THERE is no doubt about it, the last year-and-a-half has been uniformly awful, dreadful... hideous.

But while we may prefer to whisper rather than shout it, there have been some some small positives to have emerged from the nightmare.

Who isn’t nostalgic for the empty roads, the sound of birdsong, the chance to reconnect with nature and the land? We’ve had life laundries – ditching clutter we no longer need, clothes we’ll never wear again, books we’ll never get round to listening and acquaintances we’ll be just fine without seeing.

A similar process has taken place on the high street. While we have lost some much-loved treasures, many were on the way out anyway – their demise hastened by the pandemic. And if there is a positive, it is the cleansing of our streets of all those boring, unsustainable branches of bloated chains. Like Cafe Rouge.

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Cafe Rouge was the worst example of bland, corporate expansion: food for the unimaginative; for people who don’t really like food.

Oxford’s branch passed away last July – one of many similar identikit, off-the-peg, faux-authentic eateries which, for too long have dominated our towns and cities with their samey decor and lacklustre menus.

Of course we shed a tear for the staff, but not for its bland fare – pitched at those who cling to the familiar.

Go down to its Little Clarendon Street premises now though and you are in for a surprise. A delightful, life-affirming, heart-raising surprise, for something beautiful has popped up in its place – a precious wildflower blossoming from the drabness: Wilding.

The analogy is apt, for Wilding takes its name, and is inspired by, the practice of regenerating overworked land to return it to nature.

It may be in the heart of Oxford, but it’s a rustic-feeling spot – gorgeous dark wood and bright tiles – with a mission of cooking creative, unpretentious food with two exciting and engaging twists. Firstly, a dedication to local organic produce – foraged or sourced form small producers. And secondly, a passion for wine – with an epic 400-strong wine list selected by founder and connoisseur Kent Barker and his Head of Wine Sarah Helliwell.

Diners are encouraged to be adventurous in their ordering, with 50 wines available by the glass and 10 on tap.

That fascination with the grape is apparent as soon as you step inside its intimate, but deceptively spacious, premises – for the first thing that strikes you is its wall of wine. And the issue of which one to go for was the opening question by the first of our fun and vivacious waiters – a thoroughly charming bloke recently back from running hotels in Thailand.

We took a steer and went for an intensely aromatic, rich, ripe fruity Mendoza Cabernet Franc. Powerful and impressive but smooth, the beefy Argentinian was the perfect thing to wash down my companion’s starter of grilled asparagus and hogweed salsa (£6) – firm, flavoursome and perfectly cooked – less so my seared scallops (£9). But what a plate! Plump and juicy with, thankfully, just the slightest of ‘searings’ they came topped with a tangy lemon butter sauce alongside crisp salty samphire for a taste of the sea and fragrant vividly bright white garlic flowers, which transformed the whole ensemble into a work of art.

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The menu is not as ‘wild’ as one might expect – with burgers, pizzas and steaks alongside ever changing ‘market’ fish and ‘butchers cut’ meat specials – but it is in the detail that Wilding excels. We shared steak – an extraordinarily tender rib eye and hunk of rotisserie chicken (£18). Both were fabulous. The steak melt-in-the-mouth tender, and the chicken sweet, soft, juicy and stuffed with vividly green herbs.

They also went well with another bottle of that Cabernet Franc. Our knowledgeable new Hungarian waitress nodded with approval.

We ordered sides (£4 each) of skin on fries and, best of all, as improbable as it might seem, a divine bowl of courgette and Berkswell cheese fritters. They were fabulous and fun; a symphony in texture and taste and a meal in themselves.

We finished with a rich, comforting tiramisu and, in the interests of research, a generous wedge of custard tart with Nettlebed Creamery mascarpone (both £6). Nettlebed should be proud – it was a perfect combination of beauty and taste – with an interesting story to its name – exactly like Wilding itself.

Welcome Wilding! Let’s hope this quirky bolthole is here to stay. It’s wildly fun.

* 11-12 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford. Call : 01865 985 630 or see wilding.wine/locations/oxford