Postscript: Simon and Dean Bonwick have subsequently moved on from The Half Moon at Cuxham to take up positions respectively as a Private Chef and front of house at a Michelin three star address. Fine Dining Guide wish them every success in their next adventures!
Father and son Simon and Dean Bonwick recently embarked on an exciting new venture in Cuxham, a tiny hamlet deep in the countryside between Henley and Oxford. Under the new ownership of the Radhost group, they have taken over the Half Moon, a delightful 300 year inn with thatched roof, low beamed ceilings, stone floors and original fireplaces. With two dining areas separated by a central bar, they aim to offer high quality food and drink, served informally, in comfortable, relaxed surroundings. Whilst the concept is hardly original amongst food led pubs, the execution can so often be found wanting. Happily, this was not the case when Fine Dining Guide visited the Half Moon on a Tuesday evening in early October.
Not that this should be a surprise given the pedigree of those at the helm. Head chef Simon Bonwick has twenty years experience, most recently at The Black Boy in Hurley and The Three Tuns in Henley, both of which were recognised in major food guides. Manager Dean’s CV includes incomparable front of house experience at the Michelin starred Waterside Inn and Les Pres de Eugenie in France.
Connoisseurs of beer, wines and spirits will be enthused by the range craft beers, cask ales, the small slate of fine and rare vintages, English champagnes, single malts and rare eau de vies. The extensive list also offers wine by the glass and carafe
However, the main attraction is the daily changing menu offering five options in each course, supplemented by fresh fish and game specials. Given the quality of the cooking and the generous portion sizes, prices are eminently reasonable: starters are £4 to £7; mains £11 to £15; and desserts £5.50. An excellent value two course set lunch is a mere £10.
Using the finest of seasonal and local ingredients, Simon Bonwick’s cooking, based on classical techniques with occasional Middle Eastern influences, exhibits strong, robust flavours, harmonious combinations, precise timing and simple, elegant presentation.
Our menu comprised mixture of dishes from the menu and specials of the day
A first course saw herb flecked risotto cooked to a well judged, creamy consistency garnished with sauted wild mushrooms, the deep earthiness and sublime fragrance of which balanced the soft texture and delicate flavour of the rice. (Wine: Veuve Clicquot Rose, 2004)
Next came a generously sliced torchon of foie gras. This delectable piece of offal, skilfully marinated, poached, chilled and rolled, had a silky buttery texture and mild creamy liver flavour. It sat on a bed of Puy lentils cooked al dente and dressed with Xeres vinegar which gave textural contrast and a gentle acidity to balance the richness of the foie gras. The accompanying toasted brioche was a model of its kind. (Wine: Juracon “Jardin de Babylone”, 2009)
A well timed fillet of Dover sole came with “Dukkah seasoning,” a flavoursome crust of herbs, nuts and spices. This Egyptian influence, possibly the result of Simon Bonwick’s time as personal chef to the Al Fayed family, gave a Middle Eastern feel to the dish. The braised butter bean accompaniment added complexity with its “bitter notes” seasoning. (Wine: Chateau Mousar White, 2004)
The “Assiette aux trois saveurs,” was a veritable tour de force of meat and game cookery. Braised veal cheek was unctuously rich with a melting texture. Partridge farci, was beautifully tender with a gentle gaminess. And “coco” loin of venison, cooked medium rare, showed the meat at its best. A deeply flavoured reduced red wine sauce, spiked with rowanberry to add a hint of sweetness, brought these elements together well. (Wine: Chateauneuf du pape, “Vieux Telegraph”, 2000)
Desserts, created by Marc Paley, showed the pastry section was also on top form.
Mango, raspberry and passion fruit sorbets impressed with their intense tastes and smooth textures. Basboussa, a light Egyptian semolina cake laced with syrup, came with an attractive western garnish of white chocolate and fresh raspberries. Rich lemon posset had a good balance of sweetness and acidity. The accompanying tuile and brandy snap biscuits were particularly fine. (Wine: Chateau Guiraud, 1999)
Other aspects of the meal, the breads at the start and truffles and shortbread with coffee were all well made.
Wines were chosen and dishes served by Dean Bonwick, who trained under the master of front of house service, Diego Masciaga of The Waterside Inn. Dean’s natural charm, combined with professional etiquette and detailed knowledge of the food and wine, made him the perfect host.
Overall, our meal was a highly memorable one. As the first joint enterprise by father and son, the Half Moon deserves to succeed.
Once news spreads, the disadvantages of its location – on a B road north of Watlington – will be outweighed by the excellence of its food, drink and service. We wish Simon and Dean well.