The Oxford Retreat is doing quite a lot right. At first glance, the set-up seems slightly curious: the bar, which is often lively, is a bit close to the romantically lit dining section, where polished wooden tables, shiny cutlery and couples quietly clinking glasses might be expected to mix uneasily with the usual atmosphere of a pub or cocktail bar. But although the bar area can get quite crowded, the dining tables are sheltered enough for the effect to be of a snug cocoon from which to people-watch, and the noise of the standing drinkers is reduced to a pleasing bustle.
The food on this occasion, was also an interesting mix. To the usual choice of upmarket wine-bar meals (sirloin steak, hearty salads, posh fish and chips, calves’ liver…) was added the decidedly swish Christmas menu, including offerings such as parsnip and roasted chestnut soup finished with honey and chantilly cream, and Scottish salmon supreme with scallops. I’m not sure that parfait of fois gras with chicken livers is really a wise choice for a review piece, as it’s bound to be lovely anyway (it was) and I have to own up online to eating fois gras (I did), but, ah well. A more prosaic pint of prawns went down equally well – generous, and with a distinctly lemony lemon mayonnaise; small thing, but important. The varied menu allowed us cheerfully to end up with wildly disparate main courses. The confit of pork belly with crushed garlic potatoes was absolutely delicious, if unexpectedly sticky, and beware: when they say garlic they mean garlic – gorgeous but lonely. The chicken burger was, well, what you might expect by way of a decent pub meal, while the shared pudding of white and dark chocolate roulade was a real treat; rich and moist. This lot came to £62 with wine and coffee, and I only wish I’d had room for a ‘retreat mince pie’.
The staff were kind and attentive, and when we managed to knock over a wine glass they swept it up so quickly and discreetly that we only felt like complete idiots for a second or two. They kept popping up to ask how our food was, once before we’d had a chance to try it, then sensitively disappeared and left us to get on with it. I must also mention the table, which, though not too high to eat from comfortably, came right up to my chest and made me feel like an excited child allowed to sit up with the grown-ups. Which could be why the glass got knocked over.
This place is well worth a visit, it’s intimate but busy and people seem to take an interest in whether you’re having a good time. The food, though it sometimes misses the mark slightly, is prepared with attention and imagination. Offering cocktails, real ale, candlelit dining and Sky Sports, The Oxford Retreat is a bar that tries to be all things to all people. Unlikely as it may seem, it succeeds.