It's not fancy, it's not big and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs and what not, you've come to the right place.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Magdalen Arms, 243 Iffley Rd, Oxford

Is there a less appealing word in English than gastropub? It’s infuriating. There’s that horrible appeal to notions of gastronomy (or gastronomie, I expect), the related implication that there is something special about gastropubs ahead of normal pubs, and the unbearable all round smugness of the phrase. You’d even credit it with pretentiousness, were it not for the laughable idiocy of the Greek prefix gastro in the context, which makes the word mean ‘stomach pub’, more or less. What would one of those look like, I wonder?

The point of all this is merely to highlight that pubs are pubs are pubs. Some of the best also serve excellent food. Others don’t. You wouldn’t know it to look at some of the miserable places that use the moniker though. Many are not pubs at all; rather, they’re overpriced mediocre restaurants, or reasonably priced decent restaurants. My rule of thumb is that a pub, gastro or otherwise, is somewhere you could go for a drink, ideally of warm ale and nothing else, on your own, without feeling awkward.

Happily, The Magdalen Arms in Oxford is precisely such a place. Despite really outstanding food, it feels like a location for nursing a quiet pint, or a loud one for that matter, without provoking comment. In this particular instance though, anyone doing that would be missing out.
The food at The Magdalen Arms is brilliant. It’s easily the best food I’ve eaten in a pub, and I’m including the wonderful-but-possibly-not-a-proper-pub Hinds Head in that.
We were celebrating a friend finishing his DPhil, so started with a glass of quince Prosecco. I wasn’t very keen on the idea of quince Prosecco, but it tasted excellent, with a surprising subtlety of flavour and the right mix of slight tanginess and sweet. At £3.80 per glass, it was also wildly good value.
Starters of deep fried brawn with gribiche (quite like tartare sauce) and hanging courgettes with Wigmore were highlights. The brawn was crispy, not too greasy and preposterously piggy, while the Wigmore and courgette concoction had more flavour than a non-meat dish has any right to. Six rock oysters were delicate and tasty, and most importantly, served at the right temperature. I can’t stand places that, whether through paranoia or stupidity, serve oysters so cold they could give you neuralgia. These were cool, but not very cold, and all the better for that.
Snail and bacon salad made up the starter numbers. The lightly and deliciously dressed salad was slightly overwhelmed for me by the bacon flavour, though others at the table disagreed. Either way, that was as bad as things got. The snails were cooked to perfection.
Then, and oh my gosh, there was the lamb shoulder: only available for groups of four or five, priced at sixty four pounds, and accompanied by dauphinoise potatoes the likes of which you wish you could eat all the time. It was truly superb, giving but not at all sloppy, tender enough to be eaten with a spoon but robust enough for you not to want to, flavoured with mint, sherry (I think), possibly some thyme and bay, and accompanied by all the carrots you could ask for. If it’s possible, the potatoes were even more extraordinary, all garlic and cream and cooked just right.
I realise I’m descending into hyperbole here, but this was simply marvellous: better than a similar dish at Hereford Road, better than the one I cook at home, and generous enough that we had both lamb and potato to take with us for breakfast the next morning. The house red was a more than decent accompaniment.
You’d think we’d have left it there, but dessert followed – an English cheese plate and a buttermilk pudding with stewed apples. Both were very good indeed, though I didn’t much care for the texture of the goat’s cheese (the name of which I was too lazy to discover - sorry).
Were there problems with it? Well, it was a little too hot, and the windows only opened a fraction.

When I last wrote about eating in Oxford, I said that there is a little more leeway than in London; that establishments can afford to be worse than their capital counterparts. That may be true, but The Magdalen Arms would be absolutely excellent anywhere in the country. At about 35 pounds per head for three courses, some wine, coffee and an aperitif, it’s well worth the effort. I urge you to go as soon as you can. A stomach pub indeed.
Phil Letts’ take: 9/10


  1. God I loved this place. That lamb just looks stupid good.

  2. Thanks Helen. It really was fantastic. Loving your blog by the way.