Katherine MacAlister reviews new restaurant The Dining Room at The Varsity Club

The Varsity Club has understandably been trading on its views ever since opening its doors in 2014.

Boasting some of the best vistas in Oxford, which really do take your breath away, you can sit on the uber roof terrace and enjoy our fabled dreaming spires, cocktail in hand, to your heart’s content.

It means that the food has always been something of a poor relative - tapas, sharing boards, the occasional pop up - more hors d’oeuvre than sit down dinner.

Until now. Because the advent of new head chef James Wilkinson aims to change all that. Formerly of The White Hart, Fyfield, one of my favourite restaurants in Oxfordshire, he certainly has the credentials.

And not only is he a proper chef, but TVC has converted their third floor into a bona fide Moroccan style dining room to accommodate him.

It’s a hard crowd to cater for though. Young, fancy, sexy and well dressed, people come here for a good time.

Yes it has the best bar location in Oxford, but TVC also boasts several inside bars and a night club floor, tier after tier of bacchanalian pleasure.

Where to slot in a serious restaurant is therefore more complicated than you’d think, the premise being presumably that if you can be all things to all people, and provide somewhere to eat, drink and dance, then your captive audience won’t leave.

Understanding your clientele is a good place to start then, and James’ menu reflects that. It is short, presuming that its customers are fitting in a quick bite to eat before unleashing themselves on the fun factor upstairs or downstairs.

Four starters, five mains and four desserts keeps things simple, if rather stark. As one of the starters is soup, this rather limits things so we went for the sharing board to try a bit of everything.

Served in rather clinical aluminium dishes, the kind found in an operating theatre, it was an interesting mix: some nice juicy prawns in a good Marie Rose sauce, some underdone pittas, a great duck liver parfait with the accompanying apple chutney in a separate little container, some whipped goats curd on its own (why?), and some tasty scotch eggs with the yolks still gooey. The whitebait were lovely, hot and crisp. But how this board of goodies was spliced together was anyone’s guess, and at £16 steep. The fennel bhajis with spiced chickpea and smoked aubergine (£8) were nicer if rather acrid.

But no one cared to be honest, because what came afterwards changed everything.

We opted for the Tomahawk joint with all the trimmings (£40) - aimed at two sharing - and Swiss Family Robinson could have tucked in and still had leftovers for the rest of the week. It was absolutely enormous, like a giant skate on a plate.

Enjoying something of a renaissance, the Tomahawk steak is a cut of beef ribeye that has five or more inches of extra rib bone, which we gnawed on. It’s called a “tomahawk” because the steak with the long bone resembles a single-handed axe, according to wikipedia, although any fool could tell you that just from looking at it.

It was vast though and everyone went quiet for a moment, desperate to tuck in, but slightly fearful of the consequences at the same time. ‘All the trimmings’ included two portions of skin-on fries, Portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, a peppercorn sauce and a side salad. Hail Mary.

Plus, in our greed we had ordered two other mains - the pan roasted salmon fillet with kohlrabi, purple sprouting broccoli, braised hazelnuts (£18), an additional sirloin steak (again with all the trimmings) £20 and a plate of winter squash gnocchi with mushroom and truffle £15. Would we ever walk again?

Luckily it was dark in the riad-style Dining Room which hid my blushes as the food arrived, exacting gasps despite our preconceptions. A feast indeed.

The sirloin looked measily in comparison, but was actually perfectly ample and cooked just right, exactly as the good doctor ordered.

The gnocchi were rather gloopy however, although the dainty dish of salmon fared better; being nicely cooked and delicately plated.

But the piece de resistance was certainly the tomahawk. A bit chewy - our jaws ached the next day- we ploughed on, utterly committed, like starving coyotes in the Grand Canyon, until only the bare bones were left.

We actually laughed when asked if we wanted dessert or cheese, although the ‘slice of tart’ entry was a bit too casual for my liking.

But then I’m not the target audience am I? I didn’t go dancing afterwards but sloped off to lie down on the sofa and wait until I’d digested my own body weight in meat.

For those who want to enjoy the roof terrace and then have a bite to eat, or dine out before hitting the dance floor, with a bit of fine tuning The Dining Room could well become the place to go.

The Dining Room,

3rd floor,

The Varsity Club,