Christopher Gray joins a group of friends to try a highly praised pub lunch
The Sunday afternoon scene was one in distinctly Pickwickian style. Around a large, well-laden table in the bar of the General Eliott, warmed by a blazing coal fire in the grate, sat eight of us cheerily lunching on some of the most robustly flavoured food I have eaten in ages. Around our feet were a quartet of dogs joining in the fun.
Wine flowed, quips were exchanged, toasts given, including one to our hostess Helen Hazlewood who with husband Cass has guided this South Hinksey pub back into flourishing business after five years of closure. Various efforts to transform it into a house had been made during that time. Fortunately they failed, so locals and visitors from farther afield can now join in celebrating that very rare thing — a pub reopened, not closed.
On this Sunday, it was great to see the place packed to the rafters. Many had walked there, as some of our party (not Rosemarie and me) had done. One route takes you across the fields from the River Thames. Another crosses the railway tracks at New Hinksey with a footbridge. You can approach, too, from the direction of the A34.
The prime mover in our outing was pal David Gaunt-Newell who had been there for drinks on the previous Sunday and noticed with envious eye the plates of roast beef being delivered from kitchen to eager customers. On the spot, he bagged a table for eight for the following week and speedily recruited seven fellow trenchers, who needed little in the way of persuasion.
For our part, Rosemarie and I had already received excellent reports on the place since the reopening just before Christmas. Its range of hand-pumped beers has proved particularly popular with some of our mates. Currently these include the Vale Brewery’s Red Kite, Gravitas and Brill Gold, and Gunners Gold from the Abingdon-based Loose Cannon Brewery.
The first of these was sampled with much gusto during our visit by our group’s principal beer buff, Paul. The rest of us concentrated on wine, switching as the food varied between a tasty South African Chenin Blanc (Bantry Bay) and a gutsy Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Grifone, both of which are fairly priced at £17.
With so many at our table, we were able to sample much of what was on offer from chef Paul Dixon’s kitchen. The menu is of comparatively modest dimension, which always seems to me reassuring rather than the opposite.
As far as starters were concerned, nothing seemed better than ordering examples of the whole lot, to be placed in the centre of the table for sharing. This helped contribute to the jovial club-like scene already alluded to.
Before the first dishes arrived, though, came loads of excellent bread from the Degustibus bakery in Abingdon. The range included rye, walnut loaf, white tin and focaccia, offered both with butter and dishes of oil and balsamic vinegar.
Then came in pleasing succession from the kitchen generous plates of smoked salmon, superb smoked mackerel pâté, a goat’s cheese tartlet with onion marmalade and (also in filo pastry) a quite delicious spinach and stilton tart, which was made even better by an unexpected hint of garlic. There were, in addition, a couple of bowls of the day’s French onion soup that, though full-flavoured, was a little glutinous.
While all these were being enjoyed we were able on and off, in her intervals away from the bar, to chat to landlady Helen, who has taken like a duck to water to her new working role. Among the day’s waiting team was young Antonia, one of her and Cass’s four daughters.
Soon she and the rest were delivering our main courses. Fully four of these consisted of the roast rib-eye beef, which came with large individual Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and an excellent gravy. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed it although for Joe, whose meat was medium to well-done, it could have been a little rarer.
Our gang with chef Paul Dixon
He shared everyone’s enthusiasm for the dishes of well-prepped vegetables that included heritage carrots (white and purple), green beans and broccoli. There was an excellent home-made creamed horseradish, and various pots of mustard. My choice was one of the blackboard specials, a superb beef bourguignon, with chunks of perfect tender meat in a rich, herby gravy.
Every bit as classically French was the coq au vin being enjoyed by Robert to my left, while Rosemarie ate in true English style with the pie of the day, beef and ale. All these were delivered with mashed potato.
For Martin, the other dissenter from beef, there was free-range chicken breast in breadcrumbs and parmesan, served with sautéed garlic potatoes and wilted greens. Much enjoyed. Puddings? You bet. Again this was a shared feast, composed of chocolate torte with fruit coulis, sticky toffee pudding and chocolate brownie with ice cream. They were judged superb by all. The menu also mentions winter crumble with custard, but I don’t remember seeing — and certainly did not eat — that.
Cheese rounded off the meal, a wonderful, well-kept range, including Mull of Kintyre cheddar, chaumes, chèvre, gorgonzola and Epoisses de Bourgogne.
Could one hope for more?
The General Eliott
37 Manor Road, South Hinksey, Oxford OX1 5AS
Opening times: Closed Mon. Tues-Thurs noon-3pm, 6-10.30pm; Fri noon-11pm; Sat noon-12; Sun 11am to 9pm (food till 4pm).
Parking: Large car park
Key personnel: Owners Cass and Helen Hazlewood; chef Paul Dixon
Make sure you try the... spinach tartlet (£6.50), mackerel pâté (£6.95), roast rib-eye (£12.50), chicken parmesan (£11.50), home-made pie (£11.50), chocolate torte (£6.95), chocolate brownie (£6.95), cheese board (£11.50).
In ten words: Warm welcome and wonderful food and drink in pubby paradise.