It’s been two years in the making but the last day of 2016 marked the long-anticipated opening of chef patron Steven Ellis’s first solo venture, Old Windsor’s The Oxford Blue. Let’s make things clear from the off, it’s worth the wait.
As the former sous chef of three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, and with Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen and Andrew Pern’s Michelin-starred Star Inn in North Yorkshire on his CV, it’s little wonder that Steven’s menu here is as elegant as it is. Described as one “based on tradition and comfort, presented with a modern twist”, there are familiar pub favourites – a ploughman’s, soup and homemade bread, liver and onions, beef sirloin – but nothing is quite as it seems. (It’s better.)
We spot the ploughman’s being served across the dining room – ham is theatrically carved from a trolley and served alongside wedges of Kirkland mature Lancashire – while little black pudding bonbons to get us started are served with military precision from trays by the young but well-versed team. Josh, our waiter, is only 18 and yet advises us on the details of any dish we quiz him on (we weren’t testing, honest), and recommends wine, and later cheese, with authority and charm.
This is, in no small part, down to general manager Daniel Crump and restaurant manager Margriet Vandezande-Crump (who created the drinks list). The husband and wife team, and best friends and former colleagues of Steven, have themselves worked for some of the country’s best – Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Petrus and Adam Byatt’s Trinity.
A starter of ‘warm potato salad’ reveals Steven’s attention to detail, playful attitude towards traditional flavour pairings, and a clear obsession with good ingredients. A variety of potatoes are served in a multitude of ways – purple truffle potatoes are boiled and sliced, one more (nutty in flavour) is fried into a crisp, while another’s skin is made into some sort of sublime vegetarian crackling and stuffed with yet more whipped potato with chives and sour cream. Bitter leaves and spring onions and a creamy, tangy Lancashire cheese sauce all point to the scale of ambition here – it’s no average pub.
Another starter, braised suckling pig’s trotter, was as fine as any plate you’ll find in London’s high-end dining rooms. Wafer-thin slices of green- and red-skinned apples are plated with precision, like fish scales, and topped with the sticky roll of stuffed trotter – tender, salty, immeasurably delicious. Delicate dots of sauce gribiche, a neatly trimmed fried quail’s egg, glistening like a tiny sunshine, another piece of fried black pudding and a crab apple half poached in cider would have been impressive enough; but on the side, too, a bespoke wooden wedge held crisp pinwheels of pork crackling, like crispy little pig tails. If Steven’s aim is to get his guests squealing with delight, he’s definitely on the right track here.
A specials menu is inspired by the pick of the nearby Crown Estate. Head round the back of the pub and you’ll spot Steven’s own game shed (a nod to the pub’s former life as two gamekeeper’s cottages in the 1800s), where birds from the estate are hung to mature, alongside a herb garden and another 16 extra covers. (There are 60 inside.)
A plate of woodcock catches my eye. It’s not for the squeamish – here it’s presented head split down the middle, brain and all – but delicate butchery and an even lighter hand at the pass made for some of the most tender game we’ve tried, its flavour deeply offally and rich. The tiny bird with a big beak pulled serious punches. A slice of paté en croute made swift work of the innards, and perfectly balanced the sweet slice of buttery, naughtily wobbly, foie gras, and pretty bitter rainbow chard pieces. Incredibly elegant.
Pie and mash, too, caused gasps as it arrived at the table, with Josh feeding its rich gravy into a chimney hole at the pie’s centre. Inside the crisp raised pastry (so rare in the modern gastropub world – a lone pie lid does not a pie make), lay shredded confit chicken (now drenched in gravy). Its crispy skin had been made into majestic shards and studded into the smoothest pomme purée, while a poached chicken sausage and sweet leek medallions finished the dish. Familiar flavours but delivered in a thoroughly contemporary, refined way. That’s what a gastropub should be all about.
We didn’t need sides, but the call of beef-fat chips and buttered cabbage was too loud for us to ignore. There was no mini fryer, or Jenga-like stack, just a simple pot of cracking fried potatoes – crisp, golden, fluffy and flavourful – and the cabbage was as good as any my grandad pulls out of the ground (and trust me, they’re good).
The wine list is well annotated and provides an interesting selection taken from the wine attic upstairs, which doubles up as a private dining room. Bolney Bubbly from West Sussex was a great sparkler to start, while a carafe of Bulgarian pinot noir made for a happy pairing with our two birds.
Cheese is charged by the slice, rather than the board (great idea), and a selection of modern British artisanal greats are presented and explained with confidence again by our lovely Josh. We go for Stichelton (think Stilton but creamier and all-round more delicious), Beenleigh Blue (a crumbly Devon Ewe’s milk), and a bloomy brie-de-meaux-like Baron Bigod from Norfolk, which are then joined by all the trimmings: homemade biscuits, fruit cheese, chutney, fresh fruit, nuts and more.
Steven’s partner, Ami, is in charge of desserts and clementine parfait is both palate-cleansing and lighthearted. A sphere of creamy, sweet and sharp parfait is coated to look like its original fruit, and joined on the plate by flaky compressed discs of puff pastry, confit orange, ginger and fresh fruit segments. A wonderful assortment of textures and flavours – just as at the start of our meal. Earl grey soufflé (made using Cornish Tregothnan tea), although technically perfect, was a touch too delicate in aroma and flavour to make the right impact with its smooth biscuit ice cream. The only dud note of the night.
It didn’t end there, though. After dinner, slabs of The Oxford Blue’s own salted mint chocolate are brought out, along with a hammer to break into them, as we sink ever lower into our chairs, warmed by the heat of the roaring open fire at the heart of the pub.
The Oxford Blue is presented as a pub (flagstone floors, tartan upholstery, ales on tap) but it really is a restaurant, and a seriously sophisticated one at that. Just when we thought the gastropub was dead…