Coming in from the cold, KATHERINE MACALISTER is delighted to discover Witney’s convivial Hollybush pub is still producing top nosh
Is this it? The Holy Bush?” my daughter asked peering at the swinging sign on Corn Street in Witney , shouting over the ice cold gale force winds and odd snowflake. “Did it used to be a church?”
Having explained that The Hollybush has always been a pub, a damn good one at that, we ventured in, expecting it to be as empty as the pavements outside, the good people of Witney presumably sheltering by their fires, wrapped in blankets and watching boxsets, like everyone else.
But no, the word is out, because The Hollybush was absolutely heaving, every table packed, lots of young lovebirds, families and girlfriends catching up, the main bar full of drinkers, the perfect mix, a real pub.
Glad we had booked we squirrelled ourselves away in the corner, delighted to be back in what I consider to be one of Oxfordshire’s finest pubs and certainly one of my favourites.
Why? The winning combination of a buzzing atmosphere, real locals rather than weekenders wearing their country posh clothes with the labels still in, owners Luke Champion and Alex Vaughan who not only know their jobs inside out, but care, and of course the food.
Head chef Liam Whittle has been there for a while now, his reputation spreading as The Hollybush wins award after award.
Unpretentious but fun, eclectic food, you can get everything from proper pub food in the form of nibbles and bar snacks to burgers, pies and fish and chips before offering more ambitious dishes such as chorizo stuffed rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta or venison and hazelnut ravioli. Just as excitingly, he always adds an Asian slant to the menu, something rather eclectic and unexpected.
In this case it was my main of Vietnamese rice noodle soup which came with shitake mushrooms, green vegetables and coriander (prawns were an extra), which I spied on the next door table and ordered immediately.
But first up, the wild mushrooms on toast with a watercress and radish salad from the specials menu (£5), a gamble because wild mushrooms are often chewy and bitter, but these were delicious – soft, plump, with a bounce and a bite, they were the perfect accompaniment to the creamy sauce, warding off the cold outside.
My Italian friend, an amazing cook with high expectations, ordered the squid rings with garlic mayo from the grazing and sharing menu (£7). We held our breath while she test drove the ‘calamari’ before pronouncing them magnifico with much gesticulating. The kids enjoyed the garlic ciabatta, which could have done with more butter.
Then my Vietnamese broth served in a tiny cast iron skillet and brimming with chillies, rice noodles, mushrooms, greens and a wonderful hit of oriental flavour which stuck two fingers up to the winter.
The confit Cornish lamb shoulder with chips instead of mash, wild mushrooms and red wine jus (£18.50) came almost as a confit rather than a stew, but once delved into the generosity and flavour of the meat defied belief, packing a real punch.
The burger, ordered by my daughter “without gherkins, bacon or GF”, because she didn’t know what GF was, was an overwhelming portion, secured with a cocktail stick, its additions threatening to break free at any moment.
And although the patty was perfectly cooked, it defeated her and we took it home for my son who devoured it in about 15 seconds from the safety of the sofa while nodding in approval. “Great burger, nice bun, soft but crispy on the outside and doesn’t fall apart,” he added, in a rare burst of animosity before returning to his screen and headphones.
The children’s burger and chips chosen by my daughter’s more realistic BF was very similar, but as it was from the kids men (£7), smaller and just right.
By then it was hard to both see and hear, as the evening drew in and the locals gravitated towards this Witney hub of conviviality.
With the children trying not to fall asleep we had to rush dessert. To be honest it wasn’t so much clamouring as shouting loudly in our ear, the chocolate delice cocoa nibs, honeycomb, fresh raspberries & raspberry coulis, salted caramel & chocolate glass impossible to resist (£7.50) which entirely lived up to expectations.
But it was the classic lemon tart (£6) that really stole the show. Usually too tart and glutinous for my liking, the Hollybush version was more like a creme brulee tart with a tappy top and crumbly pastry, just the right side of piquant and heavenly seductive to eat.
A wonderful meal then, and just as we mentally patted ourselves on the back, we realised with dread and we had to go back out into the cold, dark night, rather than sitting replete and happy as an Italian in an ice cream parlour.
Either way, The Hollybush remains up there with the best in my eyes, perfectly bridging the gap between proper hospitality and stunning food, without any of the associated pomp and circumstance. A fantastic evening.
35 Corn St, Witney, Oxfordshire OX28 6BT