North of Oxford and a modest distance from junction 10 on the M40, The White Horse Inn at Duns Tew sits in a commanding position on a bend in the road through this picturesque Cotswold village, and is a welcome haven at the end of a busy day touring the local countryside or shopping in Bicester.
The main dining area is situated in the oldest part of this atmospheric 17th century hostelry and a low ceiling, subdued lighting, two foot thick walls and an open fireplace conjure times past. Furnished with an eclectic mix of sympathetically styled wooden period tables and chairs I would be almost unsurprised to see my grandfather, who hailed from this part of the world, walk through the door with his dog. Moreover, to the right of the bar can still be found an example of the now rare ‘snug’ bar. With its stone walls and lower level floor it is rumoured to predate the rest of the inn by some hundred years and is large enough for small private parties.
The bar itself has seen extensive but sympathetic renovations and is, I note, amongst its other beverages, enthusiastically embracing the current taste for locally distilled gin! From the back of the bar doors lead to a modestly sized but carefully maintained paved outdoor seating area with wooden furniture and borders full of flowers, and as I discovered, is a trap for the evening sun.
The bedrooms in the main building are located above the bar and are cosy with comfortable beds and an interesting collection of shabby chic furniture together with original features such as the wrought iron fire place still in situ. Decorated in natural shades such as sage green, the walls are hung with a mixture of prints and original watercolours of local Cotswold scenes. Throws on the beds match the schemes and add a finishing touch to relax the weary traveller. The compact ensuite bathroom with complementary Ebony toiletries has everything one needs, especially a hot, easy to operate shower to end the day. It has to be said, however, that these rooms are reached by an outside staircase so an umbrella is an essential piece of kit!
Additional light and airy sleeping accommodation has recently been created from what once were outbuildings. These rooms are at ground level and feature floor to ceiling glass panels with large French windows, and could have been more suitable for those with limited mobility had they been fitted with walk-in showers rather than baths.
Chef Alex at the White Horse in Duns Tew takes a pride in sourcing the best ethically reared local produce as far as possible. For instance, whole Pedigree Dash Wood Zwartles lambs from Home Farm in the same village are butchered in the kitchens, showing there are no short cuts are taken in meat preparation. Similar care is taken with vegetables harvested from the restaurant’s own gardens and from the well known Oxfordshire supplier North Aston Organics. This ensures that seasonality is followed
Menus not only change with the seasons but may be adapted each day. Mediterranean and Asian influences are evident amongst some the dishes offered. The idea is to allow a reasonable choice but to ensure consistency in the kitchen. The restaurant’s Supper Menu offers six starters, (£7.50 to £8.50); 6 mains (£12.50-£22); three desserts (£6.50) and Stilton and crackers (£7.50). There is also a special Village Night menu on the first Thursday of each month
Fine Dining Guide visited on a mid-week evening in late July, in what turned out to be a busy service both in the restaurant and bar area.
Chicken liver parfait was a well rendered classic: the marination and seasoning were spot on, whilst the texture was silky smooth. Cornichons added the necessary contrasting acidity and crunch, homemade chutney gave sweetness, whilst toasted ciabatta proved a welcome change from the usual sourdough or wholemeal encountered elsewhere. Overall, an accomplished starter, although the portion could have been more generous.
A vegetarian starter showed invention and intelligent use of seasonal vegetables. A flavoursome, well balanced broad bean pesto bruschetta was enhanced by the judicious use of grated parmesan.
A hearty main course of Turkish spiced roast leg of Zwarties lamb saw tender and succulent chunks of meat dressed in a hearty casserole of tomatoes, courgettes and olives. Finishing the Middle Eastern theme was couscous which soaked up the juices nicely, yoghurt and a scattering of pomegranate seeds for sweetness and colour.
Asian influences were seen in the cooking of wild salmon. Accurately timed with crisp skin, the fillet was sprinkled with sesame seeds. With the rich, delicately flaking flesh, the virtues of wild over farmed were clearly evident. The noodles and stir fried bok choi proved fitting accompaniment, with the soy and ginger dressing finely tuned so as not to overwhelm the salmon.
Desserts did not reach the same level as the savoury courses, but just needed tweeking.
Chocolate brownie had good flavour but was dry. The texture could have been improved with a crisp top and soft, gooey centre. Vanilla ice cream and salted caramel worked well with the brownie, although the scoop was rather small.
Better was the Lemon soufflé pot, topped with strawberries. There was a good balance of sweetness and acidity in this light textured, refreshing dessert. Shortbread was rich and buttery, as it should be.
Service was friendly and welcoming. We appreciated chef Alex coming out for a chat. Overall, despite the occasional flaw, the food at The Horse is well worth a visit, its standard being above many of the food led pubs in the Cotswolds. The signature dish of Korean Chicken wings, described in detail by Alex but sadly not on the menu the evening we visited, is one good reason for a return visit.