Christopher Gray makes triply sure he can recommend a revamped pub
As with any long-established institution, good stories abound about the Perch, the wonderful riverside hostelry made famous by Lewis Carroll’s patronage which is now restored to glory in time for what I know is going to be a perfect summer (foodwise, if nothing else, assuming your eating is done here).
Many of the best tales are gathered by the local historian and guide Mark Davies as his contribution to the excellent book Binsey: Oxford’s Holy Place, published last year by Archaeopress.
My favourite concerns a wealthy Christ Church undergraduate – the college owns the pub and most of the land around it – who was in trouble for roughing up the staff after being refused service a few minutes after closing time.
JC Masterman, who had charge of college disciplinary matters, noted that the licensees were bought off with £20 (a huge sum then) after producing a battered set of false teeth, a pair of mangled spectacles and a pile of bloodied clothing. The money restored the victims “into smiling rejoicing,” Masterman noted. “I seemed to hear the innkeeper murmuring that the undergraduate could return at any time and have the same entertainment for the same price.”
Mr Davies records that notable customers at the pub have included CS Lewis, Dylan Thomas (many hostelries, of course can claim his regular patronage) and William Morris.
The last called in with Edward Burne Jones for wine and Stilton during a riverside walk. Morris’s daughter Mary related: “The air inside the dark, low-ceilings parlour was conscious with hoary ancients, so they carried their bottle and cheese out to a seat in the garden.”
Something of that description holds true today, particularly where the ancients are concerned if I am installed in the bar, as I have been on at least four occasions in the past few weeks since the timely reopening following extensive renovations.
That there is a proper bar now owes everything to the good sense of new boss Jon Ellse, who recognises that a bar is a focal point for a pub, though some have managed without, including the Dun Cow at Northmoor, of blessed memory.
The silly miniature effort install-ed in the Perch in the rebuilding after the last of its famous fires has been replaced by a proper copper-topped job in the main room.
Handpumps dispensing a tempting range of beers and plates of home-made cakes and sausage rolls are a heart-gladdening sight.
Jon, whose dad was Wally Ellse of Turf Tavern fame, has found his natural home at the Perch. He is a bonhomous host, fully cognizent of what makes a pub work. In this case, good food, in robust British style is of primary appeal to punters. They flock across Port Meadow at weekends for scrummy burgers served from the Shed Bar in the lovely garden or the much wider range of dishes offered inside or outside on the covered and heated (when necessary) terrace.
I have now had three hits at chef Craig Thomson’s excellent menu, the first time at a pre-opening trial run dinner where the guest list – many of them pals of mine – revealed Jon’s range of acquaint-ance.
“How good to have real champagne for a change,” I said to Rosemarie on arrival. Wrong! This was Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvée, made with the traditional champagne grapes – one of various English wines on the list.
A convivial seven-person Sunday lunch party for Rosemarie’s birthday was my second happy visit, when I followed Dorset crab (of which more presently) with big fat slices of silverside beef and a plate of Barkham Blue, a cheese so delicious that it might have weaned William Morris off Stilton.
And then came our Saturday night in the company of Rosemarie’s mother, Olive.
The lounging area
Following first glasses of wine (the French house white) on the red leather Chesterfields beside the long-burning stove, we moved to a candlelit table at the other end of the bar for a first-class dinner.
My starter was the light taste of summer offered in a salad of sliced globe artichoke hearts, peeled baby broad beans, pea shoots and mint, which I followed by fare infinitely more robust. This was pot roasted ox cheeks, the meat tender and sticky, in a rich stock with carrots and served in the iron casserole in which it was cooked with shredded spring cabbage and a pie-dish of cauliflower champ (a cauli and mashed potato mix).
Rosemarie had the pressed chicken and black pudding terrine (which had hugely impressed the chef present at the birthday lunch) followed by the chicken, ham and leek suet crust pie, a wonderful dish (that crust!) sadly forbidden to me, though I did get a taste.
For Olive there was the Dorset crab (a mayonnaise-free blend of white and brown meat, with lemon and Dijon mustard) on toasted seeded sourdough bread, followed by a bumper portion of fish and chips. There were two pieces of haddock, in a batter she praised for its lightness, golden chips, peas and a tasty home-made tartare sauce.
She then enjoyed another British favourite, queen of puddings (vanilla sponge, custard and jam topped with meringue), while Rosemarie had warm white and dark chocolate brownies, served with a blend of cream and berries.
I had cheese, including Sussex Charmer, which cleverly combines the flavours of cheddar and parmesan.
Binsey Lane, Oxford, OX2 0NG
01865 728891 the-perch.co.uk
Opening times: Bar snacks 10am to noon; meals served noon to 10pm Monday to Saturday and noon to 9pm Sunday.
Parking: Large car park.
Key personnel: Owner Jon Ellse, chef Craig Thomson, restaurant manager Pascaline Levillain
Make sure you try the... Dorset crab on toast (£8.95), pressed chicken and black pudding terrine (£6.95), pot-roasted ox cheeks (£13.95), chicken, ham and leek suet crust pie (£13.95), Queen of puddings (£5.75), white and dark chocolate brownies ((£5.75).
In ten words: Flavoursome British food in a lovely setting famous for centuries.