Driving round Oxfordshire these days it appears that even the remotest country lane is lined with hostelries begging you to try their gourmet food – the gastro pub isn't so much alive and kicking as breaking down your door.
Of course the old school of drinkers are understandably despondent about losing their local drinking holes to such upwardly mobile diners and it does seem a shame that the pipe and slippers customer is being banished entirely to make way for coley goujons and olive foccacia. Once exiled, they will be gone forever.
The best pub is surely one which merges the two worlds seamlessly, such as The Falkland Arms in Great Tew, or The Abingdon Arms in Beckley.
But Kirtlington has come up with another novel solution to the problem. Have two pubs in the village and make sure they don't put each other out of business by serving both sets of customers.
The Dashwood, which opened a few months ago to great fanfare, isn't a pub at all any more, it is a contemporary hotel and restaurant and there's not a pint of mild to be seen.
The Oxford Arms, within staggering distance of The Dashwood, is still the local and doing very well, thank you. So everyone is happy.
Having heard great things about the food at both, I thought it only fair to give them a run for their money, venturing first to The Dashwood for lunch.
Inside, the restaurant is really refreshing – whitewashed with wooden tables, an open kitchen and flooded with light – if you didn't know better you would be hard pushed to remember it as a pub.
And it is smart – there were quite a few suits in the room, so, as ladies–who–lunch, we felt right at home.
The food choice was made easy for us when we were presented with the 'lunch menu'. How long we were going to take over lunch was also decided for us when we realised there were no starters, although bread and olive oil were brought to the table by a slightly brusque waitress.
We were rather alarmed to find that every offering had more letters after its name than an Oxford academic. Worried we were missing some gourmet code, we were relieved to discover the letters were just a guide to what ingredients the dishes contained – dairy wheat, vegetarian and alcohol respectively – all very PC and rather scary.
We opted for the wild mushroom, spinach and herb pancake with parmesan (D WV A) and the roasted Jerusalem artichoke and courgetle risotto, rocket and parmesan cheese (D). We then had to order our vegetables separately – a pet hate of mine. Fine beans, mangetout and a side salad were extras, adding a third to the price of our already pricey mains.
The food arrived efficiently and we stared sadly at the minimalist portions. Mine looked more like a small cake wrapped in wet pastry than a pancake, and sat lonely as a cloud in the middle of a large white plate. The risotto was similarly sparse.
All our misgivings disappeared with the first mouthful. Every morsel was a delight, the chunks of mushroom beautifully marinated and perfectly complementing the home–made pasta envelope and spinach bed.
The risotto was similarly tantalising and you could taste each flavour individually, rather than getting lost in an overstewed rice medley, as is so often the case.
I could have eaten the same course all over again by the time we were done, which meant that dessert was a must rather than a maybe, and we shared the caramelised lemon tart and followed it with the cheese plate.
The crumbling pastry sharp lemon and sweet quince coulis were a delight, and we cooed with appreciation. The cheeseboard – Oxford Blue, some wonderfully mild and crumbly brie and stalwart local cheddar, served with thin black biscuits or fat digestive ones, grapes and slices of apple, also had us in raptures.
Two coffees later we realised the kitchen staff had gone home and the dinner guests were probably waiting patiently on the doorstep so, reluctantly, we departed after paying a reasonable £20 each, although neither of us drank and, had the portions been bigger, we wouldn't have needed the side orders, dessert or cheese.
But this is certainly somewhere to return to and we promised there and then to make The Dashwood a RH – 'Regular Haunt'.
A few days later I was back in Kirtlington, but this time it was for Sunday lunch en famille and, as soon as I stepped inside The Oxford Arms, I realised that the two places are like chalk and cheese.
Immediately enveloped in the warm and busy interior, there could not have been more of a contrast with The Dashwood. Regulars thronged the bar, chatting easily, while the diners squeezed through into the dining room at the end. Relaxed and unpretentious, the specially created Sunday menu was sensational, including not only your standard roast but all sorts of exciting–sounding dishes for those shying away from meat and gravy.
Having never indulged in starters for Sunday lunch, none of us could resist the dishes on offer, so settled for the plate of smoked fish (halibut, trout and salmon), the salmon and prawn fishcakes, the spinach, avocado and pinenut salad with Roquefort, and two packets of crisps to keep the kids occupied.
Until then we'd been having a great time, but there was nothing to distinguish The Oxford Arms from any other gastro pub – until the food arrived.
To cut a long story short it was the most memorable meal I've had for a long time – a feeling reflected around the table.
'The best roast in memory', 'the best fishcakes' and 'the best Sunday lunch' were just a few of the compliments bandied about.
But I'm racing ahead of myself.
The cold smoked fish was beautifully fresh, the fishcakes crisp on the outside and stuffed with salmon and prawn, rather than being eked out with too much potato and the salad's raw ingredients meant that each mouthful was bursting with flavour. The portions were generous but not over–sized.
Two children's–sized Oxford Arms sausage and mash, one home–made asparagus and pecorino ravioli, one swordfish steak in stir–fried sweet chilli vegetables and two 28–day–aged roast rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding, that had the carnivores drooling, were next up.
The beef was 'lovely and tender, a beautiful melt–in–the–mouth cut' and a generous portion, the fish was glazed in the sauce making it interesting and delicious at the same time, while the sausages were polished off in no time and the pasta, although slightly undercooked, was beautifully filled.
Puddings were a must because they jumped off the page and although there were only a few choices we were hard pushed to make a decision and opted for one of everything – the date and banana pudding with golden syrup, ice cream for the kids, coffee with home–made chocolate truffles and the cheeseboard.
The date and banana pudding was perfectly moist and tasty, the cheese beautifully chosen, the chocolates remarked over and the food bill came to £111 for five of us. The ingredients, the details, the care and the originality of the food all made this a meal to remember and my only regret is letting the cat–out–of–the–bag on this one because I sure as hell will be back for more, battling with the rest of you for a table.
So there you have it. Kirtlington has turned into a gourmet haven and The Dashwood and The Oxford Arms prove that opposites attract, instead of putting each other out of business, a great example to all the other BH's – 'Battling Hostelries'.