Christopher Gray returns to Hawkwell House Hotel in Iffley to try out their Iffley Blue Restaurant
Rosemarie and I still regard The Hawkwell House Hotel in Iffley as the home of the al dente potato, although this culinary peculiarity was invented as long ago as 1995 in the chef’s comical explanation for his severely undercooked spuds that was relayed to our table by a credulous waiter.
At that time — indeed, from the year before — the hotel’s present boss Tim Spittles was a familiar figure to us both since he and his wife Fiona had charge of one of our favourite pubs, the Harcourt Arms, in Stanton Harcourt, succeeding its long-term owners George and Cargie Daley. The Daleys, of course, are still very much in business, at the Bell, in Hampton Poyle, where I had a fabulous lunch a few Sundays ago.
From Stanton Harcourt, Tim put in a stint in the kitchens at Greens, part of Witney Lakes golf course, before he and Fiona opened Bistro 35, in the attractive premises in Witney’s High Street that were once Clarke’s hardwear shop and are now home to Huffkins bakery and tea rooms.
This successful, though compar-atively short-lived, operation also supplied a memorable moment in my restaurant reviewing career involving a stone-cold bowl of potato and leek soup served to Rosemarie. I wrote that a less honest chap than Tim might have tried to pass if off as chilled vichyssoise, which is built on the same basic ingredients. He owned up to the fact the chef had simply forgotten to turn on the gas ring.
The story, and the one concern-ing the potatoes, brought renewed opportunity for laughter during our dinner at Hawkwell House’s Iffley Blue restaurant a few Friday nights ago. Sharing in the merriment was Tim himself, since he joined us for the meal, indeed was our host at it. (No attempts at anonymity here, then.) After a peripatetic existence in the hotel business — though still with a home in Leafield and two sons at Magdalen College School — Tim has for the past five years been general manager at Hawkwell House. This long-established hotel, once owned by the Co-op and called the Elms, belongs these days to a consortium of owners who are also involved in the running of the pukka Home House Club, in London’s Portman Square, where I had a fine lunch last year.
So why no early summons for us to Iffley? Still revealing a commendable honesty, Tim told us that only comparatively recently, following a careful restyling, did he consider that the restaurant and its offering were up to scrutiny of a critic. Now he is very happy with the place as it is run under manager Lara Avincola and with head chef Chris Kennedy in sound command of the kitchen team. So, as you will see, were we.
The last time we visited the restaurant, I think, was for a tutored wine tasting given by Jilly Goolden in October 1999.
Jilly took as her theme the need to “break the stranglehold” of French wines and enjoy taste sensations of other regions. She would no doubt have approved of the delicious South African chenin blanc (Hutton Ridge) that supplied the principal lubrication of our dinner, following opening gin and tonics — with premium Tanqueray No. Ten.
And so to food, beginning in my case with a starter-size portion (it can be a main course too) of smoked salmon, stuffed with a blend of prawns and white crab meat in crème fraiche, served with a fennel and orange salad. All excellent.
Rosemarie had a delicious bowl of nettle soup, which I considered a sort of revenge for the ones that had stung me on a bike ride earlier in the day. Made from locally gathered nettles, we were assured, the tangy soup — one of the evening’s specials — was served with lemon oil and herb croutons. Most importantly, it was hot!
With the menu having been changed that very day, Tim tried one of the new additions, and was suitably impressed with his smoked mackerel and potato croquettes, served with leek vinaigrette and pickled beetroot.
No doubt to the relief of the kitchen — tonight under Chris’s deputy Alex Turner — he gave the thumbs up too to his main course of West Country lamb steak marinated in balsamic vinegar and thyme, with summer greens, potato and polenta chips, and yogurt and cumin dip. This was another newcomer. So was my breaded pork escalope with linguine. This was an attractive dish, although we all agreed that the quantity of pasta was excessive.
Mind you, we had, in between courses sampled slices of one of Iffley Blue’speciality wood-baked pizzas, this one featuring goat’s cheese, artichoke, parma ham and hazelnut pesto.
For her main course, Rosemarie chose the restaurant’s tried and tested burger, made with locally farmed beef and served with slices of beef tomato, onion, gherkin relish, sweet cured bacon, cheese and — of course — chips, rather good ones, she said.
After that she still managed a whacking slice of chocolate cake with crème fraiche. Tim finished with the vanilla and orange infused crème brûlée, while I sam-pled the plate of English cheeses. This was a very generous offering, comprising Cornish organic brie, Dorset red, Wookey Hole cave-aged cheddar, and Cornish blue, with biscuits, grapes, celery and chutney. Priced at £6.50, this struck me as excellent value, and a delightful way to end a happy meal.
Iffley Blue Restaurant
Hawkwell House Hotel, Church Way, Iffley, Oxford. OX4 4RZ
Opening times: Breakfast, Mon-Fri 7am-9.30am; weekends and bank holidays 8am-10.30pm. Lunch and dinner noon – 10pm daily.
Parking: Large car park on site.
Key personnel: Hotel general manager Tim Spittles, restaurant manager Lara Avincola, head chef Chris Kennedy
Make sure you try the... Smoked mackerel and potato croquettes (£6.25), smoked salmon, prawns and white crab with crème fraiche (£6.75/£12.50 large), nettle soup (£4.95), West Country lamb steak (£13.50), breaded pork escalope with linguine (£13.50), Hawkwell burger (£10.95), vanilla and orange crème brûlée (£6.25), chocolate nemesis (£6.25), plate of English cheeses (£6.50). Tuesday evening offer of any wood-baked pizza, plus a glass of wine for £9.95.
In ten words: Warm welcome and firm food favourites in stylish new restaurant