The south Oxfordshire countryside is an intoxicating place. I used to live right on the Thames with my mum in a little village called Clifton Hampden. Summers there seemed extra hazy and bountiful and so quaintly, quintessentially English that sometimes you just had to laugh. If I knew more English poetry or literature or classical music I’d quote some at you now. Suffice it to say the whole place feels like the chorus of a folk song.
Not far from there are the Baldons – Marsh and Toot – and the bucolic thread holds fast. It’d been years since I’d worked my way past Nuneham Courtenay to this neck of the woods, and more than a little nostalgia wafted up my spine as we meandered our way to The Mole Inn.
I’ve reviewed many, many pub/restaurants in these pages and the formula is as well-trodden as the Thames path. ‘Modern British with a twist’ is about as original as a firework on Guy Fawkes Night, but that’s not to say it’s bankrupt. The problem is that it’s used to hide dodgy cooking with the pretention of someone reinventing the wheel and selling it back to you at a 300% mark-up. If you get a better wheel then great – give me all the deconstructed apple crumbles you can muster. Give me apple snow and custard foam – if it works, it works. It’s just that usually, it pains me to report, the emperor is starkers and I’d have preferred if you’d just given me crumble and custard.
My point is that originality doesn’t make things taste better. The only thing that will is skill and care, and I’m overjoyed to report that the Mole team laced every mouthful I had that evening with more genuine, heart-warming, grin-inducing, gratifying culinary care than my little heart could take.
Salad arrives first, bursting with shards of crispy duck and little chunks of pork that oozed with slow-cooked fattiness. A little descant of five spice, honey and heat percolated the plate. Bean sprouts jump forward with a cooling crunch, while peanuts crumble through each mouthful. A herby, sesame backdrop makes the dish faintly addictive. Across from me, proper homemade aioli (you can tell just by looking at it) infused with a brightening twist of lime sits under a very well made fishcake. It has the colour that you might find if you look up ‘cook until golden brown’ in a dictionary, and has a texture gradient from brittle panko to steamy smooth interior.
Fillet of sea trout surrenders to the fork wonderfully, with its crispy skin contrasting texturally and visually with the intensely green pea velouté. It all bursts with the garden and the sea, especially with the dollop of Salcombe crab that would be extraneous were it not so delicious. In front of me is guinea fowl with mash. It’s simple, but executed without fault. A little mound of shredded ham hock bridges the gap between the salty, meaty jus and the rather more delicate flavour of the bird. It’s triumphant in its punchy modesty. Crucially, it’s not trying to be cleverer than it is – it just delivers.
Some might think The Mole Inn a tad on the expensive side, and I suppose it is. But expensive compared to what? Wetherspoons? Hovering at about £90 for two people for three courses (we shared a fabulous, palate-cleansing bowl of sorbet at the end that they make in-house) is exactly how much I expect to pay for food like this. Nothing came out of a packet and there were no cheap frills to distract from suspect ingredients. It was deliberate, handmade and beautiful from start to finish.
The challenge for any gastropub is balance. If the ‘gastro’ bit is tacked on to a room full of screens and Carling, you won’t go there for Valentine’s Day. If the ‘pub’ bit is a couple of stools in the corner of a softly lit restaurant floor, you won’t go there for an after-work drink. The Mole seems to have found itself very comfortably between the two. Plenty of people were there just for a pint, and the restaurant was full all evening. This is a gastropub worthy of the name.