Looking upwards as you walk down Beaumont Street is, if you ask me, one of life’s greatest pleasures.
I have it on good authority, from many distinguished scientists, that it’s physiologically impossible not to appreciate humankind’s achievements whilst taking in this road’s achingly beautiful Georgian architecture. All of Beaumont Street’s 320 metres are gorgeous, of course, but it’s the astonishingly attractive Ashmolean Museum that provides its aesthetic pinnacle.
Given the beauty of the building itself and the eminence of its contents, attempting to predict the quality of the Ashmolean’s in-house restaurant stumped me a little; on one hand, this is a world-famous and world-class museum that deserves catering options to match, but on the other, such a tourist-enticing destination as this does not desperately need to rely on repeat custom to do good business.
I’ve mentioned how the Ashmolean looks from the outside, but as you reach the top floor and step into the rooftop restaurant, the rest of Oxford itself looks equally good from within. If you can take your eyes off the view and cast them into the dining room, the décor is as tasteful and considered as you might expect: bright, airy, and uncluttered, with lots of bare wood – from the floor to the tables and chairs. The outdoor terrace (where the weather wasn’t kind enough to sit on my visit) is equally handsome, in that smart, restrained sort of way.
The menu here is thoroughly modern, with some enticing ingredient choices that push the envelope a little further than you might expect, but without straying into the realm of the truly unfamiliar. There is a clear Italian influence – bresaola carpaccio, octopus with crostini, crab and nduja linguine, and risotto all appear – but the offerings are not one-dimensional, with forays into various European cuisines represented across the board.
The aforementioned bresaola is a highlight – the gloriously cured beef comes with a subtle horseradish cream and the umami kick of parmesan. The octopus dish is adorned with a fabulous marrying of harissa and aioli. There is a lemongrass-laced smoked haddock fishcake. A ‘simple ingredients, done well’ ethos is rarely an ineffective one.
Of the sweet dishes, the best is a similarly Italian-informed one: an exemplary panna cotta, stiffened with Cointreau and finished with bitter dark chocolate. An injection of Oxonian personality is lent to the restaurant by way of its suggestion of an aperitif: a cucumber and rosemary gin and tonic, made with the museum’s own Ashmolean Dry Gin. This herbaceous, floral spirit is distilled two miles east at The Oxford Artisan Distillery – very nice it is too.
Living up to the reputation of one of the world’s most distinguished and important museums is a tall order – and the team here have got the formula exactly right. Whilst the food breaks no boundaries, the Rooftop Restaurant is well worth a visit as a local – and for an institution so duty-bound to the tourist dollar, that is an achievement in itself