I spent the weekend in Oxford visiting Lemur friends K&L, and we had a lovely time wandering around the colleges. (Luckily for me, they have faculty privileges so we got inside all of the grounds that are usually off-limits to the public.) I have to say that many of them are utterly beautiful, full of elegant architecture and gardens that even in November are breathtaking. The photo above is the quad of Exeter college, which isn’t even the most lovely of those that we saw but was especially exciting to me as it is the basis for Phillip Pullman’s fictional Jordan College. I’m a huge fan of the His Dark Materials trilogy and even named my cat Lyra after its scrappy heroine. As we walked around this quad, I was trying not to look like a tourist gawping at the roof, imagining Lyra climbing around with Pantalaimon, but I don’t imagine I succeeded too well. We did lots of non-literary things too, like checking out the Magdalen College deer park, which was just ridiculously full of adorable Bambis.
Most of the food I ate in Oxford was cooked by K, who made some amazing Italian meals for me that I sadly did not photograph. On our last night, though, we went to the Magdalen Arms, described by K&L as more or less the only good restaurant in Oxford. Now this gastropub has been written up by various national newspapers with highly variable results. Matthew Norman in the Guardian called it one of the finest gastropubs in the country, but Zoe Williams in the Telegraph found it a dreary and bland disappointment. I’m more inclined to believe Norman than Williams for various reasons, but it’s at least interesting that the place has provoked such disparate reactions.
My first impression was positive. We wanted (i.e. were in dire need of) cocktails and the bartender spent ages making me a perfectly judged bramble, strong without tasting offputtingly so, and he made K an equally well-balanced campari aperitivo. The space has elements of an actual pub but I liked its cosy decor and wooden tables. It was neither aggressively traditional Englishy-pubby (a style I have limited patience with) nor too preciously designed. The menu leans toward modern British, with some Italian and Spanish elements. I wanted to order the more British sounding dishes, as it seemed like these would probably be better, but for a starter I couldn’t resist razor clams with chili, garlic and parsley.
The dish was simple but very well made. It was a generous portion of plump and fresh clams, with a properly garlicky dressing. The chilies were very (very) mild, almost imperceptible, but then this is me and I don’t expect to find food spicy in a British food setting. Pretending that chili was not in fact one of the ingredients, the dish worked splendidly as a lemon garlic dressing, and the clams didn’t need much else on them.
For a main course, we shared a whole pot roast pheasant served with bacon, celeriac and chestnuts. There are several dishes on the menu that can only be ordered for two, three or more to share, an indication of the family-style eating that the Magdalen Arms encourages. The table next to us, a family with two children, had ordered venison and beef-suet crust pie, which had us staring rudely and in open jealousy. The pie was enormous – it was made in a large Le Creuset pan, which had been filled with venison and had a suet pastry top draped right across it. You could see the shape of the handles wrapped in lovely golden brown pastry. You’d need at least three or four hungry people to eat it, so we couldn’t have ordered it, but it was definitely an incentive to return with more people. Getting back to our pheasant, it arrived on a platter, surrounded wiith roasted vegetables and a deep reservoir of aromatic roasting liquids.
The picture doesn’t really do it justice but it was a substantial bird, which we rather messily carved on the plate. Pheasant can be dry, but this was juicy and delicious, with lots of flavourful roasting jus, salty bacon, and soft vegetables. I find it hard to resist chestnuts as an autumn ingredient, and as the weather has finally turned chilly and the evenings are getting dark, it was the perfect time to break out the game birds and roasted chestnuts. Carving up the bird ourselves also made for a very casual and cosy dining experience.
For dessert, we shared a pear and almond tart and a Muscat caramel custard. The tart was fine, but a bit too heavy on the almond paste for me. The custard, though, was sublime. Thicker than a crème caramel or a Latin American flan, it had more of a cheesecake texture to the spoon. This was a bit surprising to me, and I feared it would be stodgy, but it turned out to be perfect; more creamily substantial than a flan but not in the least bit heavy. And the Muscat caramel was a revelation. It had a slight bitterness that cut the rich custard beautifully, but the flavour was delicate and not at all winey. I’m not really a dessert person but this one hit all my buttons.
I think Zoe Williams must have come here on a very bad night, as I really can’t imagine anyone finding this food to be anything less than rather good. It’s not doing anything too inventive, I’ll grant you. Modern British food, with some European influences, served in a low-key atmosphere is hardly a novel concept but here it is done well and with what feels like a genuine concern for quality. Service was friendly if occasionally a bit haphazard. For instance, the menu is written on a board that waiters prop on a chair next to your table. We’d had it for all of five seconds when a different waiter tried to take it away to show another table. In an ideal world, they’d have more blackboards or, since they also brought paper menus, integrate regular menu and specials. This is a pretty small complaint though and overall the Magdalen Arms made for a warm and delicious autumnal evening.
Magdalen Arms, 243 Iffley Road Oxford OX4 1SJ