The UK pub and restaurant scene is in a very exciting place right now. Not only are talented young British chefs dispelling the entrenched stereotypes concerning the nation’s culinary ability, but they are cooking British food, and to a very high level. No longer are we simply churning out poor imitations of the dishes of our continental neighbours, but we are taking pride in our traditions, giving due care and attention to classic British dishes and producing fantastic cuisine. This is the food I really want to eat, and this is the food I was given at the Appleford Kitchen.
Michelle Marriott snapped up the ailing Greene King chain pub, The Carpenter’s Arms, in south Oxfordshire in July, and by the end of summer had transformed it into the Appleford Kitchen – uncomplicated and rural in feel, yet serving exceptional food. Head Chef Mark Lloyd is a heavyweight in the British cooking scene, having opened the River Cottage Canteen with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, while exciting talents Terry Ireland and Charlotte Gillespie-Willams have also been recruited. The former was a runner up on Masterchef, while the latter, at 19 years of age, holds such accolades as Regional Young Chef of the Year.
The ‘pub’ still feels like a pub, and there were plenty of local drinkers when we visited. Such is the desire to preserve a traditional feel, that while the a la carte menu offers modern twists, a lounge menu provides hand-raised pork pies, chips and Bloody Mary ketchup, fish and chips and pies. How refreshing to be able to sample such humble favourites at their best, freezer and microwave-free, cooked by good chefs.
Mark Lloyd is renowned for his enthusiasm for wild food and foraging, and on the more up-market a la carte menu, floral salads, sea fennel, nasturtium and other little-known edibles appear, adding another dimension to the experience. Typical mains involve duck, plaice, ham hock and scallops, attractive flavours scatter the menu, as well as innovative cooking techniques.
Our visit was on a Sunday, and we were presented with a menu offering three options for each course, all enticing, including traditional Sunday roasts. Very reasonable too – if you opt for a main only, you will get change from a tenner, while the full three courses cost just £18.50. The broccoli soup with poached egg and a cheesy crouton was perfect, the saltiness of the cheese making the broccoli delectable, while edible flowers looked very pretty sitting on the soup’s surface. My salmon ballotine was served on a slate, and was Michelin-star-level in presentation and flavour. Wild herbs and flowers were interspersed with beetroot puree, sourdough and a wide variety of tomatoes. And then came the roasts. My slow roasted pork with ginger and apple sauce and pickled cabbage probably surpassed any roast I have consumed; the meat demanded only a prod from my fork to prove its tenderness by falling apart.
The attractive contrast between classic and contemporary was apparent again on the dessert options, where apple crumble appears on the same menu as dishes involving rhubarb gel and pistachio ‘soil’. Our puddings did not reach the same high standards as the previous two courses, but were enjoyable nonetheless.
The Appleford Kitchen produces amongst the best food in Oxfordshire. I aim to head back very soon to sample more, and I urge others to get down there too. From a tired and uninspiring chain pub, to the Appleford Kitchen – quite a change! A change that is seemingly and excitingly representative of the developing current in British food in recent years.
This article appeared in the Oxford Journal on September 22, 2011.