Who is Jacob? He seems to be taking over the Oxford food scene. Between Jacobs and Field (the café in Headington), Jacobs Chop House (the meat palace), and Jacobs Inn in Wolvercote, he's got crowds flocking across town to try his fantastic fare. Worried the bandwagon was leaving me behind, I set out across Port Meadow on a culinary expedition to the pub end of Jacob's empire.
Jacobs Inn has been situated as somewhere between a traditional pub, a top restaurant and a muddy field. Cosy in winter, but offering deck chairs for long summer evenings, it's always been a popular choice throughout the year, especially when combined with a lazy walk across Port Meadow. The décor has retained the original beams and rustic look, while edgy rusting signs and bottles filled with fairy lights line the walls. The food is ambitious, trying to blend traditional pub fare with more sophisticated flavours and ideas. To this end, lots of the meat and fish served have been locally sourced from the Cotswolds and Brixham, and the pub even keeps pigs and chickens in the garden. It's more than an organic gimmick - the owners and chefs have really committed to the cause and it's reflected in the quality of the food and the ethos of the place.
To start with, famished from the trek, we had wood pigeon with beetroot, pickled mushroom and walnuts, and from the specials menu, smoked duck on chicory salad with a redcurrant dressing. Both dishes were immaculately presented with vibrant colours and real attention to detail, but the flavours just didn't match up. In the pigeon dish, each individual ingredient was cooked beautifully: the meat was tender, succulent and warmly flavoured and the walnuts were nicely paired with the beetroot. However, once put together, the beetroot and the pickled mushroom were completely overpowering, blasting straight through and masking all of the pigeon's subtle smokiness. The same issue, to a lesser extent, happened with the duck. The smokey flavour pushed through, providing better balance, but the chicory added too much pepper to properly compliment the duck's subtlety. Both dishes deserved to be fantastic because there's clearly some serious skill in the Inn's kitchen, but it's a real shame that overemphasis on invention has prevented the fulfillment of potential.
The mains, however, were really impressive. The slow-roasted pork belly with garlic mash was tender and juicy, with overtones of honey. The cabbage, which could have been a soggy mistake, was peppery and crunchy, with the green beans being 'squeaky clean'. In the words of my dining partner, it was 'presented like a restaurant but tasted like Mum could have made it.' For any good roast, that's the highest praise there is. I looked again to the specials and chose the bass with lobster mash and saffron sauce. Sourced from Brixham, I expected real freshness and flavour, but having had fresh, line-caught, mackerel a few days before, it was never really going to be able to compare. That said, it was still fantastic; a really full texture well complimented by the sauce, which was really more hollandaise than saffron anyway. The lobster mash was stunningly rich and packed with flavour - next time I'll definitely be getting the lobster dish - while the braised fennel worked well with the other flavours. To finish off, we went for the frozen parfait and some lemon cheesecake, which were both pretty solid choices. Although the food is on the more expensive side, with mains starting at around £12, for the range of tastes it is worth it for a good night out.
What's really worth mentioning is the wine list. It's short, but packed with some great stuff. There's even a Rioja Blanco at the top end, a very fashionable white at the moment. But at the lower end of the price range, bottles start at about £20 and are really solid value, offering high quality and well-pitched pairing options. Praise needs to be given to the staff for their incredible service. With a packed restaurant and only two waiting staff, food still arrived very promptly, with loads of attention paid to every customer. Jacobs Inn is a treat, and the chefs are adventurous, sometimes missing a swing but mostly turning out great pub food.