The Lambert Arms is a grand hotel and restaurant located in Aston Rowant, halfway between Oxford and High Wycombe on the A40. The building was originally a coaching inn, a history that explains its obscure location and isolation. The attractive hotel sits directly next to the road, and as my car rolled onto the premises, an absolutely packed car park was an early indication that all is well at the Lambert Arms.
The whites and browns of the mock Tudor exterior are reflected in the dining room, exuding a classic feel. Meanwhile, modern and quirky features give the restaurant a distinctively fashionable vibe – knives and forks sit within the overhead lampshades to create stylish silhouettes. From the start of our dinner we enjoyed the carefully contemporary surroundings, and a full restaurant on a Monday night suggested that it was more than just the ambience that was pulling in the through traffic.
The menu was concise and a number of intriguing and technical dishes gave me the impression of a creative and ambitious kitchen staff. Dishes like layered crab and chilli salad and earl grey-smoked duck show that the place is aiming high. This feeling was replicated in all other areas of the dining experience – sharply dressed waiting staff, expensive-looking cutlery and glassware, the presence of a maitre d’, and, I must say, some of the prices.
The Lambert Arms is unstuffy, but nevertheless attempts to create an air of refinement, and does so successfully. I was therefore slightly nervous as I awaited my food – the bar had thus far been set high, and the food would have to be of great merit to maintain the high standard of the experience.
Fortunately, the food did not lag too far behind. Our waiter was keen to emphasize the importance of local ingredients and seasonality to the Lambert Arms, and everything tasted delicious. My starter of confit duck and chicken terrine was rich and indulgent, disproving the too often claims of chicken as a bland meat. The dish was texturally balanced by shards of crispy, thin bread, and accompanied by an apple and courgette salad, with a sweet vinaigrette that cut through the oiliness of the terrine. My partner opted for the enticing earl grey-smoked duck. Refusing to fall into the easy and slightly tired tradition of pairing duck with a sweet fruit sauce, the tender meat was accompanied by a celeriac and mustard remoulade, as well as caramelised onions. Again, the balance of the dish was excellent. The earl grey did not come through though, and the impression was that it had been over smoked, killing any subtle flavours. It was nearly there, but a slight technical imprecision had let the dish down a little.
My main course of two types of fish, trout and pollock, was excellent. Rarely am I afforded the opportunity to enjoy two separate sets of texture and flavour on a fish course, and accompanied by a buttery white wine sauce the dish was delicious. My partner’s parma ham-wrapped chicken with red wine jus tasted good, but for seventeen pounds should have been better. Over-cooked chicken is always disappointing and the sauce could have been more intense. As mentioned, the restaurant’s excellence elsewhere had encouraged one to expect a lot of its food, the price similarly suggested top-notch cuisine. However, another slight yet obvious hitch in the cooking had made the prices seem a little excessive. While we certainly enjoyed our food – flavoursome, contemporary and creative, I couldn’t help thinking that with just a few pounds less on each course the experience would have been more in balance. With mains averaging at over £15, one is looking for near perfection in culinary execution, and this was not quite delivered.
This is one way of looking at things. A more carefree attitude might avoid agonising over a couple of quid, and acknowledge the fact that the food is very good. The Lambert Arms is also a lovely place to eat. Providing warmth in a chic and smart environment is hard to do, and this eatery nailed it. Furthermore, our dessert platter was very good. Creamy home-made ice creams, panna cotta and summer pudding all went a long way in helping us to overlook the dry chicken from the preceding course.
One of the most important factors which has managed to go virtually unmentioned so far is the fantastic location. Not necessarily for you or for me, but for the hordes travelling up and down the country for various purposes, looking for somewhere tasteful to stop for the night. Birmingham, London, High Wycombe and Oxford are all close and en route and the restaurant, as well as the forty-four bedrooms, provides a perfect resting point for the weary traveller. While the majority of the clientele are simply passing through, attracted to the accommodation and quality food, I would certainly recommend the Lambert Arms to the Oxfordshire local too. Good food and a lovely ambience make it perfect for a special occasion, just don’t forget your wallet!