Jack Rayner visits The Perch, Oxford
"The varnished wood floors heaved under the weight of well-behaved families and pretty 20-somethings enjoying lunch, even on a wet, gloomy day in #DryJanuary"
A good proportion of The Perch’s TripAdvisor reviews call it a “hidden gem”, and given its thatched roof, willow trees and sheer distance from the usual Oxford thoroughfares, the phrase is, admittedly, difficult to avoid
Whilst it’s a known favourite of dog-walkers coming from Port Meadow, and I know a few big fans who swear by the place for a lazy, beer-heavy Sunday afternoon, The Perch certainly doesn’t make its money from opportunistic drinkers popping in for a quick pint on the walk home from work. So, do the food, drink and service warrant “hidden gem” status? After a muddy, ill-advised stomp through West Oxford on a horrifically damp January afternoon, I was more than ready to find out.
The management are clearly doing something right, as the varnished wood floors heaved under the weight of well-behaved families and pretty 20-somethings enjoying lunch, even on a wet, gloomy day in #DryJanuary. The muted décor, duck-egg paintjob and rough Cotswold stone interior are gorgeous without looking over-thought, and the addition of daffodils at the table – in early January – provides a welcome reminder of Spring to come and a very pleasant break from the trench foot-inducing conditions outside the door. When I’m in charge, piping smooth jazz through the dining rooms of gastropubs will be considered a heinous crime punishable by death, but I guess you can’t have it all.
Onto the food. I usually take about half an hour to “umm” and “ahh” my way through choosing a starter, but when one of the options is a fish plate of juniper-cured salmon, dill-cured herring, crayfish cocktail and kipper pâté with caper berries, my indecisiveness goes straight out the window. I’m pleased to report that the execution was just as good as the conception, with each element packing its own punch of briny flavour, and reasonably priced to boot. My dining companion opted for the carrot soup, on the basis that you should judge a restaurant on its more simple offerings, and was visibly surprised at the hit of warm, winter spice that hid amongst the orange gloop. The addition of a sage and onion scone is an absolutely inspired alternative to the usual “rustic” bread accompaniment, and I was left feeling a little envious, like a spoilt child who takes his siblings’ toys as well as his own.
By this point I was in something of a seafood mania, so for the main course I went for the special of coley fillet with a herb and mustard crumb, sautéed Swiss chard, River Exe mussels and garlic butter, which was (and still is) possibly my best decision of 2016 so far. I’d never knowingly eaten coley before, and I can’t say I was particularly impressed with the flavour (it could easily pass as cod or haddock), but the way it’s cooked more than made up for it. Smooth, warming but not overpoweringly mustard-rich, “fish plus crumb” can very often be bland and under-spiced, but head chef Craig Thomson has got the formula absolutely spot on. Keeping the crunchy stems of the Swiss chard in with the leaves adds a lovely variety of texture, and the portion size is very generous, given the pricing. The huge freshwater mussels are frankly unnecessary, but I wasn’t complaining as I demolished the plate of garlicky bivalves like a starved animal.
On the other side of the table, there was pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon and sage, heritage carrots and Madeira jus. Again, this was just as good as it sounds. The meat was cooked to absolute perfection and the jus was thick, sticky and bursting with sweet wine flavour.
Recommending the dish on the basis of it “not being too rich” was one of the most bare-faced lies I’ve ever heard, but it’s difficult to complain when a main course tastes as good as that.
So, is The Perch a “hidden gem”? Head chef Craig Thomson certainly knows a thing or two about composition, presentation and flavour balance, and the relaxed atmosphere inside the pub is incredibly inviting – if it wasn’t for other commitments I could have easily spent the rest of Saturday afternoon drinking my way through The Perch’s selection of gin. Advertising two Hook Norton draughts and one guest ale as a “menu of local beers” is a little on the misleading side, but it does feel like I’m splitting hairs to criticise what is a very well-presented, well-managed and well-executed gastropub. If you’ve never given it a chance in the past, it’s well worth a visit. Just make sure you’re wearing decent boots.
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