Saturday, 1 November 2014

1855, Oxford Castle

1855 was, apparently, a seminal year for French winemakers, as it saw the introduction of a new classification system for top Bordeaux wines and the ch√Ęteaux where they were made. 2013, meanwhile, marked the opening of Oxford Castle's 1855, described on its website as a 'wine bar bistro', which has over the past year has become something of a destination for local oenophiles. Run by a knowledgeable team, it certainly feels different from - and in many ways superior to - most of Oxford's other bars. But this review is not going to be about wine, but food.
 As I mentioned, 1855 calls itself a bistro as well as a wine bar. You can order various nibbles and also make up a cheese or charcuterie board to share from a menu that changes fairly often and has an impressive focus on local meat products, but what are essentially full main courses like pork pie and confit of duck (virtually all under £10) are also available. This is great for the indecisive or hungry, although I detect a faint sense of 'identity crisis' here: is this meant to be a bistro, or a wine bar that serves snacks?
 (today's pictures are particularly dreadful: blame the mood lighting)
I'm not carping for the sake of it: I've been here several times now and I think that 1855 is a great idea that's generally well executed. On the other hand, those multiple visits have allowed me to notice a few touches of inconsistency. The first concerns the service. On previous occasions it's been accomplished, but most recently I felt different staff were either a little over-friendly (this may be me being curmudgeonly but, if people have to ask me how my day has been, I'd prefer to be able to settle in and relax first) or distinctly offhand. I think more could also be made of the opportunity to help people match wines and food; this didn't happen this time although I remember greater efforts being made in the past. 
 

My other reason for mentioning inconsistency was that during the summer we had an excellent terrine here, and the Photographer was very keen to try it again - but he was disappointed by the dryness of the smoked bacon, chicken and pistachio terrine (£5.50 - I think) that he ordered as a starter. It didn't have the pleasingly chunky texture he remembered and came with walnut bread that was too dry to be an effective accompaniment (it wasn't stale, but it would have worked better with something more contrasting: see below). On the other hand, my pancetta arrotolata (£4.95), thin slices of cured pork belly, was amazing - fatty, delicious and fennel-y. On the strength of this I'd definitely try the other cured meats here.
It's good to report that main courses had more in common with the pancetta than the terrine. I've had the duck confit (£9.95) before and I think it would be difficult to find a better specimen outside France (or even inside France): you get a huge leg of duck, gleaming from the fat in which it's been preserved, with succulent meat melting off the bone. This time the walnut bread was ideal for making over-loaded little open sandwiches. The Photographer went for smoked chicken with marinated pepper salad (£8.95), which was another success.
When it came to desserts, we asked to see the menu, remembering from our last visit an amazing (even by the Photographer's exacting standards) chocolate brownie as well as a couple of other options including cheesecake, but were told that there wasn't much point as only apple tarts and flapjacks were available. Now, the apple tart (I think it was about £2.50 but there was no menu to photograph) was very good - sweet and buttery - as were the chocolates that you can also order. But, even allowing for the fact that 'these things happen', it was a shame that the full selection wasn't available on a busy Friday night. If this was just a bar that served snacks, that wouldn't matter so much, but as I've shown it's very easy to construct a full meal from the menu and treat the place as a proper restaurant. So does 1855 need to make up its mind about its target food market? Or should we just celebrate the fact that central Oxford has a high-quality wine bar?


1855
4 Oxford Castle
New Road
Oxford OX1 1AY

01865 247217 

7.75/10

 

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