Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Vanbrugh House Hotel, St Michael's Street

The Vanbrugh House Hotel has been a fixture in St Michael's Street for a while now, but the only time I'd previously been in, a couple of years ago, was to point to the reception staff it might be better if they stopped calling their restaurant a 'brassiere' (sic) on the sign outside. Not the kind of thing I do normally, but it had been annoying me for months. I think the rather uninterested response (though they did say it was about to be changed) was one reason why I didn't proceed to try the restaurant, but as I continued to walk past I decided that two courses for £9.95/three for £12.95 sounded like a good deal, and at least there was no underwear involved.
As it turned out, it's not a bad deal in purely monetary terms, but I have to say this was one of the most middling, average and generally 'meh' meals that I've had in Oxford. I think part of the problem is that, like a lot of places, the Vanbrugh House is caught between two different poles. The website suggests that it wants to be a smart but characterful boutique hotel, but while the interior is new and pleasant, the public areas are entirely anonymous - also, I don't think any really aspirational establishment would have made the 'brassiere' mistake. The set menu suggests to me that the owners want to attract passing trade, but when we were there the basement restaurant was all but empty: it's a nice enough space and has a terrace for warmer days, but there's a definite 'hotel breakfast room' feel. On the plus side, the service was decent, friendly without being either over-accomplished or over-attentive, which is fine with me.
So, the food. I'm not sure how often the set menu changes but the one we were offered didn't push too many boundaries - pâté, pork belly, sticky toffee pudding - still, this is Oxford after all. There were some nice little touches to the starters: the Photographer's mushroom and tarragon soup came in a jug, and I liked how the crostini that came with my pâté had been rubbed with chili powder. Beyond that, though, it was all rather unmemorable. The pâté wasn't excessively rich or flavoursome - it wasn't unpleasant, merely entirely ordinary. Those two crostini were nowhere near sufficient to accompany it, although I acknowledge that greater restaurants than the Vanbrugh House have made the same mistake. The Photographer didn't have this problem, as with his soup were four slices of (again) ordinary sliced bread. Nothing wrong with sliced bread, but it didn't quite go with all the smart chinaware. He felt the soup itself had a decent flavour, though could have been richer.
I will warn you now that this theme of ordinariness is going to continue for the rest of the review. I quite enjoyed my salmon fishcake, although it looked meatier (fishier?) when cut open on the plate than it felt when chewed. The greens underneath were a little overcooked and, worse, hadn't been drained properly. The Photographer's pork belly didn't attract much comment, although I thought it came with an excellent example of how to cook a fondant potato and we both wondered why the smear of apple sauce on the plate was pink.
I feel slightly more strongly about the puddings. My sticky toffee specimen was clearly a cake rather than a pudding and would offend purists, but it was light and tasty and not too filling (which is a good thing at lunchtime, I will add generously). Unfortunately the cheap ice cream - think ice crystals and 'vanilla' flavour - let it down. While the Photographer's apple and cinnamon crumble had almost certainly begun life as a stewed fruit compote with a granola topping (the crumble purists wouldn't be much happier than the STP ones), neither element had been skimped on and it was spicy, warming and comforting. He didn't have the advertised custard but maybe it was better than the ice cream.
So, would I recommend the Vanbrugh House? It's definitely a safe bet in an inoffensive environment: there was nothing wrong with our meal. Still, when you've got Côte and its similarly priced and reliably good set menu round the corner, and the diversity of Hythe Bridge Street a few minutes' walk away, I'd forgive you if you decided to live more dangerously.

Vanbrugh House Hotel
20-24 St Michael's Street
Oxford OX12 2EB
01865 244622