Does a regular diner reach the same conclusion about a restaurant as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Laura Rowe and olive reader Natalie Bacci-Evers compare notes on this pub focussed on local, seasonal produce
Check out our review of The Royal Oak, Cotswolds, and see if an expert restaurant critic comes to the same conclusion as an olive reader.
Our editor Laura Rowe, originally from the Cotswolds, has reviewed restaurants for more than a decade. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lauraroweeats.
Cotswolds-based Natalie Bacci-Evers eats out twice a week, her favourite spot being El Café in her hometown of Shipston-on-Stour. She loves pasta and cheese, and her guilty pleasure is a mixture of the two – mac ’n’ cheese.
About The Royal Oak, Cotswolds
Husband and wife team Richard and Solanche Craven have refurbished The Royal Oak in the Cotswolds (here are our favourite places to eat and drink in the area) to breathe life back into Whatcote’s village pub. The kitchen focusses on British wild food ‘shot to order’ by gamekeepers, and works with local suppliers, along with others in Scotland and Cornwall, to create seasonal dishes. Try pig’s head and black pudding lasagne with cider reduction; fallow buck with salt-baked turnip; or rabbit wellington with mashed potato and farmhouse cabbage. Comforting desserts include preserved pear with hogweed and ‘cobnut bits and bobs’, and South African wines (a nod to Solanche’s heritage) feature heavily.
The Cravens are committed to retaining the local-pub ethos in the bar and have sourced beers and lager from DEYA in Cheltenham, Clouded Minds near Banbury and Warwickshire’s Purity. The gin cabinet also boasts Countess Grey from the Cotswolds (check out our favourite British gins here).
Our pro’s The Royal Oak, Cotswolds restaurant review…
Fans of Richard and Solanche – they made firm friends with foodies at their last home, The Chef’s Dozen in Chipping Campden, and before that at The Fuzzy Duck at Armscote – won’t be surprised at the stark refurb of The Royal Oak.
Contemporary and minimal with whitewashed walls, clothless tables and ivory leather seats – for some it will feel cold, but there are nooks around a fire to warm up in. We’re met with huge smiles on arrival and chatted with as if we’re regulars. *I was recognised.
The short menu is dotted with Richard’s signature dishes – a still-warm crusty wholemeal loaf served with butter, whipped pork fat and alabaster pearls of pork crackling (as incredible as it sounds); and a Cornish scallop served in its own broth – but they feel right for its new pub setting. You can order bar snacks (pickled pheasant egg, anyone?), from a set menu, or the à la carte, as we did.
Portions might feel surprisingly light to those expecting hearty pub grub but every mouthful earns its place on the plate. A mighty Tamworth pig’s head and black pudding lasagne with a glossy cider reduction and toasted hazelnuts is sure to be a new classic here – unapologetically rich in flavour, elegantly restrained in presentation.
Rabbit wellington was predictably delicate but beautifully juicy (a hard thing to achieve with this lean meat) inside its golden pastry blanket. Creamy mash with golden girolles, squeaky green beans, toasted cobnuts (with their greener, fresher flavour than hazelnuts) and a sticky gravy led to a licked clean plate. On the other side of the table, roast beef with giant Yorkies (here’s how to make the perfect Yorkshire puds) and buttery chard, and furiously blushing loin of Scottish red stag were equally quickly devoured.
Blackberry soufflé was literal proof in the pudding that Richard is a chef very much in comfortable territory – almost smug in its height and lightness, given a grateful boost by a sweetly sharp sorbet of the same fruit.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Richard and Solanche are natural hosts and, while the menu might be posher than your average pub, this is expert, classical cooking of fine flavours. A real treat for their new neighbours.
Total for two, excluding service: £104
Our punter’s The Royal Oak, Cotswolds restaurant review…
On arrival at the charming Royal Oak, we were met by a friendly, sincere welcome. Oak beams and tables, clean white walls, sage napkins and down-lighting created a fresh, contemporary, yet warm atmosphere. The staff efficiently attended to tables, while questions about the menu were promptly answered.
We started by looking over the extensive bar and wine menu, including an unusual Lebanese red, and Fernet-Branca liquor. We went for a delicate English sparkling wine with a pungent apple kick, and a full-bodied Lebanese red to accompany the rabbit.
The menu was limited but clearly seasonal. A warm homemade loaf was promptly offered, but it was the mouthwatering butter duo that required an explanation: in one pot, thick homemade salted butter, in the other, pearlescent pork fat with shavings of crisp crackling.
My love for shellfish outweighed the hefty price tag, so I went for sweet and tender Cornish scallop in a punchy broth. A generous helping of salmon caviar and a sprinkle of fresh dill gave the plate plenty of colour.
Rabbit wellington shone – perfectly plump and juicy meat was encased in a thin, crumbly pastry. This came with creamy mash along with finely chopped cabbage and salty bacon wrapped in a leaf, giving the illusion of a miniature cabbage. Girolles infused the dish with a subtle essence of apricot, and toasty cobnuts added crunch.
I was tempted by the recommended blackberry soufflé, however the cheeseboard won due to the rare raw-milk options. St Jude had a creamy yet dense texture with tobacco undertones, the lancashire was rich and crumbly, and stilton delivered that expected punch. The cheeses were served with a generous basket of homemade, rough-edged linseed crackers, a strip of syrupy, chewy honeycomb and a balancing shot of blueberry and thyme preserve.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The standard and range of food and wine was exceptional. It was slightly more expensive than the average gastropub but worth the extra pennies. Impeccable, friendly service encouraged us to return a few days later with our dog for a drink in the bar.
Total for two, excluding service: £115.60
The Royal Oak, Cotswolds, Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating: 7
Shut your eyes and your taste buds will tell you precisely the time of year at the Royal Oak. Chef Richard Craven works hand in glove with the local estate to source game like snipe, widgeon and indeed squirrel. In fact, with all the veg, 100% organic, coming from the nearby Daylesford farm, the vast majority of the fresh ingredients are both uber seasonal and come from within 15-miles. For the fish dishes, Richard looks to Cornwall and a selection of day boats. The dairy produce meets the same exacting standards, the milk comes from local free range cows and all of the cheese is British, from Neal’s Yard. Behind the scenes, Richard and his team moved into the recently renovated pub with a host of sustainability features built in.