Four of us jumped on a train at the ungodly hour of 9:30am (on a Saturday!) and an hour later, we were on the streets of Oxford in the balmy summer morning's sun. Having an alumni in our midst meant we could wander around the beautiful colleges, stopping off for some liquid refreshment on the way. We arrived at the pub, slightly sweating and starving. Seated in the back garden, we kicked off with a pear and elderflower prosecco, some excellent bread, and a bottle of light blush-tinged rosé.
I wanted everything off the menu. I could feel the panic rising, that fear of indecision and the terror of picking something inferior to my companions' dishes. It sounds melodramatic but food envy really does suck. Happily, we all agreed to order most of the menu to share and my fears were dispelled.
Brawn appeared terrine-style sliced thinly, fanned across the plate and it was meaty, wobbly goodness. Capers, parsley and shallots added tang, crunch and freshness while a mustardy dressing suited it perfectly.
Baked artichoke with goats cheese and herbed breadcrumbs drew admiring gasps from the table. Leaves slid off with the gentlest of tugs and each morsel was satisfyingly delicious. Definitely something I'd like to recreate at home, it made a change from simply steamed and dipped in vinaigrette. The heart was sweet and it was scooped up greedily.
Cheddar soufflé was divided into four studiously. Fluffy and with a generous cheesy hit, it was rich yet light. The salad was dill-heavy which pleased me and was an interesting twist to the salad. The people in the kitchen at The Magdelen Arms know how to dress their leaves.
After the excellence of the starters, we awaited the main courses eagerly. An enormous veal schnizel with a rocket and tomato salad arrived. The meat was beautifully breadcrumbed and was moist and tender. Tomatoes were sweet, juicy and actually tasted of tomatoes - something I haven't said in a long time.
Rabbit with bacon, mustard and shallots was gorgeous and I wanted it all to myself. I almost didn't let go of the plate. The braised shallots added sweetness, the bacon sharp hits of saltiness. The rabbit was tender, juicy and fell off the bone. Wilted chard beneath gave that luscious green mineral element to the dish. Top marks.
Whole crab with mayonnaise was perfect simplicity. At just under a tenner it was bargainous too. Crab viscera sprayed us as we extracted the sweet meat from its shell, attracting the flies in the garden to swarm around the detritus. The mayonnaise was abandoned for a purer flavour.
The only dud of the meal was the roasted pigeon with semolina gnocchi and braised radishes. The pigeon was over-cooked and tough. When I hacked off a piece to put in my mouth I was quite repulsed; livery in texture, and overtly gamey. It was abandoned. The rectangle of gnocchi, however, was delicious; pillowy in texture and shot through with sage. I'd never have thought to cook radishes either but will in the future. These were slightly crisp, warm and flavoursome.
All in all, a lovely meal. Although the pigeon was pretty unappetising, I am confident that it was a one-off mistake from the kitchen as the rest of the meal was outstanding. Service was sweet and friendly, and our total bill came to £102 including 2 bottles of wine and 3 coffees before service. A total bargain and I couldn't figure out why the place wasn't packed out to the rafters.
After a lazy punt and a sit in the meadows, we headed back to London, some 11 hours after we arrived. All in all, a perfect day really.
The Magdalen Arms
243 Iffley Road,
Tel: 01865 243 159
When booked in advance we managed to get return tickets for £10 each as part of the Groupsave scheme as there were 4 of us. Oxford is about an hour away.