Now with eight new bedrooms, this Oxfordshire inn boasts even more reasons to see you visit, says LAURA ROWE, as she settles in for the night
You can instantly tell when the owners of a pub love what they do. It’s the little details: the Alan Partridge quotes on the wine list (really), the proud signage out the front, the beautiful and quirky earthenware crockery in the restaurant, and the packed-out quiz nights. And the owners of the ‘Killy’, as it’s known by its Wootton locals, on the outskirts of Woodstock, are clearly head over heels.
Jim and Claire Alexander took over The Killingworth Castle (don’t worry, it is a proper pub – the only grandiose property round these parts is Blenheim Palace down the road) in 2012, after it had been left derelict for nearly a year. With the Ebrington Arms on their books since 2007, these former music business bods know what they’re doing, and have been refurbishing the property ever since. Last month saw the final boxes ticked, with eight new bedrooms created in the former stable block.
With Jim sorting the planning and building, Claire has been busy with the interior decor – think roll-top baths, sumptuous soft furnishings and handcrafted four-poster beds, alongside choice antiques, rain showers and a cheeky complimentary decanter of sherry (and jar of homemade biscuits) to get you started. Suitably lubricated with liquor and sweet treats, we headed down to dinner.
The food offering has been just as well considered. You can eat in the front bar or in a relaxed dining room round the back, passing the open kitchen on your way through. And the menu is a succinct affair of only five dishes per course. (That’s a good thing – for a start, it means fresh ingredients cooked from scratch, and no waste.) You need only look over to one of the corners of the room to see how many awards they’ve already won, too – locally they’ve been named Newcomer of the Year, Pub of the Year and Restaurant of the Year; Shortlist put them in its Top 30 UK Gastropubs; and they’ve also scooped a Michelin Bib Gourmand and an AA Rosette. Not bad, eh?
Some homemade bread and butter later, and we’d ordered our starters. I plumped for the grilled spring lamb leg (£7). Roughly chopped, skewered, marinated in herbs and grilled, the lamb couldn’t have been better cooked – tender and ruddy. My companion, Go-West – who’d herself been tempted by it, but worried it would be too heavy as a starter – was impressed by the simple accompaniment of crisp summer radishes, pea shoots, and a garlicky/anchovy/umami punch from some bagna cauda. It couldn’t have been more well balanced, and she could tell it worked by the way I barely flicked an eye-lid as Go-West tucked into her choice, a pretty plate of Cornish crab, prawn, chilli and smoked salmon terrine (£8).
Wrapped in a peachy parcel of soft fish, and topped with pearly salmon caviar, it was an elegant balance of salty freshness and gentle heat, made even better by a tart creamy quenelle of crème fraîché, a sour leek vinaigrette and some more of those new-season pea shoots. Neither dish are what you’d normally find on a gastropub menu, but they felt at home, and a refreshing change to the same ol’ scallops and black pudding/salt and pepper squid/ goat’s cheese and beetroot combos you’ll find in every other boozer that likes to push its food.
The mains are just as different. Go-West was easily seduced by the English rose veal (£21). Before any animal fans get poised to type, this is the good stuff – where bull calves all set for slaughter by the dairy industry are raised instead. And, boy does it taste good. The colour of a ballet slipper, and almost as soft and pliable, the meat was the perfect match for its bed of broad beans, sweet peas, white beans and mousseron (otherwise known as ‘fairy ring’) mushrooms. Grilled asparagus and a white bean purée, along with a perfectly balanced meat gravy, made for a light summer twist on your meat-and-two-veg pub classic.
I’d gone fish – a chunky fillet of rainbow trout competing for space in a deep bowl with a clattering of cockles, saline-fresh samphire and other sea vegetables, and creamy, earthy Jersey Royals (£17.50). The skin was perfectly crisp, the fish tender (although perhaps erring on the side of two minutes overcooked, if I was being picky) and the sauce sublime – made even better with some cider apple gel. Summer in a bowl.
Next, though, was the meal highlight – and hurrah for that, as a good kitchen really should perform at every course. ‘Lemon meringue tart’ (£7) went rogue with pickled fennel, soft Italian and hard French meringue, lemon curd, a biscuit base, and baby tarragon. It was inspired, and one of the best palate-cleansing dessert combos we’ve ever had. My bay leaf panna cotta (£7) with doughnuts and rum-roasted pineapple was on another level, too – the wobble provoking some serious tittering.
A beautiful pub in a beautiful village that puts good food and a good time as the top priorities, this is a place to remember – and a reminder of why pubs are so ace.
THE KILLINGWORTH CASTLE, Glympton Road, Wootton, Oxfordshire OX20 1EJ; 01993 811401; thekillingworthcastle.com