The Iffley Road in Oxford is a long road stretching out like an artery to the East of Oxford, over to the industrial sprawl of the once famous Morris car plant, once responsible for BMW and now Minis. I always remember my old headmistress beginning a new term by describing as Minis fresh off the Cowley production line and ready for the open road, although she once threw a spoon off the school stage to make a point about something so her theories could, and probably should, be taken with a pinch of salt. Iffley Road’s greatest, and I hope most longlasting, claim to fame is that it provided the scene for Roger Bannister’s record 4 minute mile. There’s even a road named after him that curves around the sports fields, once taking us to our fate at the badminton courts on the water meadows. It’s a prestigious road but it doesn’t really look it. Look around and you wouldn’t think of it as somewhere history had been made, there are some beautiful buildings but there’s also very little exciting happening. It’s not where you’d expect to find what seem believe to be Oxford’s best restaurant, The Magdalen Arms. But there it stands, on the night we went in the pouring rain, like a great cosy hulk promising log fires, good ales and great food. They’re certainly not exaggerating.
The Magdalen Arms reopened as a (whisper it) gastropub of sorts, under the careful guidance of Florence Fowler and Tony Abaro of London’s Anchor & Hope. What was once a grotty and forgotten pub has been lauded by critics such as Matthew Norman and, the critical demi-god, AA Gill. I have always read and loved AA Gill’s reviews, as little about food as they are, and it’s a review that’s stayed with me. He just seemed to have such a jolly good time, and avid readers of the Sunday Times Style pages will know that he doesn’t have that jolly a time often. I rarely get down to Oxford, certainly not as much as I would like, so it’s been a visit a long time coming. In the meantime, I’ve heard mixed things, mostly people jumping and down with over excitement but the odd shrug off as pretentious and above it’s station. I was expecting a lot, and not all good or bad. Then a couple of weeks ago, my mother and the ladies she works with went for a meal and my mother, who knows good food and suffers no fools, could not stop waxing lyrical about her meal. By the time she’d mentioned it for the third time in one phone call, I knew it was somewhere I would have to go for myself to finally see what AA and the foodies of Oxford had got so worked up over.
What I discovered surprised me. It’s a large and rangy room, half pub, half restaurant but so utterly warm and cosy. A little like a parlour but the red walls feel snuggly, rather than enclosing, and the tables are nice and big. No having to move candles for chips, one of my pet hates. The service has also come with mixed reviews, described by the bellowing tones of TripAdvisor diners as disinterested and surly. Our waiter could not have been further from this. He dealt with a frankly exhausting interrogation about the done-ness of beef from my mother with absolute grace. A grace I might not have managed, this may be why I am no longer a waitress. We were sat in a cosy corner and handed menus, my mother nearly beside herself with excitement at this point. Mum ordered a white wine and I had the Rhubarb and Prosecco fizz mentioned at the top of the menu. It was absolutely delicious, possibly more of a pudding drink, but I’m not an alcohol purist so I was in heaven. We pondered the menu and there’s a great choice available. I would say that vegetarians may find themselves slightly less brilliantly catered for but, and please don’t think me rude, I’m such an incredible carnivore I didn’t really stop to consider them! The Spanish tapas plate to share appealed, but I had just come back from Barcelona, and I struggle to resist moules mariniere, and a twice baked Oxford Blue souffle. The Oxford Blue souffle being disregarded as Oxford Blue isn’t made in Oxford but a factory in Derbyshire and thus one of my pet hates. I saw someone else eating it with gusto and I must admit serious food envy. I went for the rabbit and pork rillettes with toast and pickles and Mum ordered the beetroot and horseradish salad. My rillettes were lovely, perhaps if I were to look for a hole to pick, it could have had a little more seasoning, a soupcon of spice, just a hint of some nutmeg or mace, or even salt and pepper but this is picking and it wasn’t bland by anyway. I could have eaten the entire bread basket too, it seemed a mixture of a ciabatta type and a sourdough. The ciabatta type was salty and yielding, I could have sunk several packs of butter too! Mum’s salad was beautiful to look at. A plate of bright pinks and greens and the combination of beetoot and horseradish was simple but astounding. I rather wished I’d ordered the same and that doesn’t happen with me and salads!
For a main course, we dithered about. Whilst there were plenty of lovely options to eat independently, we had rather set our hearts on sharing something, which Mum had been so impressed by on her previous visit. We ummed and aahhed over a Herefordshire steak, ale and mushroom suet pie but it was never really a contest when there was Hereford rib of beef with chips, salad and a horseradish cream for two. This was the point of the evening when the waiter came in to his own. Mum likes her beef fairly well done, I prefer mine to be pretty much as rare as possible, sometimes depending on the meat, blue. He very patiently explained that the outside would be better done and the inside pink. We plumped for it and sat back for the 45 minute wait. I don’t think it was close to 45 minutes and it certainly didn’t feel that long, the restaurant while still quiet being early evening had a happy buzz of people enjoying their meals. When it arrived, I knew we’d made the right decision and you’re going to have to put up with me while I get into a terrible stupor of beef enjoyment. The meat came on a large serving dish, carved and with the bone on the plate too. There was a huge bowl of crispy, yet fluffy inside, chips that we decided were amongst the best we’d ever eaten, and a big bowl of salad as well as a pot of horseradish cream. It wasn’t fancy cooking, it wasn’t twiddly or particularly breathtaking but it was about the best piece of beef I’ve ever eaten. And you can take that recommendation from me because I have made it a life’s career to eat every morsel of beef I have found. Perfectly pink, tender and seasoned. I wept that I couldn’t finish it. There was much appreciative sighing from the opposite side of the table. It was remortgaging the house expensive, amongst a very reasonably priced selection on the menu (as an aside, it was all far less expensive than I had expected) but, and I say this as a very large but, it was worth every penny. Not only was it a brilliant piece of British beef, you could taste that it had been carefully sourced and well hung. If you’re going to eat meat then I strongly believe that you should make it the best that you can afford.
After an important break, we felt it would have been rude to leave without a pudding. A gentleman at the next table stopped, at this point, to enthuse about his meal and ask after ours, it seems that sort of place. Certainly not stuffy and I tried desperately to find any pretention and failed. Especially when you compare the restaurant to the Oxford food scene, which is in the most part dire and often overlooked in favour of going up to that there London to cheat with the Pitt Cue Co and Dirty Burger. I decided to round the evening off with a chocolate pot, an absolute favourite, and my mother will always order ice cream if she finds it on a menu. She was absolutely enamoured of her marmalade ice cream and I would give my chocolate pot full marks. Only days before, we’d been discussing warm vs cold chocolate pots, this was my first warm one and I don’t know if I can go back!
In total, and I want you to remember that this was a very special treat for Mother’s Day, our meal came to £80. When I think about it, and expensive is one of its most frequent criticisms, I don’t think that’s terribly bad for two people, three courses and drinks. Especially when the quality of food, and cooking, is as high as we found it. I would definitely go back, I’m already planning to go back. It does what it advertises brilliantly and Matthew Norman wasn’t wrong when he described it as “being one of the very best of its kind in Britain”.
I have included below a smattering of photos, none of them came out very well, which is why they’re consigned to the bottom of the page but who wants to read about food without looking at it! Only a crazy person..