THE warm glow of the early evening sun on the weathered honey-coloured stone of the Bear & Ragged Staff shimmered like a mirage.

After the most miserable of lockdowns, I was finally able to return to one of my favourite good food pubs. Despite blurring into the posh, hilly suburbs of West Oxford, little Cumnor always strikes me as a weirdly remote place – a proper village made of that gorgeous limestone, which feels like an outlier of the Cotswolds. And the Bear & Ragged Staff is its jewel – a pub which manages to be a proper local boozer, family destination and high end gastropub all at once. That’s no mean feat and one at which the overwhelming majority of gastropubs fail miserably.

It accomplishes this through a quirk of its architecture which gives it a convivial, intimate ambience despite being a rather large and rambling place; through its fabulous food, well kept ales and first class wine list; and most importantly, its always wonderful staff.

While I was looking forward to the second, I had forgotten the third – though it didn’t take long before the gently charming manager Adam Vines and the warmest and sparkiest of waiters had helped me overcome my lockdown awkwardness – and installed me on a table on the terrace while I waited for my friend Marc.

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In the midst of a month which has erred on the side of wet, windy and miserable, it was a beautiful night, and even though eating inside is thankfully allowed, it was an evening to savour a rare warm night.

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

The Bear & Ragged Staff made the most of its pretty terrace and garden for that strange period of al fresco dining only, with tables under parasols and heaters and what likes like an open-sided Bedouin dining tent on the lawn for a posh festival-style experience.

Once Marc had arrived, we wasted no time in ordering. Actually, that’s a complete lie. We wasted no time in grabbing menus, but such was the choice there and on the bear-sized specials board, it took us a ridiculous amount of time to choose.

The drinks were easy – a smooth pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord for me – surely the stuff of lockdown pub fantasies – and a crisp, cold, southern European lager of some description for Marc. The ale was everything I’d been craving: lightly hopped and subtly citrus with a creamy head. Perfect. The lager looked like...err, lager, but went down with a satisfied sigh from my equally pub-starved mate, nonetheless.

As our menu game was so rusty we’d picked a few nibbles to be getting on with: little plates of padron peppers sprinkled with sea salt, Halloumi Fries and Dorset Red Post Salami. All were great and flew off the plates – though the halloumi won: soft stretchy cheese (not squeaky!) encased in golden breadcrumbs and served with a tangy Bloody Mary ketchup.

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

Starters were also gorgeous. My Wye Valley asparagus on smoked salmon with a perfect poached egg was hard to beat and just about the loveliest thing to ever grace a plate. The asparagus was tender but with perfect bite and bursting with flavour, the salmon was melt-in-the-mouth tender but also satisfyingly firm, while the poached egg was a gooey triumph, deep orangey-yellow yolk (the mark of a really good free range egg) mixing with a smooth Hollandaise. I could have eaten that and that alone all night and been a very happy chap.

Full marks to new chef Zoltan Fodor – a strapping lad who at 6ft 5ins is himself just a ragged staff short of the pub's titular grizzly.

Marc went for squid. They looked wonderful – not the standard calamari rings but generous slices in a light crumb.

He didn’t let me try any, which is a measure of how good it was, backed up by more suitably satisfied noises.

The main courses had been the hardest to choose, and we resorted to taking our waiter’s advice about his own faves, but my word, did we/he choose well.

My lamb was beautifully presented, stacked on halved new potato and flanked by more spears of asparagus. The meat was was pink, tender and delicious, and the jus delicately tangy. You don’t need to ask about the asparagus.

Recalling that their pies were definitely worth braving a lockdown for, Marc went for a braised beef & ale pie, with buttered mash, greens and gravy.

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

It looked hearty but fine and expertly composed. the light pastry oozed rich gravy once breached, and for a short minute I confess there was some food envy – which lasted as long as it took to cut another slice of that juicy lamb.

By now it was dark, and, a tiny bit bracing, but we didn’t want to leave without at least a small pudding, and the chocolate parfait, an old favourite – and the mark of a chef’s mettle – seemed to fit the bill. Marc went for a small cheese board.

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Again, I won. The parfait was.. well, parfait! Soft and yielding and unleashing a thick volcanic lava of hot, molten chocolate.

The cheese was very good too, came the reports from across the table – particularly a trio revelling in the names Baron Bigod and Blanche (which sounded like a dodgy folk duo to me) – the only criticism being that he should have asked for more.

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

The Bear and Ragged Staff, Cumnor. By Tim Hughes

It was a stellar dinner, and the perfect way to toast the end of (hopefully) the last lockdown.

News this week that the Bear & Ragged Staff and its sister Peach pubs had been named one of the best companies to work for in the country came as absolutely no surprise. The enthusiasm, passion, attentiveness and professional non-intrusive sense of fun from the staff is contagious – and we both came away happier as well as full.

  • The Bear & Ragged Staff is at 28 Appleton Road, Cumnor, Oxfordshire, OX2 9QH
  • Book at bearandraggedstaff.com or call 65 862329