From the sea: Jack Rayner reviews Loch Fyne
Some might say that ordering a vegetarian main course at Loch Fyne is like going to The Savoy for an iced water, but when it’s this good, who cares?
For lovers of all things edible and aquatic, Loch Fyne should need little introduction
As a borderline-obsessive seafood fanatic I’ve frequented the Oxford branch on a number of occasions, and I’ve always left impressed with the quality of the food and level of service. Whilst Loch Fyne is perhaps too large a chain to be considered an ‘Oxford institution’, I’ve always considered the Walton Street haunt to be the best venue in the city centre to enjoy a fish dinner or wolf down half a dozen oysters in. So, when I was invited to pass judgment on the restaurant’s new menu, I was delighted, of course, but also a little apprehensive: the Loch Fyne formula that has repeatedly impressed me in the past isn’t broken by any stretch of the imagination, so why and how would the team attempt to fix it?
I let my doubts on how to improve the dining experience settle whilst I took in my surroundings with a large gin and tonic. Joseph and his team are warm, funny and utterly charming, and despite the sizeable dining room being less than full on a damp Tuesday evening, the mood was lively and cheerful.
Being able to see directly into the kitchen is a nice touch, providing a far more involved and engaging dining experience than if the chefs were out of sight, and the high ceiling and spacious layout strike an agreeable balance between privacy and atmosphere.
Onto the food. Oysters are fairly difficult to get wrong if they’re of a decent quality, but the inclusion of a chilli and coriander salsa alongside the usual accompaniments of lemon and Tabasco was a welcome variation. Our serving quickly disappeared and the starters were brought to our table. I opted for a mackerel fillet, which was grilled to absolute perfection: light and crispy round the edges with a proper punch of flavour. The addition of a tempura fried oyster with my otherwise fairly simple dish was inspired, providing a briny hit to perfectly complement the oily savoy cabbage and warm kimchi sauce that the fish was laid onto. My dining companion opted for duck and chicken liver parfait, which received glowing praise despite stock issues preventing the inclusion of orange and thyme jelly as advertised. I was glad to hear that Loch Fyne’s expertise extended to land-based creatures, as I’ve never strayed from the “From The Sea” section of their menu in the past.
The mains didn’t disappoint either. My roasted gilt-head bream was some of the best whole fish I’d tasted in a while (despite the bream rudely “staring” at my mildly fish-phobic guest), served with seaweed butter, vegetable nage and new potatoes, and at points I had to remember my manners as I became carried away with inhaling further morsels of the rich sea creature in front of me. On the other side of the table the bubble and squeak risotto, which sounds unexciting in conception, was stunning in execution, and the breaded crispy egg served alongside was an absolute masterpiece. Some might say that ordering a vegetarian main course at Loch Fyne is like going to The Savoy for an iced water, but when it’s this good, who cares?
For dessert, the steamed marmalade pudding was sharp and confident despite being a little doughy, and the chocolate and raspberry delice was almost painfully rich, but the powerful cocoa hit is offset by the addition of whiskey cream and fresh raspberries, and our plates were empty once again in a matter of seconds.
So, as you can probably gather, my suspicions towards the new selection were entirely unfounded, and I’m looking forward to returning to sample some more of the new faces on the menu. Crucially though, and perhaps only at the Oxford branch, it’s the service that really sets Loch Fyne apart. Every stage of the evening was perfectly introduced, and the staff were talkative and likeable without once coming across as overbearing. Our waiter even mixed us a pair of perfectly serviceable daiquiris at the end of the evening despite having none of the usual equipment, which perfectly rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The full menu will be available by the time you read this issue of OX, so get a table booked and try it for yourself. You won’t regret it.