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Dining in Wonderland
The Ashmolean Dining Room 01865 553823 ashmoleandiningroom.com.
KATHERINE MACALISTER manages to find her way into the restaurant at the New Ashmolean for a deliciously curious meal.
Only in Oxford could I sit between a vicar and his wife having a fierce theological debate, a famous actress and a celebrity photographer, while Corpus Christi choir got up and began an impromptu recital in the middle of dinner.
Of course, being Oxford, no one batted an eyelid, especially not in the Ashmolean’s brand-spanking-new, glass-walled, rooftop dining room restaurant, which is packed to the rafters, or more accurately architectural beams, every night with the county’s great and the good.
So neither did we, and I carried on with my complimentary radish and tapenade dip, while desperately trying not to burst out laughing at the sheer spectacle of it all.
At this point, had Alice in Wonderland wandered in and sat down for dinner with the Queen Of Hearts and Lewis Carroll himself, the evening couldn’t have been any more unexpected.
But it was not just the company that was so eclectic.
The Ashmolean Dining Room is also as hard to quantify.
If you dine in the evening you have to find your way into the closed museum via a fiercely guarded side-door.
Henchmen with clipboards direct you up lifts and stairs, through endless identical doors, before ushering you towards one, that looks the same as all the rest. Curioser and curioser.
God help me if I ever need the toilet. They won’t find me again for another five years. But venture in and there it is, the Ashmolean Dining Room, fully functioning, bustling and buzzing.
It does exist after all. There is an air of excitement here, as if everyone knows this restaurant is something a bit different, and worth the wait.
An open kitchen at one end faces a café style interior, small neat tables, a white colour palette, glass walls, and huge geometric lightshades glowing enticingly.
You can’t see the dreaming spires, even though we are on the Ashmolean’s rooftop, because the light reflects off the glass, but in the summer the outdoor eating area will be stunning.
The menu is slightly confusing, but somehow fitting.
The first section is a tapas style mix-and-match, then follows small dishes (read starters).
A charcuterie and cheese section then acts like a red herring, taking you off piste, until you realise that’s probably lunch, and head back to the large dishes (main) and the self-explanatory ‘sides’ and ‘puddings’, ignoring the sandwiches and afternoon tea sections on the way.
Add in the choir chanting away and the religious diatribe and it all got a bit much.
More wine vicar? But actually another reason this meal will remain forever memorable is that it beat Mr Greedy fairly and squarely in the stomach department, through the sheer scale of the cooking.
So instead of the usual clean plate, he was left despondent and sweating slightly, while staring in shame at his unfinished copper pot of cassoulet, one duck leg protruding tantalisingly from the side.
“I just can’t finish it,” he said miserably, “and it’s so delicious. Do you think they do doggy bags?”
“Not in The Ashmolean,” I said in my fiercest whisper. So no, Mr Greedy couldn’t even manage dessert, much as he wanted to, or even a coffee.
Defeated by a Toulouse sausage, pot of beans and a confit of duck. Pathetic really.
He did manage to consume all of his starter of poached eggs, braised shallots and pancetta with Burgandy sauce, which came with the sum of its parts carefully placed in a sturdy oven dish and was declared “unexpected” (why does that word keep cropping up?) and delicious.
His side order of polenta chips were also novel, although not as good as Jamie Oliver’s version down the road.
My orange, chicory, feta and roasted walnut salad was refreshing and voluminous while leaving me plenty of room for my pumpkin ravioli with sage and pumpkin seed butter and a side of zucchini fritti.
The ravioli were nice enough but didn’t set the world on fire and combined with the zucchini, the over-riding effect was rather greasy.
But these are minor criticisms because overall the dining ‘experience’ here is fantastic.
I also managed the chocolate mousse with salty caramel, not for the feint-hearted, which arrived in a very unattractive brown dish, but if you like your salt, this is a fabulous and original offering.
Unsurprisingly on leaving we found two ladies wandering the corridors outside.
“We can’t get out,” they wailed, “and we can’t even get the lift to work.”
I remembered the detailed and complicated instructions from our personal henchmen and managed to manoeuvre us all outside safely, where we were soon engulfed by the crowds sweeping down St Giles.
And gazing up at the lit interior of the Ashmolean, it was almost as if the meal had never happened.
But take my word for it – this is somewhere you want to visit, so persevere.