WHEN Katie told me the news, my heart sank.

“Have you heard?” She asked me, “The Punter has gone entirely vegan and vegetarian now!”

“Oh no,” I sighed.

I instantly thought of the fantastic tuna and wasabi burger that I loved there, and the other delicious fish and meat dishes I had enjoyed over the years.

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It made me so sad to think of all that great food thrown by the wayside for the sake of jumping on the veggie bandwagon.

“I was going to ask if you wanted to try it out,” Katie said.

“No, I don’t,” I said grumpily.

When we arrived in the glorious late sunshine on Sunday evening, there seemed to be another bad omen - the riverbank outside the pub was absolutely heaving with people enjoying their drinks in the sunshine.

Oxford Mail:

Punter owner Tom Rainey brandishing his new secret weapons.

I’m not worried about the virus - I just dislike people.

However I needn’t have worried: the Punter is operating a very strict distancing policy which meant that the inside was completely empty, and the garden was very sparsely populated.

As a bonus quirk, they are also currently operating a one-way system, which meant that, after we got our drinks at the bar, our waitress escorted us out the back door, past the bins, and thence into the garden.

Sat at the perfect table in the garden, under the trelace with its sprawling grape vines, in the extraordinarily balmy heat, it suddenly felt like we were in the south of France, and all seemed right with the world.

But what about this rabbit food?

The very first item on the menu instantly set my mind at ease: a twice-baked Sussex Charmer cheese souffle with spinach in a mustard cream sauce (£8).

I was sold, sight unseen, though I was also tempted by the king oyster and chestnut mushrooms on toast and the grilled peaches with labneh and fried capers - though luckily Katie went for that - and those were just the starters.

Oxford Mail:

The Sussex Charmer cheese souffle with spinach in a mustard cream sauce.

Among the extremely tempting main course options were an almond, chickpea and courgette burger with rosemary fries (I actually found myself saying out loud ‘oh they do have burgers’, as if it was news to me that you can get vegetarian burgers) and goats cheese arancini.

However I was unable to resist the beetroot, fennel and dill burger in a brioche bun with apple and kohlrabi slaw and rosemary fries (£14).

Lucky for me again, Katie ordered my second choice - crispy chilli tofu stir fry with miso, udon noodles, kimchi and a poached egg (£14).

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The souffle was instant gratification: the sauce rich and creamy and silky; the souffle itself had a slightly cake-like texture, the spinach was juicy, and everything was really, really rich and salty - I mean, in a good way, but I do love salt.

I said to Katie: “I wonder if that’s the secret to really good vegetarian cooking, that you just put loads of salt in - you know, because meat is really salty.”

“Hmm, maybe,” she said.

I also tried some of her grilled peach salad with labneh Greek yoghurt and it wasn’t salty at all - it was fresh, full of flavour, fragrant and lots of other things beginning with f.

Oxford Mail:

My burger, when it came, was an absolute work of art: a vibrant pink patty on a bed of lively green leaves in a jet-black brioche bun with toasted sesame seeds, and a pile of golden-brown fries with green sprigs of rosemary.

But when I bit into it, the thing was perfect: a really meaty burger in a soft and springy bun, and hidden inside was this juicy, fruity apple slaw.

It was one of the best burgers I’ve had.

Katie’s udon were, if possible, even better - silky noodles with long, slippery ribbons of what looked like carrot (I think this was the kimchi?), and the sauce was properly spicy - a great, fresh heat that comes from freshly-chopped red chillies that was just the right side of being too hot - and then the tofu was properly meaty - it tasted like sausage.

Oxford Mail:

When someone says ‘vegetarian restaurant’ to me, it conjures images of huge bowls of under-seasoned salads and vegetables and unimaginative dishes by worthy and dull restaurateurs who are more interested in boasting about their ethical and environmental credentials than making good food - the ultimate humble brag of the culinary world.

Clearly, Punter chef Max Cooper never got the memo: no one ever told him how boring vegetarian food is supposed to be, so he’s just used his genius to devise an absolutely delicious menu.

I’m still going to miss the tuna burger, but they’ve come up with some damn impressive replacements.

In fact, I’ve never been more happy to be proved wrong.