Christopher Gray finds the White Horse Inn at Duns Tew deserves its well-earned popularity

The car park of the White Horse Inn at Duns Tew was full, as I discovered after confidently driving into it. Good job I had Rosemarie to guide me through the much more challen-ging business of backing out, other-wise I’d probably still be stuck there.

“A popular place,” I noted, taking account, too, of the many other vehicles out in the street, obliging me to leave ours 100 yards away. Three months on from the takeover by new owners Michael Regan and Josh West the pub is clearly going great guns. And, as we were soon to see, the wonderful food on offer — with Josh in charge of the kitchen — is a powerful part of the appeal.

Michael and Josh are both classically trained chefs. Indeed, it was while they were training, in Paris, that they first conceived the notion that they might one day run a pub together. Michael, who is Canadian, has significant exper-ience in the area, having had charge of the highly regarded Seven Stars, at Bottlesford, near Pewsey. Josh’s cheffing CV includes two years at the top-rated Barnsley House, near Cirencester.

Many properties were inspected and rejected before they visited and saw the potential of the White Horse Inn. It’s an attractive old stone building, the front part with ancient 17th-century beams. The panelled bar at the rear, although it looks of similar antiquity, dates back only to 1990. It was created using old brick, stone and timbers. The panelling was once in the Bristol branch of the Midland bank.

Over the years it has had an up-and-down reputation where food is concerned. I last visited 18 months ago under the ownership of Sarah Inwood. I had a fine dinner, though the outing was more memorable for the fact that the pub was almost burned down the next day. Prompt action by the fire brigade happily prevented a blaze in the roof from spreading. Michael and Josh’s takeover was followed by a tasteful sprucing up of the place, and the creation of eight en suite rooms for people eager to visit this extremely attractive part of north Oxfordshire.

Theirs is a sound business philosophy in respect of food. Michael explains: “We believe in sourcing real ingredients and let this dictate the food we cook. Local suppliers are also key. Our meat comes from Heath Cottage Farm, just two miles away, while our vegetables are grown around the corner, at North Aston Organics, providing ingredients for our salads, pickles and relishes.”

The menu is not large, but since it changes at every session, regular visitors will never get the impression of being stuck in a rut. Such dishes as soy and ginger braised pork belly, roast cod with mussel chowder, and leek tart with butternut squash and spinach featured on one appealing menu I was shown from earlier in the month. That day’s soup was potato, chorizo and kale.

Open sandwiches supplement the menu at lunchtimes: the choices on the Friday we visited had been roast beef, horseradish and tomato; bacon, gem lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise; and Montgomery cheddar with onion confit.

Our table was booked for 8pm. We arrived to a scene of some conviviality in the bar, presided over by Michael from his position behind the pumps. These were dispensing such real ales as Ruddles Best, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord Bitter and York Brewery’s Guzzler, we noted with approval, just as we did the presence among the customers of at least two dogs. Pet-friendly pubs are a good thing in the country.

Having made ourselves known, we were shown by Michael to our table in the beamed restaurant, beside a large inglenook. Wine was ordered at once, and we had our first sips of the crisp French Grenache blanc (Maison Saturnin) as we made our choices from the menu.

The Oxford Times:
Taramasalata to start

The starters included spice beet-root soup, steak tartare and chicory, stilton and walnut salad, and potato gnocchi with sausage ragu, chicken wings with chilli and sesame and steak frites (flatiron and ribeye) were among the mains. Puddings included break and butter pudding, chocolate and caramel pot, and lemon posset with curd and shortbread.

I started with chicken liver parfait, which arrived in a ramekin — a word that John Humphrys had never heard of, he announced that very morning on Radio 4’s Today programme. An odd lacuna in his knowledge, I thought. The livers had been lightly cooked, so the rich smooth parfait was nicely pink beneath a topping of clear gelatine rather than the usual butter. Port supplied the boozy ingredient. There was toasted focaccia in generous supply.

Rosemarie chose taramasalata. This proved to be far from the ‘pink peril’ of supermarket varieties. It was pearly white, clearly made with excellent oil and cod’s roe whose smoky flavour was much to the fore. It was accompanied by a soft-boiled egg, and thin slices of lightly pickled marrow.

She continued with sea bream, which was served with its crispy skin on a curry-flavoured stew of lentils, saffron cream (with the reddish threads of the spice readily visible) and spinach.

My main course was a plump breast of corn-fed chicken, served sliced on a potato pancake, with roast leek and mushrooms, and a delicious tarragon and sherry sauce.

I passed on pudding, though I managed a couple of slices of crumbly Montgomery cheddar which paired superbly with a couple of the plums which Rosemarie generously gave me from her mountain of meringue studded with the tart-flavoured fruit.

“You don’t have to finish it all,” said Michael as it was placed before her by waitress Victoria. But she almost did.

The White Horse 
Daisy Hill, Duns Tew
01869 340272
dunstewwhitehorse.co.uk

Opening times: Daily noon to 3pm (not Monday) and 6pm to close (not Sunday).
Parking: Car park and streets.
Key personnel: Owners Michael Regan (below right) and Josh West (left)
Make sure you try the... Taramasalata with soft egg and pickles ((£7), chicken liver parfait and onion marmalade (£6), corn-fed chicken breast, potato pancake, roast leek and mushrooms with a tarragon and sherry sauace,  (£14), sea bream lentils, saffron cream and spinach (£16) and meringue with plum (£6)
In ten words: Rural delight with warm welcome and fabulous food and drinks