Menu Testing at the Ashmolean Dining Room

Yesterday’s test-drive of the new autumn and winter menu at the Ashmolean Dining Room wasn’t quite what I was expecting. The good news is it was much better! A free glass of something bubbly on arrival – yes, that was on the invitation. A full sit-down multi-course meal served at your table, that was not what I’d anticipated. I’d been thinking more along the lines of a crowd of people standing around while waiting staff brought round trays of bite-sized tasters. So well done to manager Andrew Cashin and his team for exceeding expectations and taking the risk of asking Oxford’s twitterati (and some others) what they thought of the new dishes.

@OxSox, @RuthWilk and I met beforehand and walked along to the restaurant together to meet @kalicer. The four of us were given a table together. Others have described how the event was managed (links below) so I’ll just briefly say we were brought a series of plate-size portions of nearly every starter, main course and dessert to sample between us. A bottle of white and a bottle of red (not part of the freebie) helped us enjoy the tasting and keep the discussion flowing.

My mobile phone (now officially achieving ‘classic’ status) is not great at photos so if you want pictures of the food follow the links to other reviews. My contribution is to bring you the menu. I should say that this is not the defintitive final version to be offered – some dishes may change or disappear, and prices may change too when it goes live in September.


And so to the food. My favorite from the starters was the Serrano ham and figs, with the slightly sweet and sticky dressing complementing the ham nicely. The seafood platter was also good, especially the cured herring, although I agree with others’ comments about the disappointing prawns. The cauliflower & truffle oil soup was creamy and had a good flavour but was maybe a bit rich as a starter. The crab panacotta was again a good flavour but could have done with more crab meat. To me the gravadlax couldn’t be distinguished from straight smoked salmon but as a smoked/cured salmon starter it was fine. I don’t really do seafood so can’t comment on the squid. Although some of my companions thought the cauliflower and pine nuts a bit bland I liked it, but I wonder whether having cauliflower as the basis for both vegetarian starters is a good idea.


Beetroot is never served in the OX3 household, though I personally don’t have a problem with it. As one of the vegetarian main courses the candied beetroot and goat’s cheese fritter was novel and successful. The pearl barley, wild mushrooms, leek and spinach topped it though, having us playing pass-the-parcel taking smaller and smaller portions from the plate as no-one wanted to seem rude by finishing it off.

There were three fish dishes. The whole bream was nicely grilled with firm flesh, and the monkfish saltimbocca with salsa verde worked well. The lemon sole meunière was a bit dull, but maybe that’s not a surprise. Which leaves the meat courses. The lamb, a standard choice for anyone wanting something plain, was just that. You’d get what you expected, though the meat itself was a little chewy. But the rabbit would be high on my list to order again. Not too highly-flavoured but definitely rabbit, spiced up with the mustard and tarragon sauce and served with unfussy vegetables. There was steak on the menu but it either wasn’t served or it by-passed us.


Only three made it to our table. The pannacotta and poached pear was good, light, and wouldn’t leave you feeling over-full. The chocolate and amaretti sponge on the other hand certainly would. It was an interesting combination: the almond flavour of the amaretti took a little while to come through, but when it did it took the edge off the chocolatey sweetness of the sponge. Paris Brest? What’s that? Isn’t it a bike race? In this case it was a saucer-sized round of flaky pastry, topped with roasted almonds and with a soft filling which I think was chestnut (marron). Whatever it was it was a hit!

And so, the overall conclusion. I think the new menu will be popular, especially after a little tweaking, and I think that was the consensus on our table. I’m not completely sure what the Ashmolean Restaurant’s target market is, but with this menu it’s aiming for people who want good food nicely prepared and presented, nothing too extreme or fashionable and not in any one particular style. It’s a something-for-everyone menu, and none the worse for that. There’s surely a market for that in Oxford, and I hope they do well with it over the winter season.

Other Reviews

By @alisonhogarth | By @OxfordCityGuide | By @GirlEatsOxford

Lucien Pissarro and the Eragny Press

While I was in the Ashmolean for coffee this morning I saw that their current exhibition “Lucien Pissarro in England: The Eragny Press 1895 – 1914” is free, so ever the opportunist I took the chance of a quick look round. It’s only a small exhibition – one gallery – and is preceded by an even smaller display of some fine drawings and illustrations by English artists of the same period including Ruskin and Augustus John.

Lucien, son of Camille Pissarro (Impressionist, Pointillist, post-Impressionist), moved permanently to London from France in 1890. He married Esther Bensusan and together they set up the Eragny Press, named after the Pissarro family’s home village in Normandy. They tried hard to make a living illustrating and printing limited edition hand-made books. They produced 32 titles and this exhibition is the first time all 32 have been displayed together.

Illustration from “The Little School;
A Posy of Rhymes”
by T. Sturge Moore, 1905
(Elston Press)

The books themselves are works of art. The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement is clear to see in Pissarro’s illustrations – and vice versa, as he became a notable figure in the English arts scene of the time.

I’m sure the exhibition will charm and delight people who are knowledgeable about the art of the period, and specialists in the fields of illustration, woodblock engraving and bookbinding. A less well-informed amateur like me will, I think, be pleased to have spent a half hour or so looking at some beautifully crafted objects.

The exhibition runs to 13 March 2011.

Pre-Raphaelites and Italy at The Asmolean

I went to see the “Pre-Raphaelites and Italy” Exhibition at the Ashmolean yesterday. I’m not a great fan of the Pre-Raphs, generally preferring Rothko to Ruskin, Miro to Millais, Bacon to Burne-Jones, Hockney and Hopper to Holman Hunt. But some good friends were keen so I went along with an open mind. Maybe my superficial knowledge of these artists could be replaced by an informed appreciation that they have more going for them than finely detailed paintings which make nice stationery and table mats.

Ruskin – The Baptistry, Florence

The exhibition is as specific as the title implies, concentrating exclusively on this group of artists’ work inspired by their love of (some might say obsession with) classical Italian art and architecture. Ruskin’s influence is everywhere, both in his own drawings and paintings and those of his friends whom he despatched to Venice, Rome and Florence with instructions to copy pictures and draw buildings before they suffered further dilapidation. His own early pictures on display show stylised and static figures with expressionless faces. The detailed architectural drawings and watercolours he and they produced show impressive draughtsmanship but are too ‘photographic’ to excite as works of art.

Burne-Jones – Music
The draughtsmanship carries through into to the more familiar paintings, including Rossetti’s near the end of the exhibition. I can admire the fine detail but still the figures are expressionless and the compositions static. I find nothing there to demand my attention and involve me in the picture, nothing to inspire or challenge or make me think.

I’m pleased to say though that I did find three paintings I liked and will remember, by two artists whose names I didn’t know before. Two panoramic landscapes by John Brett, one of Florence and one of Capri, impressed me with the way he captured evening light on the hills in the background (though the classical foreground of the Capri rather detracted from the effect). The third was a delightful landscape of the Venetian Lagoon by John Inchbold.

Inchbold – The Lagoon, Venice

So I know more about the Pre-Raphaelites than I did but I haven’t really changed my mind about them. I think they must have been dreadful luvvies. I wonder if their popularity owes as much to their not-so-private lives, romantic or sordid depending on your point of view, as to their painting.

Leaving the exhibition takes you into the shop where catalogues, academic and popular books and Pre-Raphaelite themed merchandise are on sale. I bought a fridge magnet.

The exhibition runs until 5 December