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Believe it or not, people often ask me where I would recommend for a good meal in Oxford. And, believe it or not, despite several years of lunching every month, I still struggle to come up with an answer.
There are so many average bistros that become difficult to differentiate in your mind. Others are sometimes good, sometimes bad but on the whole it is a case of surfing on a wave of mediocrity.
I was beginning to wonder whether it was me. Perhaps my tastes lent themselves to food that was just too plain or perhaps we just have to make do with what we have got in Oxford and put up with it.
Not any longer. Now, when anyone asks me for a recommendation, I will have no hesitation in directing them up the Iffley Road to the Magdalen Arms.
Suggest this to anyone a few years ago and they would have thought you were mad as the Magdalen Arms was a rather grimy boozer which, like so many of its ilk, had seen better days.
But a couple of years ago it was ‘rescued’ by Florence Fowler and Tony Abarno and transformed into a pub-restaurant that has earned itself the prestigious Bib Gourmand for good food at reasonable prices in the Michelin Guide 2011.
High praise indeed, so we decided to cross the city to find out what all the fuss is about.
The Magdalen Arms is a large pub and despite being rather gloomy inside, you are instantly struck by the warm and relaxed atmosphere. Jam jar pots of flowers adorn every large, reclaimed wooden table and at the back it is possible to see Mr Abarno and his team in action.
On this particular lunch time, it was not busy and there was a Continental feel to the place as we watched, intrigued as a lady who turned out to be Mr Abarno’s mother, Maria, shelled beans from a large wooden box, smiling and chatting with customers. This was Italy, not Oxford.
The menus were duly presented and we learned that they were changed every day, twice a day for lunch and dinner.
Influenced by the people around us, we opted to share the antipasti between three of us — it was actually advertised as being for two people.
We need not have worried. My third share was a meal in itself and between us we still left food on the plate, more in fear that we could not manage the main courses.
It was an eclectic mix of beef, parma ham, cooked onions, dollops of gooey fresh mozzarella, garlic bread and olives. Every mouthful was a new combination of tastes to savour.
Fortunately we were able to clear our palates with a glass of dry French white wine which came in a half litre carafe while water was freely available in a stoneware jug which was already on the table.
For our main courses, two of us had ordered cod and chips which sounds basic enough but this was very different from most offerings along these lines at your average gastropub.
The cod came with no batter but was just deliciously fresh and moist and literally melted in the mouth, while the chips were, to my mind, perfect, not too crispy, just lightly cooked so you can still taste the potato. And the dish was rounded off with a little fresh mayonnaise. Delicious.
The other member of the party had opted for schnitzel, pieces of pork coated in bread crumbs that were beautifully tender.
Once the plates had been cleared the menus returned but it was really just a token gesture. Only one of us could manage dessert which came in the form of a choc pot, super-rich and strong that could only be eaten half a teaspoon at a time.
And even that was really too much after what had been an extraordinary lunch.
Over coffee (Italian, full-flavoured, just how I like it), we watched Maria playing with her baby grandson, Rocco and we could almost imagine ourselves on holiday with all the time in the world.
* Magdalen Arms, 243 Iffley Road, Oxford.
Tel: 01865 243159