The Oxford Retreat

What a fall from grace. This used to be one of the best kept secrets for food in Oxford, now it’s probably one of those places to avoid.

Hard to know where to start to be honest. Warning alarms should have sounded when we managed to book a table for 6, 24 hours before our visit. A year or two ago you would have had no chance, and I recall being told that they were so busy they were booking for two sittings. This no longer seems to be the case for the once busy Saturday night slot. When we arrived, we were ignored for a good five minutes by at least 3 staff members who walked past us whilst we were clearly waiting to be seated. What followed was also odd. The member of staff who finally sat us down, first of all asked us if we wanted a table for three, then, when we told him we had booked for a party of 6 he said “oh. Well sit here then.” – no checking names, no handing out of specials menu etc – just plonked on the table and that was that.

The service that followed went from the rude to the bizarre:

Waiter: “Do you want me to bring the starters out with the mains?”

Me: “No”

Waiter: “Ok, shall I bring this starter out after the main?”

Me: “What?”

Waiter: “Ok, so before. Ok.”

Me: “Does the lamb shank come with any mint based sauce?”

Waiter: “What? No, it’s just what’s written on there”

It was an odd exchange to say the least. When someone in our party ordered the Steak and Ale pie, he was rather bluntly told “it’s run out”. This was despite it only being 7:30pm and it being on the specials menu. And there was no-one in there. We were told they’d all been eaten earlier that day by a big group – would have been nice to have been told this as we were sat down but this was clearly too much to ask. We ordered some spring rolls to nibble on as a starter which, to be fair, were tasty. Couldn’t help but feel they were rather misplaced on the menu though.

Anyway, onto the menu. Previously The Oxford Retreat managed to blend pub classics with interesting, ever changing individual dishes but it appears as though they are now just sticking to those pub classics, fish and chips, burgers, risotto etc. A bit of a shame but not too much of a problem if they are done well. I opted for a lamb shank which was on the specials menu (pictured above).

It arrived pretty quickly which wasn’t a surprise as the kitchen didn’t have much else to do, and it was pretty tired looking. Fairly tough, dry and tasteless, served on some under seasoned mashed potato and some limp (although not too overcooked) green beans. Don’t forget the lumpy gravy. It’s quite a skill to get a lamb shank to taste of absolutely nothing but somehow they’d managed it – impressive.

Other dishes eaten in our party were a Cajun chicken burger which I was informed tasted very nice, a Cumberland sausage and mashed potato dish which hit the spot (but it’s not rocket science is it) and an interesting fish dish of haddock fillets served on potato and herb croquets with a mustard sauce. This was the most successful dish of the night but was on the small side and was over salty.

Service throughout was flappy – we had to call attention a number of times for drinks and our bill, and dishes were chucked down and collected clumsily across us mid conversation. The general look of the eating area is great – low light (eventually after they dimmed the spotlight over my head) and rustic tables, candles and characteristic wood features throughout – but the music policy was way off the mark. Taking it in turns to choose music from behind the bar, the staff were blasting out dancefloor RnB and baseline house so loud, we had to shout to hear each-other. It was truly awful, and completely inappropriate for the venue. It says it all when we felt relief that they decided to turn it down a bit and stick on a Justin Timberlake album. Yeah. You heard me. We were happy to hear a Justin Timberlake album. General ambience wasn’t improved by the presence of a rowdy stag group who decided to shout and throw chips over each-other for most of the evening, in plane view of who appeared to be the manager, or at least the guy in charge for the night, who didn’t bat an eyelid throughout. One of our party also saw this same management looking guy in the toilets during the evening – he didn’t wash his hands then went back out and served a small table of women their deserts. Nice.

Onto deserts and it was again, all pretty standard. The tired looking apple pie tasted like any other you’ve tried and when the vanilla ice cream, meringue and mango culis arrived it was absolutely hilariously worked into the shape of a swan (or a pelican) with a sprig of mint tagged into it’s arse (pictured below). Like something from a kids menu, we couldn’t help but laugh – but I’m told it tasted ok.

This used to be a great place to eat, with great staff, a great menu and a relaxed ambience. Maybe there has been a change in management since my last visit a year or so ago or change in policy – but it couldn’t be more different now. The food wasn’t terrible, but it was hugely average and the Oxford Retreat is no longer on my list of places I’d recommend. If you’re in the area and hungry, do yourself a favour and walk 50 yards down the road to SOJO, you won’t be disappointed.

Cost – Pretty reasonable. About £20 a head for two courses and wine

Where – 1-2 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford, OX1 2EW

Web – http://www.theoxfordretreat.com

Hilarious swan meringue desert

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