When The Muddy Duck closed for a full refurbishment we expected some sort of grand renaissance, especially after a parade of man-size ducks were seen advertising the fact in nearby Bicester.

What could we expect this time from the dynamic duo Nigel and Gemma Harris? He of Fresh Direct, a doyen of the fruit and veg world, and a brilliant restaurateur since buying The Muddy Duck and rescuing the village pub in Hethe from closure.

Gemma, who ran Jamie Oliver’s catering arm, is another force of nature, as much of a perfectionist as her husband, and as utterly devoted to The Muddy Duck.

He and Gemma began cutting out the middle man by buying produce fresh from the surrounding fields, so that the lambs when in season could almost be heard bleating, the asparagus on the plate within minutes of cutting it.

Unsurprisingly then, The Muddy Duck has been an enormous success, with its fresh, contemporary decor in the old historic building, a breath of fresh air in an area starved of good places to eat. A a captive audience in some respects.

Arriving triumphantly to witness the epic remodelling, we were surprised to find that things looked pretty much the same.

Yes the place had been tarted up and boasted a gleaming, new, open plan kitchen where head chef Pawel and his team were in the middle of a busy service. But otherwise it was just a smarter version of itself.

But then we were handed the menus, and I realised that the food itself was the biggest shift in direction. A more grown up, serious version emerged from the menu’s pages. Even the bread was more puritan. Simplicity and minimalism it seems are the new name of the game, using seasonal, local produce without the same flamboyance of yesteryear.

Instead the concentration is aimed at the ingredients themselves.

Take the cote de boeuf for two (£75); it is salted at home by Nigel himself in an ageing chamber, which uses cold, moving air and a Himalayan salt wall to draw the moisture from the beef to give it a unique, intense, powerhouse flavour.

It is a practice almost unheard of in the UK, and a skill that has taken him 18 months to master, which is so Nigel. Which means you end up with a wonderfully juicy, textured, delicious piece of beef.

Another example of the new focus is the home-made ricotta which Pawel learned how to make while on holiday. Served as a starter with poached garden pears, bitter leaves and aged balsamic (£7), it was and another major highlight. Wonderful stuff.

The devon crab and butternut squash tortellini however was overpowered by the chilli crab bisque with samphire (£9) and sadly served lukewarm.

The cauliflower veloute with a hazelnut crumb and a truffle oil was lovely, but rather thick and lacking that silky finish.

The starters were simply the warm-up act though, because once the beef arrived everything else paled into insignificance, resplendent on a board with some of the best triple cooked chips I’ve ever eaten, three delicious dips; a bearnaise with the tarragon evident, Stilton just the right shade of underpowering, and a smokey BBQ.

Beautiful to behold, absolutely delicious, and despite its vast portion size, somehow disappearing in an indecent amount of time.

Perhaps that was the problem, that nothing else on the menu could live up to the leading lady, gazumping everything else, but it made the wild mushroom risotto and butternut squash lasagne look rather ordinaire, more Cranks than Ottolenghi.

The ‘famous’ fish stew (£18) matched with garlic bread and aioli, deserved it’s title, summoning thoughts of dirty sailors in Marseilles, and had a wonderful depth to it.

Pudding wise, petits fours were served with coffee, the lemon grass and ginger creme brulee was heavenly, and the rather cakey brownie rescued by a stunning almond ice cream.

Overall then a great meal in a favourite restaurant. I just hope it doesn’t grow up any more.

The Muddy Duck

Main Street, Hethe

Near Bicester. 01869 278099


Opening hours

Monday to Friday

Lunch: Noon – 2.30pm

Dinner: 6pm – 9pm


noon – 9pm


Noon – 4pm

Do try: The cote de boeuf for two