Hollybush, Corn Street, Witney
As I have mentioned here before, Stagecoach's admirable 100 bus service has had the effect of transforming Witney into a suburb of Oxford. Whereas one once needed to set aside the best part of a day to visit the town (I know from 35 years of going to my dentist there), you can now whizz across every half an hour. The ease of access is particularly pleasing because of the range of good places to patronise there. Yes, I am thinking of Waitrose (when is Oxford going to get a branch?) but more of establishments serving food ready to eat.
For some months I have been receiving a steady stream of good reports about the Hollybush, in Corn Street. Once a Mecca for bikers - the place to go if you wanted to discuss sprockets or camshafts - the pub has over the past year been transformed, under new licensees John and Anne Champion, into a haven for foodies.
We chose last Wednesday for our test meal there - a very happy decision, as two colleagues who know the place informed me, since it's the day of the week when wine is sold half price up until 9 in the evening. Our wish to take advantage of this at once settled our means of transport, had there ever been any doubt about it.
Stagecoach delivered us to the town in plenty of time for our 8pm booking. Indeed, we found time for a stroll around the Church Green and a quick snoop at our favourite Witney pub, the Fleece, some of whose ideas - we were soon to see - have evidently been borrowed at the Hollybush.
One of the most obvious is the Deli Board, a range of ingredients in the category of antipasti, fish, meats, cheese and breads from which you can make up your own starter or, indeed, main course.
This was the menu option that Rosemarie chose as the start of her meal. once we had settled ourselves - with glasses of crisp Semillon/Chardonnay - at our reserved table in the main front bar, just to the right of the front door.
This was a happy situation, the very table I might have chosen had we been invited to make a selection. It meant were able to experience the considerable buzz created by the many other customers, a cheery and eclectic group of widely varying ages.
I thought how very different it might have been here in the days before the smoking ban. Pubs as places to eat have definitely benefited hugely from the legislation. The only drawback concerns gardens, which have now become off-limits to non-smokers during the summer months.
I chose to begin my meal with a starter-sized portion of the the day's risotto, which featured smoked salmon and dill. So generous was it that I can't imagine what a main course portion would have been like. I enjoyed it very much, not least because there was a bit of bite to the rice. I reprehend the current fashion for sloppy risottos.
Rosemarie chose crayfish tails, marinated anchovies and rustic bread for her deli board, very sweetly adding olives for my benefit since she doesn't like them herself. There were good quantities of everything, considering they cost only £1.50 a portion, which is 10p cheaper than you pay at the Fleece, incidentally, though this is still a good bargain.
Caesar salad, lamb kofti, warmed smoked mackerel and sizzling king prawns are among other starters, which can also be ordered in main course size. Main courses proper include famous "Hollybush favourites" - steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash and sirloin steak, for instance - and a range of new dishes for spring. These are salmon fishcakes, aubergine and potato moussaka, pork medallions with noodles, raised lamb and pan-cooked cod fillet - which is what I went for.
This was a very substantial chunk of fish, with the skin on, and served with delicious creamed white cabbage with cubes of bacon. Chef Rob O'Connell is holding an example of the dish in the picture on the left, and there's a close-up on the right. It tasted every bit as good as it looks.
Rosemarie had another of the 'favourites', a creamy fish pie featuring lots of prawns, salmon and white fish, with a topping of mashed potatoes and cheese. We shared a side order of broccoli, leeks (a little undercooked) and peas, and a well-dressed salad.
Rosemarie finished her meal with a rather disappointing lemon tart, its soggy base making clear that it was not in the freshest condition. I asked if I might have fresh fruit, and the kitchen obliged with a toothsome combination of green and red grapes, apples and oranges. I was charged only £2 for this, which struck me as very fair.