Charging headlong at The Bull: An old pub in rural Oxfordshire is offering impressive five-course meals with a curious blend of styles. Emily Green reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
CHARLBURY, 15 miles north- west of Oxford, has all those desirable features that villages are supposed to have in restaurant reviews. It nestles. It is tucked away. It is quaint and scenic and jolly historic without too many hanging baskets.

Suspicion only sets in when you realise that at Charlbury's heart there are four pubs within easy stumbling distance of one another. No, this is no village, this is a town and this town is a drinkers' paradise.

Visit the Bull, however, and it is tempting to reduce the count of public houses from four to 3 1/2. This ancient building has recently undergone a lengthy (and uninspired) refit. It has re-emerged part pub, part restaurant and part hotel. Moreover, the restaurant is most definitely not serving pub food. Five-course set dinners are more like it.

The chef, Nick Gill, was head chef at Hambledon Hall, a swank country house hotel in Leicestershire, where he won a Michelin star. He planned the trendy menu at the London restaurant chain Tall Orders, where Mediterranean food was served in Chinese steamer baskets. In its early days it was saved from being laughed out of town for dire gimmickry by the sheer quality of the food. And, until last year, Mr Gill was executive chef at the Feathers Hotel in Woodstock.

I have trouble imagining Mr Gill cooking badly. I can still remember a chicken fricassee sent out at the Feathers Hotel when he was in charge. The meat was melting, the sauce smoky and edged by a pleasing vinegary tang. My mouth waters at the thought.

Yet at the same time I have no problem envisaging Mr Gill getting caught up in some pretty baroque kitchen-craft. Perhaps this is a hangover from his Michelin- starred days. At the Feathers he sent out a deliciously rich and gooey caramel ice-cream in a ridiculous bowl of carved ice, and the management charged a hefty price for it.

A similarly awkward blend of styles appears to be emerging at the Bull in Charlbury: mainly pleasing food, with some curious strokes and frills. I do not know many people who pine for five- course dinners. I know even fewer who would look for them in a pub. Yet at pounds 17.50 the Bull's is remarkable value, and the real food - courses two and three - is well worth the price.

I could have happily done without the hors-d'oeuvre, a selection of melons, pineapple, star fruit, mango and various little tasteless exotic fruits served with smoked salmon and prawns on a gaudy silver platter filled with crushed ice. No, straight on to the second course, please - a rich vegetable soup, served in a pretty tureen

and spiked liberally with fresh

tarragon.

That herb, fields of it, recurred in roast chicken with tarragon cream. Lamb was marinated in garlic and served agreeably pink. Angus beef came with a slightly gluey, but good, dark red wine sauce and melting shallots. A potato gratin was enough for three, simple, rich and pleasing.

Main courses at the Bull are followed by generous wedges of farmhouse cheeses, in our case well-aged cheddar and stilton. They were good, but dull choices. The puddings that followed consisted of some grainy ice-cream garnished with stray leaves of mint, and an excellent selection of biscuits.

If the Bull is intent on fashioning its food as a gastronomic experience, then the wine list should be seen to. The prices are commendably low, and the list admirably short, but there is a lot of indifferent New World stuff and only a few really special wines, such as a Nine Popes and a 1982 Meursault from Ampeau.

The Bull, unlike its competition, does not open until 7pm. I arrived early and was lucky enough to be co-opted by a local, doing the rounds, for a drink down the road at the Bell. It has an especially handsome stone fireplace, a decent stock of Irish and Scotch whiskies and an agreeable band of locals. Nothing fancy. Just nice.

The Bull, Sheep Street and Brown's Lane, Charlbury, Oxon (0608 810689). Five-course dinners nightly Tues-Sat, pounds 17.50. Sunday lunch: three courses and coffee, pounds 12.95. Visa, Mastercard, Eurocard.

(Photograph omitted)

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