Once a year, my mother, the high priestess of cheese and catering, lets her staff out for a night of debauchery and wildness courtesy of tips earned over the year and kept in the imaginatively named ‘tips hat’.
Following on from our great meal at the Mole last week, Mum had decided she wanted to take her 9 ladies, and me, there for dinner ‘on the hat’ and so we booked a table in advance for the 11 of us. This is where my first gripe with this really very good pub began. They wanted a deposit, naturally enough for a large table, but it is only a pub. A great pub but not really worthy of a deposit and with the current likelihood of snow, we were worried we might not make it. We banished these fears and reserved with our deposit.
They then asked that we choose our meals in advance from the menu, warning us that it would change before our meal but assuring us they would honour our original choices. We were impressed with this ’honouring’ business and so went about the difficult task of compiling the wants of 11 ladies. When we finally had a list, we sent this back to the pub and they advised us that some of our choices had changed and would we confirm these changes. What happened to honouring?! We emailed back explaining this wouldn’t be a problem and reminding them of their earlier promise and received the most evasive response in the history of customer service: ’many thanks for your co-operation’. That is an expression that drives me mad, always said when you don’t wish to co-operate in any way at all but all this aside we were looking forward to our meal and that didn’t let us down at all.
We arrived at half 7 to a large table in their conservatory/extension, covered in candles and wine glasses, it looked cosy and attractive and was surprisingly warm given the amount of plate glass around us. I had drawn the short, or long depending on your age range, straw of sitting on the ’children’s’ end of the table with the Saturday girls and we launched into the first of many strange and wonderful chats about subjects such as new star signs, donkey genetics and walking along coasts.
After about 35 minutes, slightly too long in my opinion as they had our order well in advance, they brought out the starters and they certainly weren’t a disappointment. Several people had gone for the option of a hoi sin duck salad with bean sprouts which was flaky and delicious with the necessary sweetness and crunch. I had chosen a chicken rillette which was replaced with a chicken, ham and pigeon terrine. The terrine was thick and quite salty with large pieces of meat but it was the pairing of the sharp little cornichon and the soft brioche-like toasted bread with the terrine that really made this wow. Others had fishcakes and calamari and all were raved about.
The main courses followed swiftly behind. These were a more varied selection, with slow roasted marsh lamb, sea bass with a bouillebaisse, salmon with honey roasted vegetables and the cod that we’d tried last week. I had chosen venison as it’s rare to see it on a menu. It was served as a steak on cabbage and pancetta and as a cottage pie. It was an absolutely beautiful plate and the little cottage pie looked delightful sitting at an angle to the steak. It almost looked like a crème brulee when I wasn’t paying attention. The steak was delicate and well flavoured, cooked perfectly rare (for me, but some may have been squeamish) and the cabbage was savoury and tasty. The cottage pie was the most delightful idea but the mashed potato topping was a bit glutinous and the pie filling was quite dry. Perhaps an added jug of gravy would have been just the ticket. It was delicious though. The other winner in terms of presentation, and these things are so important, was Emily and Rachel’s sea bass. They came out on a lovely long white plate with the bouillebaisse served in a perfectly miniature Le Creuset pot. I wanted to steal these so badly! Rachel very kindly let me try hers and the soup was thick and stocky and full of huge prawns and mussels. A real winner!
There was much questioning about whether a pudding was needed but it would be a shame to have missed something out of the meal and so we all decided to share a pudding with our neighbours. Rachel and I agreed to try the chocolate pot with orange caramel and walnuts and Maddy and Emily went for sticky toffee pudding with salted peanut praline ice cream. Our chocolate pot was the last to come out and we were expecting a small ramekin of chocolate mousse but this was a huge glass bowl covered in delicious orange pieces and whipped cream with walnuts. It was an ideal combination, the walnuts adding a savoury note stopping it from being too sweet. Maddy and Emily pronounced their pudding delicious and said how peanutty the ice cream was. A good sign.
We wound home to bed agreeing how delicious our suppers had been. It seems a shame that a pub that serves great food would need to be so officious in its admin, not only did it slightly take away from the evening but it also suggests of somewhere with stars in London… A slightly disappointing experience from a place that I know could do a lot better.
The Mole Inn at Toot Baldon, Toot Baldon, Oxford, OX44 9NG. 01865 340 001. http://moleinntootbaldon.co.uk/