Katherine MacAlister reviews The Oxford Kitchen in Summertown

How do you think it works?” my friend whispered from the back of the taxi on the way home, overwhelmed by the enormity of what just happened.

“Do you think that the chef Paul Welburn wakes up in the middle of the night and has a lightbulb moment about making something that tastes of Christmas, of the tree, the twinkly lights, the crunch of snow underfoot, the way it settles on the branches?”

“But you don't realise until you eat that first mouthful, and it instantly transports you away to somewhere white and Alpine,” I continue.

We stare at each other in awe, as if something magical just happened.

But then in a way it had.

We were at The Oxford Kitchen in Summertown. It’s somewhere I frequented often since opening in January 2013, endlessly flagging up head chef and ex-Manoir’s John Footman’s inestimable talents.

And then I gave up because it seemed that no one was listening.

So when John sloped off to pastures new I couldn’t blame him. He had small children to spend time with. It was time for something new.

Paul Welburn then took over, a Yorkshireman, trained under Andrew Pern, Gary Rhodes, Brian Hughson and Michael James.

He had equally as impressive credentials, but who would listen? What was the point?

The Michelin Guide for one, because a few weeks ago The Oxford Kitchen was awarded the county’s third Michelin star. And predictably, finally Oxford is listening.

But was Paul was any better? Was his food substantially different?

I’m not going to make comparisons actually, but Paul’s food is subtle, delicate and clever.

As much to do with texture as taste, he is a master of reinvention, without being pretentious, in the way he thinks and plans.

Food and ingredients are treated with an engineers zeal as he constantly dissects and plays with every component, each ingredient holding the key to a new way of thinking, presenting and tasting.

It’s still a slightly awkward dining room at The Oxford Kitchen; the bar squeezed in at the side, the kitchens at the back of the long thin room.

But the cocktails are as carefully prepared and conceptualized as the food, the reverence to their contents as intense, and the service immaculate.

It was the tasting menus we were interested in. Choose from the normal (six courses for £55), the chef’s (£65) or the vegetarian (£55) and the hard bit is done, because after that the intriguing courses just glide onto the table one after another.

And as each course is more a list of its ingredients than a description of the dish itself, there is always an element of surprise.

I won’t list each one, especially as we tried two separate menus, but take the pea custard, goats curd, salsa verde and hazelnut starter (as pictured).

What emerged wasn’t the salad it sounds, but a perfect tube of soft but condensed, light pea accompanied by swirls of pickled veg, set against the crunch of the nut, the bite of the crumb, the piquant dressing, the swirl of creamed goat’s cheese. I could go on. Instead I closed my eyes and savoured every morsel, willing it not to end.

From the dark pink amuse bouche of beetroot macaroons with a horse radish cream to the brioche bread with Marmite butter, every offering was a gift.

The roast Scottish scallop with apple dashi, cauliflower, Granny Smith and smoked eel salad defied belief.

The brown butter partridge with confit leg toast, quince and bacon espuma was seasonal heaven, and the 85% chocolate, cherry, caramel cremeaux was a memory that will keep me going through the dark winter nights ahead for some time.

As for the Douglas fir and lemongrass, it was a defining moment, when I conceded that not only was Michelin’s accolade fully deserved, but that Paul is now a star in his own right, a concoction that he is no doubt turning over in his culinary imagination as I write.

The Oxford Kitchen:

215 Banbury Road, Summertown, Oxford OX2 7HQ. 01865 511149


Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday lunchtimes from 12-2.30pm and evenings from 6pm til late.

Try the: Set lunch menu. Two courses £22.50 or three courses £28.50

Mackerel with treacle yoghurt, fennel, hazelnut, Pork belly and collar, carrot, cardamom and pineapple, then the Victoria plum, vanilla, malt, verbena.