Formerly known as The Waterman's Arms due to its riverside setting, The Punter sits on the corner of South Street on Osney Island. Reopened with its new name and new look in 2010, The Punter has been reeling in both island residents and those in the know for months, enticing them with its pretty location, relaxed atmosphere and appetising menu.
Stepping inside, my first impression was of a bustling yet laid-back watering hole. The traditional interior has been enhanced with a neat blue and white colour scheme and eclectic decor; beams and church pews nodding towards country pub, a lived-in feel preventing it from seeming contrived. Settling ourselves in at a large wooden table, we perused the menu over a decent glass of house white (£14 a bottle - wines here aren't cheap). If the decor has hints of country, The Punter's menu is much more smart pub-about town. Changing daily, offerings range from pub classics given a gastro twist (such as wild boar and apple sausages with mash, £11) to Italian and Spanish influenced dishes (including the sea bass fillet with panzanella salad, £12). With starters priced up to £6.50 and mains reaching a maximum £14, dining at The Punter is reasonably-priced, but when the three £7 dinner options are considered, it becomes positively good value. On our visit, the dishes on offer were at the simpler end of the spectrum yet still tempting: salmon fillet with new potatoes and green beans, chicken curry with spicy aubergine and gnocchi with mushrooms and spinach.
Feeling hungry, B and I opted for starters. Almost all of them sounded substantial, and I'd usually expect to see dishes such as red mullet with saffron risotto and salsa verde under the main course heading of a menu. My crayfish paella with alioli (£5.50) was well-presented and full of flavour; limiting the seafood content to crayfish alone worked surprisingly well and the hint of saffron combined beautifully with the garlicky, lemon-infused alioli. The rice was a little underdone though: a few more minutes cooking time wouldn't have gone amiss and would have reduced the slight excess of stock.
B's goat's cheese, tomato, red onion and caper bruschetta (£5) certainly wasn't short of topping: there was no skimping on the goat's cheese, which worked well with the tasty sundried tomatoes and sticky balsamic vinegar.
|Goat's cheese and tomato bruschetta|
When the main courses arrived, we noted that L's £7 chicken curry was served in almost as generous a portion as the other mains. Served with rice and yoghurt, she found it flavoursome (spicy but not too hot, the aubergine tasting slightly sweet) but perhaps a little lacking in sauce.
S's grilled sea bass with panzanella (an Italian salad of bread, tomato, red onion and cucumber) was simple summer food done well, the salad adding a fresh taste to the dish. Osney Island resident S went as far as to say it was the best dish she'd tried at The Punter so far.
|Sea bass with panzanella|
B's lamb leg steak was well cooked; tender and slightly pink in the middle. It was given an eastern twist with harissa seasoning and accompaniments of imam bayildi (Turkish-style aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes), cous cous and tzatziki (£14). The aubergine complemented the lamb well, but the cous cous was slightly dry, although the addition of almonds and capers made up for it. Nothing could save the tzatziki though: it was a fairly flavourless contribution to the plate.
|Lamb leg steak with imam bayildi|
My whole plaice with lentils and salsa verde (£14) was huge: well-cooked and light, the fish slid off the bone easily. The lentils and salsa verde were simple but effective additions, but again there was a slight excess of liquid.
|Plaice with lentils|
Spurred on by the successful mains, we ordered desserts: a British cheese board (£6), a brownie with vanilla ice cream and a vanilla and chocolate semi freddo (both £5). The cheese board was poorly presented and served with Jacob's crackers, but the cheese went down well. The brownie was a bit chewy and undercooked and the less said about the semi freddo the better: a mixture of cream, chocolate and some sort of almond biscuit base, it wasn't quite what I'd had in mind.
Although the desserts were disappointing and there are definitely some quirks in the kitchen that need to be smoothed out, the overall verdict was positive. The menu has definite potential: the simply-cooked, seasonal dishes stood out from the slightly over-ambitious ones. For me, it was the atmosphere that really made the evening, though: laid-back and inviting, The Punter's a perfect pub for a relaxed evening with friends. And apparently the cast of Lewis think so too: they were all down there the following evening. Well, if it's good enough for Kevin Whateley, it's good enough for me too.
You can listen to me discussing The Punter and other pubs and gastro pubs on Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford here until 2 September.
The Punter is at 7 South Street, Osney Island OX2 0BE. Tel: 01865 248832.