmolean Dining Room
Oxford OX1 2PH