A restaurant lives or dies by its chef. This may sound dramatic but no matter how good your product is, without the expertise in the kitchen to back it up, you have nothing.

Never has this been more true than at The White Hart in Wytham, a pub I love, mainly because of what owner Baz, aka Mark Butcher, has done with the place, taking on the rundown inn past Wolvercote – almost two years today – and painstakingly putting it back together, to recreate its glory days when it was one of Oxfordshire’s finest.

But however hard he tried, there was always an element of magic missing, because while the food was always decent, it lacked sparkle, devoid of the same passion as evidenced elsewhere on the premises.

Until now. Because Baz stalked new chef Jan Chmelicek so vigorously, that the Czech eventually gave in, capitulating to take up the head chef position at the 17th century village pub, thus transforming the food overnight.

Which is how my meal, on a recent, cold, dark, misty winter’s night was unrecognisable from what came before, akin to eating in a different pub altogether, finally raising the bar to where Baz had always envisaged, and allowing the White Hart to compete with the big boys.

Throw in one of my absolute favourite front of houses, Amanda Coombs, and The White Hart now boasts a winning combination that must have Baz rubbing his hands in glee, and not before time.

Seated by the roaring log fire, this quintessential Oxford pub’s interior has been allowed to retain its dignity, a homage to its 17th century origins, all flagstone floors, fireplaces, wooden beams and primary coloured walls, a comfort after so many reinvented gastro pubs.

The a la carte menu is interesting and varied, rendering decisions hard. But Amanda bears with us.

The Jerusalem artichoke veloute (£6.50) was worth the trip alone, and came with an inspired hazelnut and spinach pesto.

You could lock me in a small room and force me to eat this three times a day and I’d die a happy woman. A wonderfully subtle depth of flavour and a soft silky finish. Heaven.

The chunky, generous ham hock terrine with piccalilli on toast (£7) was a good meaty repast, the seared scallops with confit chorizo, apple and spiced cauliflower puree, was as pretty as a picture and tasted as good as it looked, while the crispy cauliflower with lemon & brown butter sauce, watercress & pink peppercorns (£7), arrived deep fried and then sliced through, the white insides contrasting with the hot, oily crust, accentuated by the lemon dressing and pink pepper. A unique and novel dish.

Then the calves liver with its wonderful iron taste, silky smooth and accompanied by braised chicory, crispy ham, green lentils and oregano. The lentils were perfectly al dente, the gravy sublime. More, more, more.

The perfectly cooked duck came with a sublimely crispy rosti potato, braised red cabbage which cut through the game just so, and a delicate jus – another divine dish.

My vegetarian friend ordered the sweetcorn, chickpea and blue cheese burger (£13) which came with harissa yoghurt and fries. Although original, the burger was a bit soft and large, squidging out of the bun as eaten.

And then pudding: the ice cream for a start was spectacular, regardless of the other components of each dish.

“The best creme brulee I’ve ever eaten,” was the first winning comment, followed quickly by moans from the other side of the table over the chocolate pave with salted caramel ice cream.

But personally the pecan and maple tart (£7) with an orange and squash jam and cinnamon ice cream was little short of a miracle, the perfect consistency of texture and taste, hints of orange, crumble, crunch, nut, pastry, and conserve in each spoonful.

And as we mopped up the last smear of ice cream, the last crumb of pie, the last smear of chocolate, I rejoiced with Baz, that the final piece of the puzzle has finally fallen into place.

The White Hart is now a destination restaurant that Baz can be proud of.




Parking: on site.

Opening times: Bar; Tuesday to Saturday noon to 11pm, Monday and Sunday noon to 8pm. Food: Monday to Saturday noon to 3pm; Tuesday to Saturday 6pm to 9pm; Sunday noon to 4pm.

Try the: Sunday roasts. Traditional, home-style roasts and the day’s vegetable selection bought to your table in bowls for you to help yourself. Walk it off in Wytham Woods afterwards.