Need your palate reawakened? Try this humble pub on the fringes of Oxford with a chef that takes stripped-back, flavour-packed food to another level, says LAURA ROWE
A good start for any menu, in my opinion at least, is one with today’s date at the top. It means several things – the food is fresh, the chef is creative and reactive, and my decisions become a hell of a lot easier. This is the kind of menu I was met with when I eventually found the White Horse Inn, in Duns Tew (aka the middle of nowhere), north of Oxford and West of Chipping Norton.
It’s satisfyingly remote, down wiggly roads that the Sat Nav will fight against, and yet is beginning to reestablish itself as the heart of the village, after new owners Josh West and Michael Regan took over back in the summer. The pair met in 2002 at The French School of Culinary Arts in Paris and bonded over a love of good food. After stints in London, a stretch in Barnsley House with ex-Bibendum head chef Graham Grafton (who taught Josh a love of simple food), and another spell running the kitchen of The Royal Oak in Bishopstone, Josh met back up with Canadian Michael for this latest project.
The pair spent four weeks refurbishing the 17th-century pub, and its eight rooms, with Concorde BGW group (the same folk who helped redesign The Wheatsheaf in Northleach), and they opened in early August. There are original flagstone floors, exposed beams, satisfyingly low ceilings, thick walls and real wood-burning fires – and then the odd quirky piece of art, and trendy textiles. Nothing too contrived, just comfortably chic.
But, back to the menu… It changes daily, hourly, even minutely, I’m told, depending on what’s in that day. Josh is a chef that likes to make the most of his surroundings, even if he doesn’t shout about it. Fruit, veg and even unhomogonised milk (you know the sort; where you have to break through a thick layer of cream before you can even get to the white stuff ) all comes from North Aston Organics, less than two miles down the road. Meat is from Heath Cottage Farm, again mere minutes from the pub. Two pigs have even been spotted trotting their way into the White Horse on occasion. (Check their Facebook if you don’t believe us!)
My eye was caught by the vegetarian starter, however – ricotta gnudi (£7) – and not least because the name makes me titter. A kind of cheat’s potato gnocchi made with ricotta, a good gnudi will collapse like a cheesy pillow on the tongue – and this did that for sure. Paired with buttery butternut squash, spinach, pine nuts, crispy sage leaves and the lightest blanket covering of a salty hard cheese, it was a sublime example of a few simple ingredients cooked well. I wondered if Josh was harbouring an Italian mama in the back of the restaurant.
Ms W’s grilled mackerel (£7) had skin that was satisfyingly blistered, protecting the juicy fish underneath. Rich and oily, it was once again well partnered with a caponata-style aubergine stew, made fresh and zingy from coriander and mint, and topped with cooling yoghurt.
It could almost be described as delicate in comparison to the course that followed for Ms W, however – her doorstop wedge of leek tart (£12) was exceptionally good value. Short, golden pastry crumbled with every fervent stab of the fork, while a soft-set, creamy, sweet and mellow filling was incredible satisfying and well balanced, thanks to a bitter salad of crunchy chicory, sharp Colston Basset Stilton and walnuts. No skimping for the pescetarian here!
There are a few pub classics available, such as a cheeseburger with pickles and fries (£12.50) and a choice of steaks –but, really, why would you go for something you can get anywhere when you have an exceptionally talented chef such as Josh behind the pass? He’s the sort that shows restraint and passion in deliciously equal measure.
I was immediately drawn to the braised squid (£13.50), which came golden and warming from saffron, fennel and Charlotte potatoes from down the road, in a light white wine and tomato broth. It’s the sort of dish you imagine eating somewhere in the middle of the Med, on a boat, your hair still wet from swimming and with the taste of the seawater on your lips. It was comforting, wholesome – and yet still a little bit naughty, thanks to a thick slice of toast slathered with buttercup yellow aioli. So good, I didn’t want it to end.
But it did, of course, and gave way to desserts, which Josh seems to have nailed as well – from custard tart that wobbles almost as much as my bottom does, to a lemon posset with the sharpest, puckering lemon curd topping and homemade shortbread, and a chocolate and salted caramel pot. I don’t really remember much else, as I sank into a food coma in my comfy bed a few yards away.
Great wine (and staff to recommend), exceptional food – that I would travel for again and again – and a charming building. You almost have to stay over, just so that you can have breakfast too. One of 2014’s great new openings for the Cotswolds. Add this to your list. Now.