The last time I ate in Summertown was in 1980, when a friend and I drove the 30 miles from Maidenhead to have dinner at Raymond Blanc’s ground breaking restaurant, Les Quat’ Saisons. We had turbot and lobster terrine, roast duck with honey and cloves, and raspberry soufflé, three courses so superbly executed they are clearly memorable today.
Since then, when Oxford was firmly established on the fine dining map, the fortunes of this university city have ebbed and flowed. There have been the occasional high profile openings – witness Le Petit Blanc further down the Banbury Road, and Brasserie Blanc in Jericho, also in the 80s – but little of serious note. In the nineties and noughties the restaurant scene stagnated. Blanc himself now has little to do with the places that still bear his name, luxuriating instead at Le Manoir in Great Milton. For some years, a plethora of mid-market chains serving mediocre meals have dominated the city’s restaurants, making eating out a dull and predictable experience.
Thus, Oxford food yearns for a much needed boost. This is why the recent opening of The Oxford Kitchen may well signal the start of a timely revival of the city’s gastronomic fortunes. (In this context, compare the worldly and sophisticated Oxford with the supposedly more puritanical Cambridge, which now boasts two Michelin starred restaurants.)
The restaurant’s location in Summertown on the Banbury Road, a mile from the city centre, is ideal for both Oxford residents, and close enough to the ring road to attract foodies from further afield. Indeed, the long term aim is to make The Oxford Kitchen both a neighbourhood and destination restaurant. The current site in a shopping parade might seem undistinguished, but we mustn’t forget that in 1977 Raymond Blanc’s original restaurant opened in the parade of shops opposite, between the Oxfam HQ and a lingerie store! As they say, “From small acorns…”
With a seating capacity of 36 downstairs and 55 on the first floor, there is enough space to accommodate the 80 + covers on Saturday nights. This is impressive for a restaurant open for just two months. During the week, ladies who lunch, businessmen and residents from this prosperous northern Oxford suburb, with its Edwardian villas and modern private housing, keep the kitchen busy. Weekends often see families, partly attracted by the new Kids’ menu, helping to fill the restaurant.
The low ceilinged, air conditioned downstairs room has a suitably contemporary edge, with partly bare bricked walls, and wood and stone flooring. High backed brown leather banquettes and a variety of upholstered and plain wooden chairs offer a variety of comfortable seating. Bare tables benefit from wall, pendant and spotlighting, which, thankfully, are not turned down to ridiculously low levels in the evening. The larger upstairs room has a brighter plusher look, with a slightly more formal feel.
Executive Chef John Footman and Head Chef Gerd Greaves are not aiming specifically for Michelin accolades, although their CVs, which include stints at Michelin starred kitchens of Le Manoir, L’Ortolan and The Nut Tree Inn in Murcott, testify to experience of a high order. Rather, their aim is to provide fairly priced fine dining in relaxed surroundings, to a knowledgeable and appreciative clientele.
The brigade of six chefs – which is hoped will be eight in the near future – sharply hone their skills, with no weaknesses in any department of the kitchen. The “modern, innovative” cooking style, with a base of strong classical techniques, highlights aromas, tastes, textures and temperatures in the use of first rate ingredients. Combinations occasionally surprise but are harmonious, with the main ingredient always taking centre stage, enhanced by sauces, purees and the occasional gel. Vegetables are integral to each dish, not mere garnishes. The cooking of meat and fish is accurately timed and well-seasoned, maximising flavour and texture. The clean line presentation on glass, slate or porcelain, in a variety of shapes and sizes, shows a conscious artistry and fine attention to detail.
Although the provenance of regional and seasonal produce is now acknowledged on menus, here it is not taken to the extremes seen elsewhere with every supplier or region, regardless of their pedigree, being listed. Thankfully, only Cornish crab, Cotswold White chicken and Creedy Carver duck are mentioned.
The menu caters both for casual diners and those seeking more sophisticated, fine dining options. The carte is shrewdly limited to five starters, five mains + specials, four “Kitchen classics” from the Josper Grill and five desserts. Here less is more, ensuring that each dish receives thorough attention. Pricing is keen with starters, (“small plates”) ranging from £5.50 to £14, mains from £15 to £20 and desserts £5.95 to £7. A plate of artisan cheeses is £8. For those who seriously want unashamed luxury, the £40 WAGYU burger with Cornish lobster salad, triple cooked chips and black truffle mayonnaise provides the ideal choice.
At lunchtimes a set menu for £16.50 for up to three courses, with the option of a glass of house wine instead of a course, is not only flexible and eminently reasonable, but also excellent value for money.
Fine Dining Guide visited on busy Thursday evening, when the lively buzz of contented diners was still evident.
An amuse bouche of velvety smooth, intensely flavoured chicken liver parfait, smoked in Kilner jars at the table, added a little restaurant theatre at the start of the meal
Three starters followed:
Cornish crab salad featured utterly fresh sweet white meat with the gentle bitterness of pink grapefruit.
Hand dived scallops were seared to produce a caramelised crust and succulent sweet flesh. They married well with confit belly pork, that meltingly soft piece of porcine indulgence! To cut the richness, mandarin puree gave a measured acidity. Puffed up crackling gave crispness and roasted almonds provided a crunchy element to the composition. Served on a dark slate, this dish was also visually stunning.
Best of all was the Duck “Bon Bon” composed of densely packed, well rendered confit of duck in a crumb coating. Pickled pear provided a sweet-and-sour counterpoint, and mini nut clusters gave crunch. Garnished with gingerbread tuiles, this was a brilliantly conceived, attractively presented dish.
For main courses, sophisticated comfort food comes no better than ox cheek and mash. Braised for 36 hours to a soft, unctuously melting texture, the meat could be cut with a spoon. Deeply flavoured with the rich wine sauce, reduced before serving to give an even greater intensity, this delectable – and highly fashionable – cut was garnished with baby onions and lardons, both added at the end of cooking to retain their individual identity. Smoked potato puree, of velvety smoothness and decadent richness, completed this highly enjoyable dish.
The cooking of a breast of Creedy Carver duck did full justice to this high quality, free range bird farmed in Devon. Accurately seasoned and well rested, the meat had a gentle gaminess, with the fat rendered to a thin layer under its crisp skin. The bitter sweetness of chicory marmalade was a perfect foil to the richness of the duck. Buttery potato fondant and wilted pak choi proved well-judged accompaniments, adding contrasting colour, texture and flavour. A light duck and vanilla jus brought the components together in a rounded way.
For dessert, Calamansi lime tart had crisp pastry, a bruleed crust and a sharply astringent filling. Elements of deconstruction came with shards of meringue and lime curd. On its own this would have made an excellent dessert, but the addition of coconut sorbet was inspired, giving a cleansing quality it its icy temperature and refreshing taste.
Far richer, but equally accomplished, was the Banana tart tatin. The buttery pastry and thin overlapping layers of fruit played host to a quenelle of rich peanut butter ice cream, slowly melting in the warmth. Passion fruit jam added a contrasting tangy edge which balanced the overall sweetness of this dessert.
Double expresso and petit fours completed a memorable meal, made even more pleasurable by the relaxed formal service.
Clearly, The Oxford Kitchen has done its homework well, seeing a gap in the market which has existed for some time and which they are eager to fill. It has made an impressive start and has already gained an encouraging degree of support. This is fully justified by the quality of the food coming from the kitchen. Fine Dining Guide will follow The Oxford Kitchen’s progress with interest.