Don't get me wrong, St Aldates Tavern hasn't gone all gastro. There are no high-backed leather chairs, faux-distressed tables and arty wallcoverings here. The interior is tasteful and minimal: it's definitely still a pub, but its wooden tables, neutral colour scheme and tasteful fixtures and fittings hint at a slightly higher end market than its previous incarnation. Walking in on a Friday evening, it was almost standing-room only: luckily, we managed to grab a little table at the back, behind the bar. Winding our way through the pub, C and I noticed tables of hungry customers tucking into sharing boards and platefuls of hearty-looking food. Never having seen the menu (unfortunately their website wasn't yet up and running), I was pleased to notice that the dishes being demolished looked more appetising than standard pub grub.
It certainly promised to be appetising, with the announcement at the head of the menu that all food is homemade from fresh ingredients every day – and on the premises, no less. The all-day menu (food is served from 12–9.30pm) is unpretentious but appealing: classics such as sausage and mash (£7) and beer-battered fish and chips (£7.50) sit along side a few 'St Aldates Specials' (such as crevettes with braised fennel and aioli, £8.50, and rump steak with hand-cut chips, £9.50). There are also a couple of dishes to share; ideal accompaniments for a post-work glass of wine: there's a baked camembert with freshly-baked bread (£8.50) and a charcuterie board featuring smoked duck breast, chicken liver parfait and ham hock terrine (£14). Prices are surprisingly reasonable given the pub's central location: but does the low price mean comparable quality, or petite portion sizes?
|Oh hi, camembert|
No, as it turned out. C and I devoured our whole baked camembert (I blame the appetite we'd worked up over a glass of red) pretty damn quickly: it was just too tasty. The centre was perfectly melted throughout, and the warm fresh bread ideal for scooping up the cheesy goodness. C pronounced it the best baked camembert she'd ever eaten, and I'd have to agree. Now I know that sticking a cheese in the oven doesn't sound like the most challenging of feats, but getting the right consistency is something of an art form. And it's one that the chef at St Aldates Tavern has clearly mastered. Add to that the touch of honey crowning the camembert, and welcome to cheese bliss.
|Witness the fitness|
My main course of roast pepper and butterbean stew (£7.50, one of 3 vegetarian options) had a hard act to follow, but it put in a sterling performance. In addition to peppers, the stew also featured a selection of other veg, including courgettes plus plenty of herbs, making it tastier than anticipated. I admit I hesitated before ordering, as I find that vegetable stews can often be disappointingly watery in consistency, but the St Aldates version was robust and tasty.
|Vegetable and butterbean stew|
C opted for the 8oz beef burger served with hand-cut chips (£8.50), which came topped with red onion and cheese. It was cooked medium (just right, apparently), with a well-seasoned, herby flavour. The bun was toasted, the salad topping worked well: all in all, an excellent burger, apparently. Both our mains were on a par with a gastropub offering, at a more modest price.
If your appetite is more restrained than ours, St Aldates Tavern also serves bar snacks (from £3). Although about half of the customers were dining, it's very much a pub: there are 8 beers on tap, priced from £3.70 a pint. There's also a decent wine list, with small glasses from £2.20 – but be warned, large glasses don't come in so cheap, with the house white £4.85 for 250ml and the most expensive wines over the £8 mark. Bottles are better value, so all the more excuse to settle in for the evening and order some dinner while you're at it.
With a strong menu of well-cooked – and well-priced – food, a wide choice of drinks at an average city centre rate, a comfortable setting and friendly service, St Aldates Tavern is worth a visit. After ten years, it's now well and truly on my radar.
St Aldates Tavern is at 108 St Aldates, OX1 1BU. Tel: 01865 241185.
Apologies for the silence: fortnightly reviews to be resumed!