Oxford Blue, the recently opened food led pub in Old Windsor, takes its name from the regiment of its original founder, Tom Evans. The dark tone of azure, the official colour of Oxford University distinguishes its wood panelled walls, window frames and the terrace balustrades and furniture. Inside, orange leather banquettes, upholstered bucket chairs in tartan and well-spaced tables dressed in fine napery add to the colour scheme. The up market décor and furniture blend well with classic features of the original building, exposed oak beams and double sided brick fireplace which separates the restaurant from the pub. The spacious bar area, comfortable stool and banquette seating, ensures that drinkers are given equal treatment.
Outside, a decked terrace offers al fresco service, whilst upstairs the Wine Attic, the private dining room, features oak tables surrounded by wine fridges set at different temperatures, to ensure the perfect service from the extensive list.
Clearly, during the 18 months before opening, there has been a huge investment in renovating a building that was originally two gamekeeper’s cottages. The transformation includes a new state of the art kitchen, a priority for Chef Proprietor Steven Ellis. His distinguished CV includes working as sous chef for Clare Smyth at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, and for Andrew Pern at the Star Inn, North Yorkshire. The pedigree of senior management team is equally notable. General Manager Daniel Crump trained at Royal Hospital Road whilst his wife, restaurant manager, Margriet Vandezande-Crump held management positions at Trinity in Clapham and Petrus in Knightsbridge. With Michelin starred experience in abundance, nothing is done by halves both in the kitchens and front of house.
Provenance of ingredients is exemplary and partly regal, the Balmoral and Crown Estates supplying meat and game. Fruit and vegetables come from the Mash family farms, cheese from Neal’s Yard, herbs from the pub’s own five herb gardens, and ales from Windsor & Eton Brewery.
Steven’s cooking is firmly grounded in classical French techniques whilst reflecting British influences. Indeed, the fusion of traditional pub food with the elegance of fine dining is a balance that is masterly achieved. Dishes bear the mark of a highly creative and skilful chef. Dishes are multi component with combinations that are sometimes surprising but always harmonious in terms of taste, texture and temperature. Timing is precise and presentation being artful but not overworked.
Menu descriptions on the seasonally changing menu are terse, listing the main components of each dish but not the cooking method, which provides an element of surprise for the diner. Given the skill in cooking and the impeccable quality of the ingredients, prices are realistic. A good choice includes six starters ranging from £7 to £15; six mains from £19 to £32; sides at £4; and six desserts from £6.50 to £8.50. Cheese is £2.80 a slice. These are supplemented by Specials, three starters and three mains.
Fine Dining Guide visited on a busy weekday evening, with high expectations which were happily exceeded.
An amuse bouche of venison bon bons, immediately set the tone of rusticity and refinement. These warm, lightly crusted balls of soft, sweet and mildly gamey meat were lifted by a tangy mustard mayonnaise dip.
Delicious warm cider bread, with crisp crust and firm, well risen crumb, was served in a paper bag to extend the rustic theme. Baked on the premises it was served with a divine Ampersand cultured butter (minimum 82% fat)!
Three starters were enjoyed.
A refreshing chilled pea and mint soup had all the colour and vibrancy of a summer’s day. Based on a flavoursome stock, it was dressed with crème-fraiche to add richness and a crispbread stick to give texture.
A suckling pig’s trotter featured a gelatinous cylinder of succulent skin encasing the soft, well-seasoned shredded leg meat. A black pudding croquette with crisp crust and meltingly soft interior was topped with a dainty fried quail egg. Thin slices of Granny Smith and Pink lady apple added texture, colour and complementary flavour whilst blobs of sauce Gibriche gave a sharp lift to this inventive, labour intensive, porcine tour de force.
An equally accomplished starter where all components worked well together, saw a silky smooth, creamy, chicken liver parfait – a stalwart of pub menus – encased in an inventive Guinness glaze which elevated the dish to gastronomic heights. Apple batons, chutney, jelly and miniature brioche slices completed this sophisticated offering.
A main course saw Cod cooked three ways. A thick tranche of the loin was accurately timed to give a burnished crust and flakes of soft, clean white flesh. A brandade fritter gave contrasting flavour and texture whilst a swirl of taramaslata added a gentle, smoky richness. Simply accompanied by Jersey Royals, heralding the start of summer, and caper berries to add piquancy, this was another well-balanced, inventive dish.
Cooking wild rabbit is sometimes seen as one of the acid tests of game cookery. Notoriously difficult to get right in terms of flavour and texture, no highly regarded chef would resist the opportunity to offer it on their menu; and Steven’s Windsor Great Park rabbit dish is indeed another testament to his outstanding abilities. The braised shoulder and leg meat, cooked under a suet pudding crust, were properly soft and gamey. Loins encased in pancetta were moist and flavoursome whilst tiny chops retained their succulence. Peas and purple sprouting broccoli proved suitably summery accompaniments, adding texture, flavour and colour, whilst the elements were bought together by a light but rich jus.
Desserts, often an anti climax on gastro pub menus, did not disappoint, maintaining the high standards set by the preceding courses. Headed by Steven’s fiancée Ami, the pastry section delivers exquisite dishes in conception, flavour and presentation.
A peach parfait of perfect texture and creaminess was encased in a peach gel so as to resemble the whole fruit. Slices of the poached fruit, fresh raspberries and a crisp almond tuile showed this accomplished dessert needed no further dressing. On reflection, was this a playful take on Peach Melba?
Another fun dish, a unique interpretation of tea and biscuits, was Tregothnan Earl Grey tea soufflé which was well risen, fluffy and delicate. Paired with Biscuit ice cream which had a velvety texture this was another simple yet elegant dessert.
Finally a layered Chocolate dessert featured the malted mousse, piped cream and cocoa nibs topped with the thinnest sheet of tempered chocolate. A tangy Marscapone sorbet cut the richness of the sweeter elements.
Good coffee and a slab of salted hazelnut chocolate – served with a small mallet to crack it – completed this memorable meal. This was enhanced by the seamless service, from the doorman’s greeting to the final farewells, which was friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic without being obtrusive. The engaging and highly experienced General Manager, Daniel Crump, who oversaw the service on the evening we visited, gave us a tour of the premises, delighting in the achievements to date.
Oxford Blue is a class act, well deserving of the plaudits it has already received. The lofty standards reached both in the kitchen and front of house will stand it in good stead. Fine Dining Guide will follow its progress with interest, confident it will gain justifiable recognition by Michelin and other major guides this autumn.