A classy bistro in the Castle quarter is precisely what Oxford needs, says Katherine MacAlister

Why I was bothering I had no idea. Anyone unfortunate enough to have visited Krispy Kreme doughnuts at Oxford Castle will know that not only was the food utterly calorific and sickly sweet, but the premises were tiny and dark.

Besides, even Carluccio’s had given up on this neglected corner of Oxford, leaving it to the likes of La Tasca and Max Mason’s Big Bang to lure the punters in.

How anyone hoped to open a successful wine bar on such a miserable site I had no idea, until I turned the corner. And there 1855 stood, lit up, a vision of glass and lighting, utterly transformed and mesmerisingly inviting.

That was the launch night, when I spent the evening with my mouth open, either to stuff canapés in, quaff champagne or stare in wonder at the surroundings, the sexy bar, and upstairs mezzanine level adding to the atmosphere of sophistication, without even a hint of the 1980s.

Because the last time people frequented wine bars they were full of baying Jilly Cooper-types slipping off wedding rings, shoulder pads battling for space with their Beaujolais Nouveau, Porsches parked outside.

1855 is aeons away from the wife-swapping cliches of yesteryear and the brainchild of the utterly loveable Chris Mulhall, a nuclear engineer by day, and his friend Laurence Howlin and daughter Jane, who felt such an overwhelming urge to share their enormous enthusiasm for wine with the rest of Oxford that they took on the said Krispy Kreme site, extending it, glassing the front and opening up upstairs, making it one of the most glamorous and aesthetically pleasing restaurants in Oxford.

But where 1855 utterly comes into its own is by plugging the gap between sit-down dining and pubs, when, struggling through town, laden down with shopping, you realise you need a rest and something to eat. Or when you organise to meet a friend after work for a drink and a quick bite and are then stumped on where to go, when all you want is a nice glass of wine and a flexible menu, somewhere simple and gentle, without the fuss, bother and expense of eating out.

Which makes 1855, inspired by the original classification of the finest wines of the Bordeaux region, not only a welcome addition to the Oxford Castle line-up, but also a massive bonus for Oxford itself.

Where else can you get a very special glass of wine or sherry and a plate of Serrano ham at 3pm? Where else can you meet for a relaxed chat without having to trawl through three courses, fight with other people’s pushchairs or battle for a seat. And where else is so central?

The Oxford Wine Café does an admirable job in Summertown, but 1855 is more of a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of city life, full of a similarly grateful clientele, delighted to be putting their feet up in this oasis of calm.

Did I mention the food? There’s no pressure to eat, but with resident chef Paul Bellchambers in the kitchen it means that if you have a glass of wine and then feel a bit peckish, whatever time of day, there’s a charming selection of dishes to choose from to keep the wolves at bay. Or if you want to match your wines to the food, wine expert Alistair Cooper is on hand.

I booked a table to ensure we got round to sampling the tapas-style menu. Nibbles include the usual breads and oils, olives, almonds, quails’ scotch eggs or homemade pork scratchings, which is, like all the food, painstakingly sourced.

Want something more filling and there is a French tomato or mushroom, thyme and truffle oil soup (£4.95), pork pies made with six kinds of pork, more of a chunky terrine. For those with a strong stomach there is marinated octopus with herbs, smoked paprika and red wine vinegar (£8.95), and there are charcuterie boards boasting everything from ham to salami and chorizo, cheese boards (£11.95 for three), a wonderful confit of duck (£8.95), which fell off the bone, and some superb Upton cold-smoked salmon which arrived with freshly-baked dill scones and horseradish cream.

A piquant mini Normandy apple tart, and then some exquisite Cherish chocolates completed our evening, as the table filled up with wine glasses.

1855 is a world away from the Krispy Kreme doughnut, and while it has many charms, for me its biggest selling point is that the food and wine fit around the experience and not vice versa.

All 1855 needs now is a similarly enthusiastic clientele to support it, there being little passing trade, because having stuck its neck out on your behalf, it deserves your patronage.

Justice Walk, Oxford Castle Quarter, Oxford, OX1 1AY
Tel: 01865 247217

Opening times: Mon and Tues 8.30am-11pm; Wed, Thurs & Fri 8.30am-midnight; Sat 9am-midnight; Sun 10am-10pm
Parking: No, but the park-and-ride bus stops outside
Key personnel: Chris Mulhall, friend Laurence Howlin and daughter Jane. Resident chef Paul Bellchambers, wine expert Alistair Cooper.
Make sure you try the... food. It’s easy to get carried away with the wine and forget to eat at all. Or maybe that’s just me…..
In ten words: Just what Oxford needs, a welcome addition to city life.