WHEN I was first old enough to go drinking in Oxford (and even a little bit before), the Red Lion was a very different animal to what it is today - it was The Goose.

In fact, it had been the Red Lion before that, and the building dates back to the early 20th century when it replaced an even earlier Red Lion on the same site.

It later became the Oxford Bakery and Brewhouse, the Fuggle and Firkin in 1995 and then The Goose five years later.

Oxford Mail:

During those years it was not a nice pub, and my colleague on the Oxford Times Christopher Gray recalls one night he walked in and had to step over two men fighting on the floor just to get to the bar.

The ugly gosling finally returned to being a Red Lion in 2008 under pub giants Mitchells & Butlers, but was still a pretty standard boozer and never won any great plaudits.

That might be about the change.

As the Oxford Mail’s special deputation crossed the threshold for our special sneak preview two weeks ago, those of us who knew the old rusty cat nearly fell back out the door.

Oxford Mail:

Swathed in shiny gold fittings, marble tiling and velvety fabrics, the new Lion has more in common with The Ivy than its last incarnation.

One of Mitchells & Butlers’ Premium Country Pubs, a member of staff later explains to us in great detail that this revamp brings the Lion into the chain’s new Mandarin High Energy range (like a tangerine on steroids?) - a makeover being rolled out across the country, including at The Trout at Wolvercote.

As smartly-dressed waiters bustle attentively, our hostess escorts us over to the make-your-own G&T bar they've laid on for us, piled high with fruit and fragrant herbs.

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After concocting ourselves a massive goblet each (or in some cases two), we are asked if we would like to take our seats for dinner.

A new guide now escorts us through the bar, up a small flight of stairs into a dining room, then up another flight of stairs, round a corner, more stairs and into our own private chamber.

With a sort-of rainforest theme and a large TV on the wall for business lunch presentations, this room is as richly decorated as the rest, including a large tropical mural of a tiger on the wall.

The new Lion’s menu boasts an eclectic and international set of dishes (including freshly-shucked oysters on certain days) divided into nebulous categories including ‘salads and healthy mains’, ‘iconic sharers’ and ‘burgers and comfort food classics’.

The effect of these slightly disorientating headings is that we were all forced to focus on each dish to work out whether it might be for us and, if so, whether it was a starter or a main.

In the end we started off with seven entrees from around the globe.

Oxford Mail:

I chose a sashimi-grade tuna tartare (£7.95) which arrived in a beautiful and colourful pile with slices of stripey beetroot, emerald avocado and delicious, sweet pickled watermelon.

Sadly, though the tuna was silky, there was far too much vegetable packing. It also wanted twice as much of the chilli, lime, soy and mirin dressing.

Oxford Mail:

Sticking in Japan, the tempura squid (£6.95) was a much greater success and the pork belly bao bun (£6.95) also delicious, chewy, sweet and sticky.

Moving onto the mains I’d wanted to try as much as possible so I ordered three small dishes - seared wild Atlantic scallops with lobster and crab bonbons and a pea and truffle oil veloute (£11.95), tempura oyster mushrooms with a soy, lime and ginger dipping sauce (£6.95) and panko-crusted fried brie with a sloe gin chutney (£5.95) - yes, I know - dishes not likely to go together particularly well.

Oxford Mail:

The scallops were cooked well but the bonbons a bit much; the brie and chutney was very moreish, but the mushroom batter too oily.

The star of the night was the fillet steak - and at £26.95 for a 7oz piece you’d hope so. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth, perfectly cooked, seasoned and flavoured.

Oxford Mail:

The presentation was also good fun - arriving with a pot of triple-cooked (or possible quadruple-cooked) dark brown chips and a silly tiny saucepan of sauce. The ‘signature caramelised onion, Stilton and panko crumb tart’ was probably an unnecessary extra.

The Lion has got hold of some fantastic ingredients but just occasionally, in its zeal to stuff each dish with as many elements as possible, has neglected its stars.

Finally we ordered the ‘icon sharing dessert birdcage’ (£16.95) including a blackcurrant mousse, home-baked chocolate brownie and an upturned ice cream cone on a pile of sweet creamy stuff. The rich and salty brownie won this round.

Oxford Mail:

This isn’t a business run by a chef, it’s part of a chain, so the food is not Le Manoir. It’s also not a pub - or a cocktail bar.

But if you want to go somewhere that’s a cross between all three where you can get a £27 steak in a room with a flat screen TV and a tiger on the wall, then go to the Red Lion. Or The Trout at Wolvercote.