Review: Why Whistlers in Chipping Norton is Katherine MacAlister's new favourite place to eat

Had I been to Whistlers in Chipping Norton? Who wanted to know? Dave John Hall the head chef.

I looked it up - a cafe/bar/restaurant in Chipping Norton that I’d never heard of. Must I?

But then he reminded me that when he was head chef at Killingworth Castle in Wootton it was awarded its two AA rosettes, and I’d raved about his food.

So when pondering where to dine this weekend, Whistlers popped into my head.

It has been run by the Main family since 1999, Jane and Richard Main taking over in 2010, and they amply reflect how Chipping Norton is coming up in the world because its eateries are beginning to reflect that.

Wild Thyme has always been a big pull, but The Blue Boar pulled up its socks recently and fab little pizzeria Hitchmans has opened where Winebear was.

I still had few expectations when stepping off the bus. Yes the Whistlers exterior is cheerful with Christmas lights beckoning us inside the cosy, intimate space near the town’s bookshop, and the restaurant and bar area has a real bistro-type feel - the walls decorated with posters, the space full of bustling tables and the Whistlers name proudly embellished in gold letters on the plate glass window.

The lovely manager Matt brought us some excellent cocktails and an inspired wine menu, but it was only when Dave’s starters arrived that everything else fell away and I realised we had stumbled across a rare hidden gem, forever grateful for the tip off.

By then we had already tried the generous,if innocuous sounding, parmesan, pesto, rocket & pine nut flatbread (£6.50) which disappeared almost before it reached the table.

Then the salt cod fritters, with a saffron garlic aioli and crispy capers (£7.50) which lived up to all preconceptions - crispy and light, then dense with salty fish, the aioli providing a silky zing, the capers following with the final sharp note.

The maple roasted butternut squash, spiced pumpkin puree, pickled raisins, almonds and coriander (£7) sounded rather earnest but turned out to be the dish of the night for me - none of that hard, rooty, acidic, metallic taste I was expecting but a lesson in taste and textures.

The special - a salt and pepper squid, was another outstanding success; beautifully cooked, light with a bite, crispy, the battered tentacles mingling in with the rings to dunk in the chilli loaded dip.

In fact, the only duff note was the chicken liver parfait with granola, pickled grapes and toast (£7) which was just too smooth for our liking.

Then the Whistlers double steak burger, streaky bacon, cheddar, fries and a harissa mayo which was literally oozing when it arrived to a very appreciative audience.

Nothing here goes unloved. Take the risotto special - wild mushroom and parmesan with hazelnut pesto, deep fried rocket and fresh autumn truffle, or the salmon special - pastrami cured and smoked with pickled and compressed cucumber, creme fraiche and rye bread, which evidenced a real attention to detail.

The Cotswold pork belly, black pudding croquette, watercress purée, roasted carrots and jus, was another gift of a dish. Coiled like a chelsea bun, the pork was intense and filling, the croquette a masterpiece.

But the fallow deer venison loin and crispy braised haunch, celeriac, carrot puree, cavolo nero, elderberry vinegar gel, juniper and venison sauce took the biscuit, stunning to look at, a delectable cut of meat, and mercifully lacking that overpowering pungency.

And onto the lemon meringue parfait, piped like a Queens pudding, or the saffron poached pear, almond and hazelnut frangipane sponge with ginger syrup, honeycomb and vanilla ice cream (£6.50).

The dark chocolate and cherry delice was heavenly and even the cheeseboard was worth writing home about - the Barkham Blue really memorable.

How did I not know about this place?

While the old adage that appearances can be deceptive has come back to haunt me, at least you won’t be in the dark. Not if Dave’s got anything to do with it.


9 Middle Row,

Chipping Norton.


01608 643363