Christopher Gray finds lots to praise at the ‘foodiest’ pub of the four in Wolvercote

For a village of its size, Wolvercote is well supplied with pubs. If you include The Trout, which is really in Godstow, there are four, all of them excellent in their different ways. The White Hart is now community owned and, as such, a centre of local life. Buzzing with regulars, too, is The Plough, on Wolvercote Green, outside which, as I pedalled past last Sunday morning, I noticed preparations being made for what was clearly going to be a jolly fete.

My exercise in the saddle was perhaps advisable in the light of the substantial, and altogether delicious, dinner I had enjoyed the night before in the fourth — and most distinguished in foodie terms — of the Wolvercote pubs.

This is Jacobs Inn, as it became this time last year after the takeover by business partners Johnny Pugsley and Damion Farah, the owners of the hugely popular Jacob’s & Field grocers and coffee shop in Headington. They also own Jacob’s Chop House, likewise in Headington, which I reviewed warmly here in March.

The handsome stone-built pub had been known for generations as The Red Lion. The gold letters that once spelled out the name are now positioned above the chicken house, which — along with the two pigs resident farther down the garden — is one of the more unusual features of the place. When they talk of ‘local’ food here, they really mean it.

The garden has been the happy haunt of crowds throughout the summer. They relax on deckchairs with their drinks or sit more formally at tables to eat, with an outdoor kitchen supplying the snackier stuff. By night, it becomes a truly magical space, with fairy lights glittering among the trees.

Damion and Johnny showed shrewdness in the top-flight team they recruited to run the show. Both the general manager, Luke Champion, and the restaurant manager, Diamond Love, are well known to Rosemarie and me. Luke often looked after us at The Hollybush in Witney, which is owned by his dad John, and Di was for years a well-liked manager at Quod in Oxford’s High Street.

As for the chef Richard Burkert, he is a truly a prize catch. He has cooked superb meals for me on a number of occasions. I cannot do better than quote what I said of him in a review nine years ago at The Sir Charles Napier at Chinnor. I wrote: “His skills, honed with Sonya Kidney at the (much-missed) Marsh Goose in Moreton-in-Marsh, have allowed [the restaurant] to maintain its impressive record for consistent performance — it has been in the Good Food Guide without interruption for 24 years.”

It surely cannot be long — indeed it has possibly already happened — before inspectors come calling at Jacobs Inn. They will find plenty to praise. While Richard’s menu is not large, it is distinctly appealing. Mentioning some of the things we didn’t have, there are, for instance, starters of peach and plum tomato salad with mozzarella, mussel and chorizo chowder, and quail ballotine (all of which can also be main course dishes). Mains proper include crab and tiger prawn linguine, Cotswold lamb rump and roast confit Gressingham duck. Among “Sweet Things” there are glazed lemon tart and vanilla cheese cake. There are also specials: Saturday’s included smoked applewood cheese salad, Thai curried mussels and fillet of local longhorn beef.

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Left, White bean and shaved truffle soup. Right, Rosemarie's crab starter

The last had proved so popular — even at a price of £24.50 — that supplies were exhausted by the time Di Love came to take our order. Though this wasn’t a problem for us, I was disappointed — having decided on the, for me, rare treat of pastry — that the chicken, tarragon and mushroom pie was sold out, too. Such is the consequence of dining out on the busiest night of the week.

We started the evening in the shabby chic of the bar, enjoying glasses of the South African Eagle’s Cliff chenin blanc which, because it was so enjoyable and of modest price (£16.50), remained our wine throughout the meal.

We were seated for this in a spacious corner of the conservatory restaurant at a table charmingly decorated with Michaelmas daisies. An old ketchup bottle served as the vase. Recycling is big, here: an empty olive tin was our ice bucket; candles were in large jam jars, butter in much smaller ones.

First up foodwise for me was white bean and shaved truffle soup, one of the specials. Special it certainly was, the beans blended into a creamy purée with, I thought, a gentle tang of cumin, and the truffle shavings in oil making their heavenly contribution. Chopped chives added interest, too. There was admirable home-baked bread, a further supply of which we ordered to accompany Rosemarie’s starter. This was a round base of Portland crab — principally, if not entirely, white claw meat — with a topping of zingingly fresh puréed avocado and a surround of spiced tomatoes. We both agreed (I was offered a taste) that it was a very fine creation.

Instead of chicken pie, I had pan-roasted organic salmon, which was a lot better for me, the lavish dollop of hollandaise sauce apart. The portion of fish was of generous size and perfectly cooked. Quartered new potatoes and spinach were also on the plate.

Rosemarie went for the ground steak burger and chips, which featured a chunk of delicious unadorned meat, cooked medium, with a topping of melted cheddar and crispy bacon pieces, and the usual accompaniments of tomato, gherkin and lettuce.

She finished on chocolate fondant with candied pistachio puffs and double chocolate ice cream. I had Linconshire Poacher cheese — cheddar-like but with something of the texture and sweetness of Comté — with biscuits and a super home-made plum and cinnamon chutney.

Jacobs Inn
130 Godstow Road, Wolvercote
01865 514333

Opening times: Bar: 9am to midnight. Breakfast, from 9am. Lunch and dinner: noon till 10pm
Parking: Car park and on village streets.
Key personnel: Owners Damion Farah and Johnny Pugsley, general manager Luke Champion, restaurant manager Diamond Love.
Make sure you try the... white bean and shaved truffle soup (£7), Portland crab with avocado and spiced tomato (£8), organic salmon with new potatoes and spinach (£15), ground steak burger (£12.95), Lincolnshire poacher cheese with biscuits and chutney (£6.50) and chocolate fondant (£7.50. Range of real ales including Ringwood’s True Glory, Ringwood’s Best Bitter and Brakspear Bitter (all £3.90).
In ten words: Perfect setting for real food, real ales and real people.