I'm a huge fan of the Magdalen Arms, both for its relaxed, scrubbed-wooden ambiance and for its hearty-but-interesting line in food. Housed in a spacious old pub, spruced up to feel more restaurant-like, but not disconcertingly polished, it provides a high-quality but unpretentious dining experience. It’s dimly lit, bustling but not too noisy, casual but still special, and while the food I’ve tried has ranged from the sublime to the unmanageably enormous, I’ve always really enjoyed eating there.
With hindsight, we should have known better than to choose a Sunday evening for this review. After a no-doubt busy afternoon, several of the main courses were no longer available by the time we arrived at 8.30pm, which was disappointing and did leave us an uncomfortably restricted range as we rushed to reconsider our choices. We were offered a couple of alternatives, but as might be expected, the missing dishes were some of the most appealing. That they do run out of some things does speak to the freshness of the ingredients and the fact that their menu changes daily, so this is a lamentation rather than a complaint.
We sat in the less formal front area where you order from the bar rather than at your table. Prices are not exorbitant, but not cheap either, with starters in the £5-£10 range and main courses from £12-£30. There are several dishes on the menu designed for sharing, and if you're not eating with a group or can’t agree that leaves a small menu with only a handful of items, which makes this a restaurant best suited to those who enjoy a wide range of foods, as you can’t always be certain of a ‘safe’ choice. Our food was tasty and well cooked but on this occasion the wow-factor was missing (sadly scoffed by the rest of East Oxford at lunch time). The mussels and prawns were grit-free, if smallish, and the fish broth and rouille combination was a winner as always. Melted courgettes on sourdough with St James cheese was delicious but quite overpowering as a starter.
The mains were a little mixed - the whole Gilthead bream was nicely grilled and fresh; a very simple fish served with potatoes and roast red peppers that were lovely and unusually sweet. The tagliatelle with girolles really needed something to cut through the very garlicky butter, as the ricotta salata promised by the menu wasn’t much in evidence, and it quickly became cloying after a promising start. The complimentary bread and butter was, as always, to die for. Because of the pared down menu we ended up eating two fish dishes and two vegetarian ones, which while very nice was not taking advantage of the Magdalen Arms’ particular strength, which is in great quality, imaginatively cooked meat. If our budget had stretched to the Hereford rib of beef for two at £60, or if the Gloucester Old Spot pork schnitzel had been available, we’d have enjoyed the variety.
In keeping with the feel of the place, the staff seem quite laid back - though friendly and efficient - which works quite well as they don’t intrude on the low-key intimacy of the experience. The food deserves a better write-up than I’ve been able to give it here, and I’ve learnt my lesson about when to visit. I very much recommend the Magdalen Arms – just please leave me some schnitzel.