Hopelessly lost on the A40 when, according to the AA route planner, we should have taken the A44 from Oxford, we drove north from Burford, turned right onto a B road, and were blessed, on this long summer’s evening in mid-June with a view of the gently undulating English countryside, with the church tower of Kingham in the distance.
Deep in David Cameron country, Kingham, a few miles south west of Chipping Norton, is a delightful picture postcard village, full of honey coloured stone buildings. The Kingham Plough, a dining pub with rooms, has built up a national reputation as a destination restaurant serving modern British food. Featuring in the UK’s Top 100 Best Restaurants in the National Restaurants Awards for 2014 and 2015, it has also been garlanded with a host of national and regional awards including the Oxfordshire Dining Pub of the Year in the 2015 Good Pub Guide.
The Kingham Plough combines the relaxed and comfortable surroundings of a rural pub with serious attention to gastronomy. Unlike certain acclaimed gastro pubs, where little space is given to the casual drinker who prefers lighter meals to a three course dinner, here both groups are given equal attention, either in the spacious bar and terrace with daily blackboard snacks, or in the dining room, with an a la carte menu. Here, it is important to note that this family run operation is also child friendly and dog friendly!
Housed in a converted barn adjoining the original three storey house, the pitched roof, oak beams, plain white walls and partial wooden paneling of the restaurant give a rustic charm. This is enhanced by hessian floor covering overlaid with Indian carpets, an eclectic range of (well-spaced) wooden tables and chairs, and candle and picture frame lighting. Owner Emily Watkins has a busy life as Executive Chef whilst raising a young family with her husband Miles Lampson, who also heads the front of house team.
Emily was able to spare a few minutes from her hectic schedule to explain the philosophy of her cooking. Rarely have I heard a chef speak with such passion about her local suppliers – referring to them by their first names as if they were well known to all – and the quality of their produce. Daylesford Organic Farm and Alan Cox feature prominently, but all are given credit on the menu.
Asked about her winning fish course on the 2014 Great British Menu, she lamented it only appeared on the restaurant’s menu for a brief period as it was so expensive to produce. Aware of the dishes we had ordered, Emily enthusiastically recited their components, provenance and cooking methods.
Here was a chef totally immersed in her craft, communicating her love of food with a zestful delight. This is not surprising given her impressive CV which ranges from Ristorante Beccofino in Florence to the Fat Duck in Bray, mingled with working for a few weeks in various restaurants around the world and a period as a private chef.
The main lessons she took from these was the paramount importance of sourcing the best ingredients and the benefits of some modern methods of cooking. A card on each table explained the virtues of sous vide to maximise flavour and texture with consistency (before finishing in the pan). A small brigade is led Head Chef Ben Dulley, whose experience at Galvin at Windows and the Latymer, two very demanding kitchens, has stood him in good stead since joining the Plough in 2011.
The dishes at Kingham Plough look simple but involve various and often complex cooking techniques, both contemporary and classical. Timing and temperature control are consistently applied. Menus are seasonal, flavours are pure, and balance in taste and texture show ingredients at their best. Presentation is clean without being over fussy. A relatively short menu of four starters, five mains, four puddings (and a selection of nine cheeses) ensures that each dish, using the finest of seasonal ingredients, is given maximum attention.
An amuse bouche of home cured pork on onion marmalade and charred sour dough, with its combination of sweet and savoury flavours and soft and crunchy textures, served its purpose well in exciting the palate.
Bread made with local cereal and served with Holmleigh Dairy butter provided another delicious nibble whilst waiting for the first course.
A starter of Grilled Cornish Mackerel had been brined in a 10% salt solution to firm up the flesh then cooked sous-vide in rapeseed oil for nine minutes before a final blowtorching. This three stage process elevated this simple fish to lofty heights, resulting in a soft texture and gentle smokiness which balanced its natural oiliness. Equal attention was paid to the vegetables, which included rocksamphire, pickled to rid it of its soapy quality, marsh samphire, and blanched sea purslane and cucumber spaghetti. Rich and creamy Porthilly oyster mayonnaise with its briny accent, proved an excellent foil for the fish and foraged vegetables.
A pea and ham soup had all the sweetness and vibrant freshness of newly harvested peas, enhanced by a garnish of pea shoots sourced daily from Daylesford farm. Poured around a mound of flavoursome honey and mustard ham hock topped with a breaded crisp Cacklebean egg with soft yolk, the soup was an exciting, original and well executed interpretation of a much loved British classic.
A main course of Cotswold Spring Lamb featured roasted loin, accurately timed to a blushing pink, a succulent confit of its breast, and a dainty suet pudding encasing the slow cooked, sweet shoulder. Full justice to these different cuts was seen in the timing and method of cooking. Again, vegetables received serious attention: Bobby beans retained a crisp texture and vibrant colour; broad beans had a nutty, buttery sweetness and young carrots and carrot puree had been cooked in their own juice for a double hit of flavour. Brought together by a light jus, the dish was a veritable tour de force of meat and vegetable cookery.
Equally accomplished was Monkfish, chips and peas, a playful interpretation of another British classic. This multi component, understated dish came in two parts. Cornish monkfish tail had been cooked sous vide to retain its moistness, and then grilled to enhance the crustacean-like flavour of its dense flesh.
Served with fresh peas and Daylesford radish, it was sauced with a butter emulsion spiked with tarragon, fennel, chives and shallots to simulate a piquant tartare sauce. Served separately were two delectably soft monkfish cheeks – surely the best part of the fish, which were deep fried in the lightest of batter and accompanied by very moreish salt and vinegar matchstick chips.
For dessert, Strawberry Soufflé was light, well risen and intensely flavoured. Made the contemporary way without crème patissiere, the natural flavour of the fruit from Daylesford farm was allowed to shine. A jug of clotted cream custard was suitable rich whilst crisp, buttery strawberry shortcake gave the contrasting texture the warm dessert needed.
Elderflower and goat’s curd cheesecake was at once light, creamy and not oversweet, being topped with a delicate gooseberry gel. Poached gooseberries and gooseberry sorbet added a tangy, refreshing note, whilst the whole dish was dressed with delicate elderflower syrup.
Service throughout the meal was welcoming, knowledgeable and solicitous without being obtrusive. Overall, our meal at Kingham Plough was most enjoyable indeed, scoring highly in all respects. A repeat visit is a must not just to sample other delights from the carte, but also to try some of the bar snacks such as potted trout, Scotched quail egg or Cotswold rabbit on sourdough. Better still, an overnight stay would allow a guest to sample the full range of delights – lunch in the bar, dinner in the restaurant, an overnight stay in one of the beautifully furnished rooms, and a taste of the award winning breakfast!
Emily Watkins and her team have created an exceptional dining pub of which they can be justifiably proud, fully deserving of its success and the critical praise heaped upon it. Fine Dining Guide will certainly return, and will follow Kingham Plough’s progress with interest.