For a city that has never lacked visitors, Oxford has long suffered from a shortage of attractive places to stay and eat. But in this students’ realm – and the countryside beyond it – there are some interesting new shoots emerging.
The modern glass extension to the Ashmolean Museum, conceived by the architect Rick Mather, now provides a bright, sunny location for its top-floor restaurant. A salad of herring, beetroot and creamed horseradish, cannelloni stuffed with leeks and a bottle of Riesling, made by Jochen Dreissigacker in Rheinhessen, made an excellent prelude to the “Cézanne and the Modern” exhibition from the collection of the late American industrialist Henry Pearlman.
A five-minute walk from the Ashmolean took us to the Oxford Castle quarter, where groups of schoolchildren were putting their heads in the stocks once reserved for criminals in the Middle Ages. We put our own heads into the Malmaison Hotel, a prison in Victorian times, before repairing to the terrace of 1855, an exciting wine bar opened late last year by Alistair Cooper, currently studying to be a Master of Wine. Alongside a menu of local cheeses, charcuterie and some uncomplicated hot dishes, Cooper has collated a wine list that offers a range of intriguing wines by the glass from ambitious winemakers in, most notably, Hungary, Turkey, Sicily and Chile.
From here we walked to catch the number 66 bus out of the city, asking the driver to drop us off in Kingston Bagpuize. It duly deposited us on the doorstep of Fallowfields Restaurant and Hotel, a property that dates back to 958 AD, when it belonged to King Eadwig.
In the intervening centuries the building has been a farm, a tavern, a home for prisoners of war and, for the past 20 years, a hotel owned by Anthony and Peta Lloyd. (I assume theirs were the cars with the number plates B6 FAL and C6 FAL parked by the entrance.)
From our room we had a view of the large, well-kept gardens and grounds and their abundance of foodstuffs. There is a sizeable vegetable garden, an orchard planted with rare fruit trees, a large paddock with a small herd of stocky Dexter cattle and, dotted around, pens of ducks, hefty pigs and chickens, which provided excellent material for the following day’s breakfast. Everything seemed on hand for the kitchen, under chef Matt Weedon, to deliver a really first-class meal.
Weedon has been cooking here since February last year and is clearly talented. But at 10pm we left the dining room without, disappointingly, any member of staff present to say good night or thank you. This small but vital touch may have been an oversight but it is one I have noticed in other restaurants where so much importance is given to what the plate looks like that how the customer feels is neglected.
What’s more, Fallowfields had taken the trouble to phone the day before, ascertaining exactly what time we would like to eat and then agreeing a time when we would come down to the bar for a drink, canapés and for our order to be taken. Armed with this knowledge, the hotel staff should definitely have been on the front foot.
Weedon’s menu is extensive, well balanced and intriguing, if slightly verbose. Our two first courses – a ravioli of egg yolk and truffled potato with wild mushrooms, grilled artichokes and Parmesan, and an unlikely but successful combination of grilled mackerel and a confit of pork with lime and cucumber – were very good. So too was an amuse-bouche of Jerusalem artichoke and pear in a cone with home-baked breads.
But despite an excellent bottle of Grenache 2012 made by David Sadie in Swartland, South Africa (£63 from a well-priced list), our mains were slightly disappointing. The simultaneous serving of the two parts of the beef main course – tartare and bouillon, plus a plate of sirloin and cheek – made it logistically tricky to enjoy either. The bouillon was on the greasy side, the chowder with the sea bass too thin. And with three out of its four choices featuring chocolate, the dessert menu needs a rethink.
Worst of all, however, was the music, possibly the most jarring I have ever been subjected to in any restaurant. Fallowfields needs to look after its customers as assiduously as the kitchen looks after its suppliers.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Ashmolean Dining Room
Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH, 01865 553823; ashmolean.org
1855 Wine Bar
4 Oxford Castle, Oxford OX1 1AY, 01865 247217; 1855oxford.com
Fallowfields Restaurant and Hotel
Farringdon Road,Kingston Bagpuize, Oxon OX13 5BH, 01865 820416; fallowfields.com
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