THE MAGDALEN ARMS: FIRST CLASS
Apparently there’s been a whole bunch of weather around (that bit is for HS who is almost a septic these days). I wouldn’t know. In the environs of Casa DH it’s been a bit chilly of late and I think I saw a few sprinkles of snow once, but that was about the extent of it. Over the past week I’ve been going to work and about my business no bother.
Really, if you’re going to live in dreary Metro-land - or as DH know it death by a thousand trouser presses – then you deserve all you get. I even made a 100 mile round trip to Oxford the other Saturday in search of some decent grub.
It was only while planning my journey that I realised I’d only visited the University City once in my life and that was very briefly as part of a week I spent at the cookery school at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons (when starred chef Alan Murchison was running the show).
Oxford is a pleasant enough place once you look beyond the identikit centre although lack of time meant I had to forgo my normal rubbernecking activities and make my way to lunch at The Magdalen Arms just outside town. However, I did manage to slide past a college or two which put me in mind of a heat of University Challenge. Dreaming Spires indeed.
The Magdalen Arms has been opened by a young couple, Florence Fowler and Tony Abrano, who have arrived here from the Anchor and Hope in London via The Olde Bell in Berkshire. They’ve taken a large pub which was formerly dedicated (presumably) to the downing of gallons of chemically-enhanced effluent with a helping of grot on the side. The emphasis is now on the food operation although this apparently hasn’t frightened off all the regulars. Yet.
It’s only been opened a few months ago but has already garnered a good reputation and soon after arriving the place was filled with the beau and belle monde of Oxford and their well-behaved sprogs. People of N1 please take note.
The menu has the sort of hearty School of St John dishes which will be familiar to those Londoners who eat out regularly and which are becoming increasingly familiar around the country as its disciples spread the word. There were a couple of Continental ringers in there as well but these interlopers seemed in the spirit of the rest of the menu.
I’m not a big fan of liquid courses unless it’s a Dry Martini followed by another one and on my first few sips of a Potato Soup with Duck Foie Gras I’d thought I’d not ordered well. It was only as the torchon of liver began to melt and I’d swirled it into the soup that the dish made sense. With each mouthful (eaten in the manner of Greg Wallace, of course) you got the relatively bland taste of the potato soup then un petit choc from the sweet, rich liver: starch and fat in perfect harmony.
Mussels were done in the mariniere style and were of the small and sweet - as oppose to big and meaty - variety. The care in the preparation was evident by the liquor left behind which was not full of grit and too salty as it usually is. The only way of improving the dish would have been to serve some decent crusty bread with it – the homemade focaccia wasn’t up to the job, good though it was.
Sometimes it’s the little things that show how good a place is and the fact that the kitchen asked if I’d like a break before my next course was evidence of some joined-thinking in the kitchen, even in the middle of service. Speaking of which, if two people can handle a busy dining room with such smiley efficiency why do some places struggle with two or three times that number of staff?
In retrospect, given the generously sized dishes – hey, you’re not in that there London now - Faggot and Mashed Potatoes was possibly the wrong dish. But in many ways it was the right one. The Faggot was a fairly loose mince of pork and presumably its offal, wrapped in caul fat that had taken on some colour during cooking. Rather than a dense, one-note meatball, this was a light almost dainty expression of the form. It was sitting on some smooth, buttery mash and covered in a light onion gravy. The dish as a whole belied its appearance and was actually pretty refined. Not bad for under nine quid.
I had to try the chips and the kitchen kindly did me a bowlful. Unfortunately, they were of the fat variety and really needed crisping up to be anywhere near acceptable. Still, it didn’t stop me having a couple of scoops of Praline Ice Cream for sweet which was everything I hoped it would be i.e. excellent.
By now, the sun was getting low in the sky and it looked as if it might start snowing again. Much as I would have liked to have been trapped there until teatime I had a home to go to and so, suitably insulated against the cold by a thick belt of carbohydrate, I waddled off very happily but with a part of me wishing that I had a place like The Magdalen Arms at the end of my road.