It was a maxim of my father's that you can tell a good restaurant by the speed with which you are offered your initial drink. Turl Street Kitchen gets full marks in this area: even on a packed (weekday) lunchtime the waiting staff were conscientious about swiftly offering and providing us with our juice and ginger ale.
Said ginger ale was Fentiman's and the juice was a locally-sourced apple and rhubarb. That tells you a lot about this place. The menu changes daily, and is small (no starters, 7 mains, 3 sides and 3 desserts) but seasonal and well-chosen. Predominantly English flavours are presented with continental clarity. Cold beef and horseradish in a crusty roll, mushroom soup; braised leg of pork with squash and chilli and creme fraiche; Jerusalem artichoke, brocolli and cheddar bake. They try to use locally-sourced, free-range, fair trade products, and you can tell by the taste: the mains are small but perfectly formed portions of real food, taking full advantage of simple, straightforward, well matched flavours.
Two half-slices of good bread (one white, one brown) with butter, is a pound, and serves as a fine starter, which is good because it's the only one on offer. I have to admire, actually, the way they've resisted offering the standard olives / meat platter / pitta and houmous starter selection one might expect. Not a sundried tomato in sight.
I had the grilled sardines with endive, chilli, capers and lemon, and my companion had the ham hock terrine with celeriac remoulade and a roll. We shared seasonal greens, which turned out to be fresh young butter-kissed kale and was absolutely delicious. The endive was a bit of a revelation. I've always thought of it as a fundamentally boring vegetable, but this was a little like roast parsnip and a little like caramelised onion and a little like steamed chinese cabbage, and fell naturally into tender, succulent sections. The celariac remoulade was indistinguishable from ordinary good coleslaw, and the ham terrine was fine but not specially exciting. Everything was just a touch over-salted, which I have to admit was fine by me but it is sort of cheating. We saw a fennel, cucumber and carrot salad (with mint and yogurt dressing) go past and it looked huge and amazing. Remarkably, the mains average at around £7, which for ethical food in Oxford is pretty good. There's also a 15% discount for students and friends of the Hub.
Being cheap, ethical and slightly more business-like than cuddly, the place is packed with the yuppies of the future and the hippies of the past. Nick Drake and Belle and Sebastian create alpha brainwaves unobtrusively in the background. Thespy and clean-cut students and lightly-bearded North and East Oxford types chatter happily at high volume and the ambience is busy but upbeat.
The loos are out into the main building and downstairs, and are freshly painted, clean and well-stocked, and there's a Dyson hand-drier. Someone has cared about the background details here. Corners have been cut to keep the costs down (cutlery and napkins are set out in DIY pots, pub style; you may have to share a table), but they're always the inessential corners.
We shared a chocolate tart and had a flat white and a double espresso. The tart was all right but not as astounding as it should have been for the calories: satisfactorily dense but not sufficiently bitter. Without the creme fraiche it would have been uncompromisingly one-dimensional. Fortunately it came with creme fraiche. The coffee was excellent.
They'll "try to accommodate" special diets, but it's not somewhere I'd take anyone vegan or gluten/dairy/nut free. Great place to take a vegetarian though: three out of the seven mains were veggie. Altogether a really sensible, intelligently-run place, one that doesn't try to ingratiate itself but keeps the love where it should be - in the cooking.