Oxford. The dreaming spires, the Bridge of Sighs, the rarefied heady air of academic excellence. The collective, almost palpable legacy that’s conjured up by some of the finest minds this country has ever produced being educated here. And me, striding purposefully through the grey mist of torrential rain pounding the Oxford pavements, a striking figure absorbing, pondering, head bulgingly intelligent, handsome, yet sensitive. But something is up, my face contorted in agony; tortured by the newly discovered linguistic contortion that Magdalen (to my mind, always literally verbalised as ‘Mag-Da-Len’) is actually pronounced as ‘Mawd-Lin’. Errr what?
This is of course extremely important. I’m headed to The Magdalen Arms, an Oxford gastro pub with something of an interesting pedigree. The owners having worked at what many consider to be one of the best gastropubs in London, The Anchor & Hope.
Taking over, by all accounts, what used to be a seriously rough old boozer and completely transforming it into a gastropub, The Magdalen Arms opened last year to rave reviews from bloggers and critics alike. Matthew Norman of The Guardian declaring it ‘among the very best of its kind in Britain’. Having read all this at the time, I’d stored it away for when I happened to be visiting Oxford again, and behold, here I was.
The pub itself is only a little way out from the centre, but it seemed a much longer trek when damp and trudging along in the rain with ‘E’ loping along beside me, cursing the distance walked and moaning about the weather in a constant stream of misery. Nevertheless I was excited.
The trouble with reading mounds of positive reviews beforehand is that your expectation level soars ridiculously, so unless you have an almost religious eating experience you’re often left feeling a bit cheated. I am of course aware of this, and try and rein it in a bit, but it’s true to say I was expecting great things.
The pub itself is a pleasant large period corner building, with a surprisingly massive interior; a bar runs the full length of the room with a dining area towards the back. The connection with the Anchor & Hope and Great Queen St obviously extends to the décor style, with walls painted in a striking colour (Plum in this instance) and the battered mismatched furniture, if you’ve ever been to the connected London gastropubs, it all feels very familiar.
The menu could be best described as British with Spanish touches, (Spanglish?) Padron peppers, and tapas plates mingle comfortably with steak pies and bread and butter pudding. Again the A&H influence is evident in the sharing dishes. Sadly, ‘E’s accursed pescatarianism once again wedged firmly into the spokes of my rampant carnivorousness and I could only sadly mouth ‘I want you’ whilst pawing softly at the entry for Hereford Steak & Ale Pie for three-ish to share on the menu.
I’ve tried brawn a few times, and despite being always being slightly repelled at the actual idea of eating a pigs head, when served up, pressed and thinly sliced it doesn’t actually resemble anything remotely head’ish and is actually quite pleasant in a surprisingly subtle way. If you’ve never tried it, do. If only to say you’ve eaten it once. (Which is often my raison d’être when tucking into something a bit strange). The brawn as served at The Magdalen Arms is the best I’ve had. Streaked with a punchy mustard sauce and scattered with capers, sliced shallots and parsley, it was really very good and I happily stuffed the lot in no time.
‘E’ ordered a whole globe artichoke, which came with a bowl of the same mustard sauce for dipping. I’ve never eaten artichoke like this before, plucking off petals and sucking and scraping the leaves to get at the understated vegetal goodness. So simple, but really quite lovely. With ‘E’ going at it industriously, it wasn’t long before the artichoke had become a scrapheap pile of green on the plate.
Considering the bloody awful weather outside, a somewhat autumnal sounding dish of Wild Rabbit, Chorizo Fennel and Puy lentils drizzled with aioli struck a chord, and the real testament to how good this rustic dish tasted, was the plate going back a steaming carcass, utterly devoid of any meat at all, picked so bare and dry it looked like it’d been sitting in the Arizona dessert for years. I absolutely love a nice bit of Thumper, Cottontail or Flopsy. (Word of advice, if you own a rabbit, and I ever come round…hide it).
Crab ravioli and salsa cruda arrived swimming in a bowl of tomato and fish broth and despite eliciting fairly content noises from ‘E’ didn’t really seem to hit the spot like the other dishes had for me. This sudden discordant note in proceedings wasn’t helped by an accompanying side salad that had to be sent back as it was overdressed, smothered in a pungent mustard dressing that overwhelmed everything else.
Despite it being July, the unseasonably dismal weather prompted me to go for something traditional and stodgy (I don’t need much excuse). Warm Marmalade Bread and Butter Pudding encircled by a moat of cream ticked all criteria. A donkey-choking sized portion, so massive it barely fitted into the bowl, I couldn’t help but rise to the challenge and eat it all…. making myself feel absolutely bloated and sick in the process. Disregarding my excesses, it was very good – just a subtle hint of marmalade, not too overpowering.
A warm chocolate pot, topped with cold cream was admirably simple and well made. ‘E’ loves chocolate-based desserts and seemed immensely pleased with this one. So, big thumbs up from her.
Ignoring the fact that I blundered out into the daylight in an almost complete food coma (curse that marmalade pudding), The Magdalen Arms provided a pretty good lunch. Expectations met. The overdressed salad and the so-so crab ravioli aside, some of the magic of its London based parent gastropubs has certainly rubbed off here. I think Matthew Normans ‘among the very best of its kind in Britain’ statement is maybe a tad exuberant, but there’s certainly no doubt that it’s very good. The next time I’m in Oxford, I’ll be heading back.
By Dan V-N @essexeating