Christopher Gray samples what’s on offer at Marco Pierre’s pub near Banbury

The famously forthright. Marco Pierre White — who remains a celebrity chef though his cheffing days are long behind him — is on spirited, controversial form when we meet over lunch at the Black Boy, the pub he owns in Milton, near Banbury. Or perhaps I should say over part of lunch, his attention being necessarily divided between his media guests and a group of gum-booted, tweed-clad mates with whom he had just enjoyed a morning’s shooting. He was pleased to have contributed a woodcock to the bag and was informative on the subject of how he would be preparing this gastronomic treat (for himself) in due course.

The conversational menu presented to us also contains much to delight. There are indiscrete comments concerning the private life — these days rather less private — of Nigella Lawson, and advice that we should view the hilarious faked YouTube footage in which she can be found instructing on the perfect preparation of a joint (not the edible sort). There is gloating over the humbling of once mighty Manchester United (Marco is an Arsenal fan) and the surprising revelation of a kind heart over amateur Masterchef contestants: “I just feel sorry for them.”

Indeed, he tells us, he is these days detecting a gentler side to such television programmes involving the public: “Reality has slowed down. It is not a train crash like it used to be.” (With him as the miscreant signalman, one is inclined to think.) His interest in TV is reflected in the attention he pays to the comments of Christine Wallace, a Great British Bake Off contestant from Didcot (“We all, without exception, had some disaster.”) She is there to interview Marco for BBC Radio Oxford but it seems, over lunch, that he is more intent on interviewing her.

Principally, though, we are treated to observations concerning food and these specifically related to what is on offer at the Black Boy and other of his spreading estate of Wheeler’s of St James’s pubs.

“The future of dining is casual,” he says, summing up his views in a sentence. “If you are being really honest, you have to admit that many people don’t want a full-blown three-course dinner. Or, at least if they do, they should go to the Manoir, go to see Raymond [where Marco worked early in his steady ascent to three-Michelin-starred fame]. He will feed you like nobody else. When I have had a busy day, though, what I really want is a steak or some fish, hot sourdough bread and butter, and a good salad. That’s enough for me.”

The more acute of my readers (oh, come on, that’s the lot of you) will probably have guessed that what we are building towards here is the revelation of another starter-free restaurant, hot-on-the-heels of Oxford’s Cleaver, which I described in my last review.

Since then, I have canvassed opinions on the subject, and find most think it a sound plan. How many people bother with a starter at home? And in restaurants, as one friend put it, a starter just seems designed to occupy the time needed to cook the main course.

Marco is honest enough to admit that dispensing with a first course, and simplifying the menu at other stages lead to a substantial cut in staff costs. But this has an up-side in more competitive pricing.

He is proud — justifiably so — that the Black Boy’s new menu means that a meal for two, with glasses of wine and a simple pudding, is possible for under £50, with bread and salad included in the main course price.

It is a moot point, in fact, whether the Black Boy’s offering really is starter-free when the nature of the excellent salads is considered. We tried no fewer than four at our Friday lunch. They are typical of the range that will be offered individually on a changing daily basis, or in greater variety to larger groups of diners.

My favourite was the warm blend of lentils and chunks of smoked pancetta in French dressing. But the others are pretty damn good, too, including the beetroot with celery hearts and walnuts (dressed with walnut and merlot vinegar), the salad lyonnaise with dandelions, eggs and sherry dressing  and red and white chicory with raisins and walnuts.

As for main courses, this was really a no-brainer. With the steaks supplied by the Queen’s butcher Donald Russell, this was the choice for every member of our party.

The question was, which cut? I plumped, as I generally do, for sirloin (£19.50), cooked medium, and was pleased to have my good taste confirmed when Marco expressed his preference for this one too.

As supplied by Russell, the 10oz beauty is ‘special trim’ – the top butcher’s cut, with just the right amount of fat for a flavour and more meat for your money. So much more in fact, that I took a chunk home for an otherwise engaged Rosemarie.

Its tenderness was matched, indeed was exceeded, only by the 8oz fillet (£25.50), an example of which was being eaten to my right. Its owner generously offered a slice. My knife passed through it as if it were butter. Other steaks are 10oz ribeye (£18.95), 16oz T-bone (£24.50) and 10oz rump (£17.50). Meatwise you can also pick from half a chicken (£13.50), 8oz Dutch veal steak (£17.95) and a 10oz Barbary duck breast, while fish fans can have 8oz fillet of organic salmon (£15.50), a 10oz swordfish steak (£18.50) and grilled Dover sole (market price) for which 24 hours’ notice is required. I strongly approve, incidentally, of all those weights being given. So good to know exactly what you are in for.

All selections come with roast vine tomatoes, excellent chips and a little pot of delicious bèarnaise sauce. We also tried some of the side orders: perfect crispy onion rings, buttered peas and grilled mushrooms, all £2.50.

Some of the party tried the frozen limoncello and the honeycomb ice cream with hazelnuts from the limited range of sorbets and ice creams, all £3.95.

I had the whole Camembert with artisan biscuits and grapes, which of course was ludicrously too much just for me and was shared with the rest of the table. I drank a gutsy Western Australian pinot noir (Mad Fish, Grandstand, £6.30 a glass). In all, this was a truly excellent meal, for which I heartily thanked Marco, his delightful daughter Letty who had helped serve it, and the keen-as-mustard chef Andy Bennett, who had cooked it (with the Black Boy’s head chef Peter Phelan). Andy, still only 25, has been with Marco for eight years, rising in that time from dishwasher to Executive Chef Director of his Wheeler’s Group. He could not ask, he said, for a better boss.

The Black Boy Inn
Milton, near Banbury, OX15 4HH
01295 722111 or

Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday all day. Food served from noon-2.30pm, 5.30-9pm. Sunday noon-4pm, 6-9pm.
Parking: There’s a car park facing the pub.
Key personnel: Executive Chef Director Andrew Bennett and general manager Duncan De Jager. Head chef Peter Phelan
Make sure you try the... Donald Russell steaks, all offered at all-in prices (£17.50-£25.50) with salad, hot sourdough bread and butter, and accompaniments of roast tomatoes, pommes frite and bearnaise sauce. Sunday lunch of roast venison, pork and chicken (£14.50).
In ten words: Simple fare expertly done in a quirky, well-run country pub.