The Apple Cart sits just off the A34 on the Milton Interchange, and is part of the Table Table Restaurants group. Essentially an extension of the next-door Premier Inn, the pub-cum-restaurant overlooks the busy dual carriageway; nothing further needs to be said to emphasize the fact that the setting is uninviting. A large plastic menu depicting a variety of unimaginative dishes is never encouraging either. However, judgement without context is unjust. I wouldn’t go in search of simple comfort food at one of Monsieur Raymond Blanc’s institutions, and by the same token it would have been unreasonable to expect unfalteringly fresh and sophisticated gastronomy in an affordable chain pub in a lay by. Not only does the Apple Cart serve a purpose, it serves it pretty well.
A spacious garden lies out front, while the interior is tasteful. Warm surroundings and retro exposed brick combine with atmospheric lighting and soft music to create an agreeable dining environment. The service was perhaps the highlight of my recent visit, and we were looked after attentively by our glowing waitress.
The drink options were also pleasing. In a contemporary era in which the British pallet, quite rightly, is starting to focus on buzzwords such as ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’, the box of the former was ticked by the availability of Oxfordshire real ale, in my case the excellent Old Hooky. The Apple Cart unfortunately fell rather short on the latter. I would rather the ‘June Specials’ menu had avoided an attempt at seasonality rather than suggest we eat ingredients that belong in the fading light of early Winter, like venison and juniper . The ‘summer special’ of beef and root vegetable casserole also sings of weighty sustenance on cold nights.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed what we ordered. A starter for two of garlicky dough balls with numerous dips for £3.50 highlighted the affordability of the Apple Cart. The chef cooked my steak exactly as I had requested, while my partner’s risotto was also executed well. I could highlight a few gripes – a lack of crispness in my chips, and peas that could only have been that dry after a prolonged meeting with the microwave. However the positives certainly outweighed the negatives. The traditional British puddings were sumptuous. The menu made up for its previous seasonality stumbling block by presenting us with summery desserts like Eton mess and rhubarb and strawberry fool, both of which were delicious.
If I were stopping for the night in the Premier Inn after a long drive, the Apple Cart would be just what I needed. It is not high end, but then it’s not trying to be. For two, three tasty courses each with drinks for £40 was highly satisfactory, while I could easily highlight its accessibility and plentiful parking rather than drone on about its less than picturesque location. A breakfast promotion allows you to scoff as much as you like for £7.99 with children eating for free, and this would also encourage me to pop down the A34 for a repeat visit.
This article appeared in the Oxford Journal on July 8, 2011.