I have a confession to make. It wasn't the shiny new Michelin star that drew me to the Nut Tree Inn in rural Oxfordshire, or the fact that this smart little dining pub won Best Newcomer at a recent industry awards. It was the Nut Tree's proximity to Bicester Village, the discount designer-shopping outlet, where according to legend, cut-price cashmere floats from the sky like thistledown and the roads are paved with cheap Louboutin .
Only 10 minutes down the road from Bicester Village, the Nut Tree is the perfect rendezvous for a pre-shopping ladies-who-lunch. But it is, not to be too ladylike about it, a real bugger to find. On the map, it lies just south of the M40 near Oxford, but with no junction nearby, the journey involves a scenic tour of Otmoor, down single-track roads and through isolated villages; the kind of trip that sat nav was invented for.
Once you've tracked it down, the 16th- century pub is straight out of central casting – squat and whitewashed under a thatched roof. Unlike its nursery-rhyme namesake, this little nut tree bears plenty; not just its newly acquired honours, but the growing reputation of its talented chef/ proprietor Mike North, who became one of the youngest Michelin-starred chefs in the country at the age of 25, while head chef of the Goose in Britwell Salome.
He and his wife Imogen, who looks after front of house, took over the Nut Tree in 2007, and set about doing things their own way. Gloucester Old Spot pigs roam the substantial gardens, to be converted in due course by Mike's butcher father into slow-cooked belly of pork and other porky treats. An old drinks fridge has been converted into a home-smoker, producing salmon to be served with whipped horseradish cream and Avruga caviar.
As you will probably have picked up, the Nut Tree isn't serving basic pub grub. This is Modern British cooking of a fairly evolved kind, with prices to match – mains range from £15 for a risotto of wild mushrooms to £24 for fillet of beef with triple-cooked chips. The food is presented with a Modernist dash, with sauces impastoed over plates. To use an analogy from The Archers – irresistible, this close to the Borsetshire border – it's as though Sid and Jolene at the Bull had brought in the talented but temperamental Jean-Paul from Grey Gables and let him loose on the menu.
Thankfully, the Nut Tree still feels like a proper pub. There's a small bar area, with local beers on draft, and tables and chairs for drinkers in the garden. But it's the food that's the draw. The couple next to me at the bar were eagerly debating the difference between bresaola and carpaccio, and most of the tables in the snug, low-ceilinged dining area were full.
We were seated in the small conservatory, airier than the main dining room, but with all the atmosphere of a retirement-home lounge. The Nut Tree may just have won a Best Newcomer award, but that category was long ago closed to most of our fellow diners, among them a honkingly loud gent, presumably hard of hearing, whose small talk was so huge, it stunned the rest of the room into silence.
The lunch that followed was frustrating because for every highlight, there was an element that was just a little off. A minimalist rectangle of chicken liver parfait, sprinkled with sea salt, would have been wonderful, had the toasted brioche that came with it not been burnt. Two plump and exquisite grilled scallops were partnered with a teardrop of lemon curd and an anaemic fennel salad; neither of which brought much to the party .
Pan-fried fillet of wild sea bass – immaculately cooked – came with crushed new potatoes and a simple sauce vierge featuring tomatoes briefly acquainted with some basil; summery, certainly, but not quite delivering on the flavour front. No such complaint about the roast breast of Gressingham duck in a rich foie gras and port sauce; crisp of skin and full flavoured, it was very good, if not the ideal dish for one about to hit the changing rooms at the Marni outlet shop.
Many pub-restaurants, understaffed and short on space, lack the resources to turn out proper desserts, but the standard of our puddings – a bitter chocolate tart with almond milk ice cream and a beautifully light strawberry cheesecake – was high enough to indicate the Nut Tree might even run to its own pastry chef. Bread, too, is marvellous – they sell it by the loaf, in a kind of foodie version of off-sales.
Tips are left to the diner's discretion, and the staff are efficient and super-friendly – our waitress spontaneously offered to move us when she noticed the sonic boom created by our noisy neighbour. Maybe our experience was skewed by being trapped in a small room with some of Ambridge's more tiresome elderly residents, but overall, though we liked the Nut Tree, we couldn't love it. After all, the great thing about The Archers is that when you get tired of the everyday tales of country folk, you can always switch the radio off.
The Nut Tree Inn, Murcott, Oxfordshire (01865 331 253)
Around £35 a head without wine
Side Orders: Gastro greats
Local ingredients have helped this new inn gain its first star within a year of opening. Try wild turbot with poached Thornham oysters (£22.95).
Old Hunstanton, Norfolk (01485 532 122)
Hand and Flowers
Rosemary-roasted leg of lamb with slow-cooked shoulder, aubergine and borage (£17.50) is one of stars at this award-winning gastropub.
126 West Street, Marlow, Bucks (01628 482 277)
Despite the excellent food, the atmosphere at this top pub is refreshingly informal; try the saddle of venison with horseradish gnocchi and kummel (£17.90).
Titley, Kington, Hereford (01544 230 221)