Katherine MacAlister was struck, during her first course, at how Summertown has a very fine Kitchen

It hits me halfway through the starters. Yes, The Oxford Kitchen looks the part. Yes, it finally has the layout right, has recruited an impressive line-up in the kitchen, redecorated the Florio’s interior and boasts a stunning-looking menu. But it’s not until you actually try the food that you know for sure whether this is going to be a hit or miss. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that sinking feeling halfway through a meal when I realise that, despite all the pomp and circumstance, the food just doesn’t live up to the hype.

This certainly wasn’t the case here. For a start The Oxford Kitchen opened quietly last month, one floor at a time until it had enough diners to accommodate. There was no fanfare, but the new owners were confident that word would soon spread.

Their belief was well-founded because Summertown finally has somewhere to write home about, somewhere that not only stands head and shoulders above the competition, but will become a destination restaurant on the nation’s culinary map before long.

All of which hung in the balance for months as Pizza Express tried to get their hands on Florio’s, which would have killed South Parade’s Italian strip of independents dead in the water. Luckily, owner Ross Buchanan had a heart and ensured his restaurant remained independent, giving someone else the chance to flourish in Oxford’s most affluent area.

Ross had done most of the hard work already, converting the site from 1970s timewarp La Dolce Vita into a contemporary restaurant and bar, until he was forced to close due to personal reasons faster than Usain Bolt running for the bus. So while The Oxford Kitchen has put its own stamp on things, it is still recognisable as Ross’s old place.

Four weeks in, unable to restrain myself any longer, I trotted up, breath held. And as soon as I stepped in I relaxed, the space being more cosy, intimate, and welcoming, gentle even, the mix of booths and tables now meaning diners are afforded more privacy than before.

Only the downstairs was functioning when we visited, but we did glimpse the stainless steel counter in the kitchen where from April diners can eat and watch the chefs at work. So after a drink at the rather odd metallic bar we were seated and soon bursting with questions for manager Tom Wood.

“What’s a bon bon of duck? How does a lemon sole niçoise work? What is deconstructed minestrone soup and, as for the food nerds, is the Wagyu burger really from a Japanese cow and why does it need ordering 48 hours in advance?”

Tom was quick to enlighten us. The bon bon is a spiced confit of duck rolled into balls in a ginger crumb; the minestrone more of a vegetable stew, and as for the Wagyu burger, it’s the best beef you can get globally apparently, the cows being fed on tulip petals while their udders are massaged with patchouli oil and their teeth flossed with dandelion stalks or some such nonsense.

However, we didn’t have 48 hours, just a couple, so after much deliberation, chose the hand-dived scallops with confit pork belly, mandarin, almond purée (£14), the crispy ham hock with celeriac purée, compressed apple and walnut (£7) and the special: salad of fennel, pink grapefruit, coriander and rye (£6).

The salad had a clean, refreshing taste, as crisp as a Martini and perfect for January’s abstainers. But the crispy ham hock took the biscuit, the hand-pressed terrine served in a light batter astonished its recipient with its dense, farmyard taste and heart-warming presentation. The scallops were also an enormous hit, not just because of their depth of flavour but because their pairing with the melting chunks of pork belly, sharp mandarin and almond purée, though unusual, worked perfectly.

And as we progressed through the menu we realised this is where ex-Nut Tree head chef John Footman was distinguising himself, unlikely food combinations being his signature — burger with lobster, duck with vanilla, grapefruit with truffle — but so subtle and well balanced that his flavours work beautifully together, each dish being perfectly executed.

The mains followed suit, another special: the deconstructed minestrone soup (£12) was very clever, the liquid reduced to a pasta sauce consistency, while keeping the same ingredients: soup without the soup.

The handmade beef burger, red onion jam, mixed leaves and triple cooked chips was made of 28-day aged beef so had a wonderful meaty, crumbly consistency, and was astonishingly good value at £12.95. The whole grilled lemon sole niçoise (£16.50) came with brown shrimps on a bed of potatoes and spinach, the fish being beautifully cooked. Ditto the rib eye steak with triple-cooked chips, wild rocket, and béarnaise sauce (£22).

Puddings perhaps even surpassed the level of excellence, the banana tarte tatin with peanut butter ice cream (£7) having my name on it — a patissier’s version of Chinese banana fritters; sticky, crunchy and smooth all at the same time. The caramelised calamansi lime tart, coconut sorbet (£6.50) and the chocolate delice, blood orange, white coffee ice cream (£7) were also sampled, engulfed, wolfed down, wantonly consumed, plates licked clean....

And as we drank coffee and picked at the cheese plate I searched for the right word to sum up our experience. Faultless is the obvious one. But if you want others: adventurous, detailed, interesting, innovative, consistent, mind-blow-ing, unique and a breath of fresh air, the latter being four words, I know, for the pedants out there.

While food is changing and restaurants are raising their game, Summertown has finally got somewhere to really shout about.

The Oxford Kitchen
215 Banbury Road, Summertown, OX2 7HQ
01865 511149

Opening times: 9am to late, Tuesday to Sunday.
Parking: It’s Summertown so you’ll need to fight hard or get  the bus.
Key personnel: Manager Tom Wood and head chef John Footman, pictured below.
Keep an eye out for the... Kids menu — a frozen fruit slush for starters, macaroni cheese, fish goujons, grilled chicken, margherita pizza then homemade ice creams and sorbets. One course £5, two for £7.50, with a choice of two sides.
In ten words: This is going to   knock the spots off the competition.