When David Cameron was reported to have "dad-danced" at a party held by Alex James at his Oxfordshire home as 2015 arrived, it was clear the Chipping Norton set was alive and well.
This rather quease-making collection of the famous, the influential and the powerful (remember that shot of Cameron, James and Jeremy Clarkson at James's food festival in 2011?) pop round to each other's houses to – presumably – toast their good fortune at extravagant "kitchen suppers", but after queen bee Rebekah Brooks's legal difficulties, it all went a bit quiet. Now we learn they're frugging and chugging as usual.
What do such folk do when they want to go down the pub? Why, they visit The Wild Rabbit in the village of Kingham. It's an inn, but not as we mere mortals know it. Run by Tory champion and organic food doyenne Lady Bamford, the place has a bar at the front but beyond that, it's all luxuriance, with more plate glass, blond flagstones and dark-wood furniture than several Conran Shops put together.
I knew the score when I scoped it out, looking for a pub lunch after a yomp through the countryside with the dog. In fact, she has to be kept in the car when we arrive, as a peacock is stalking round the car park. Even the pets are posh. (Later, Olive is invited in to lie by the open fire in the bar and fed handfuls of quite-possibly-organic dog biscuits by a barmaid, which is nice. And The Wild Rabbit has just won Pub of the Year 2015 in the Michelin Eating Out in Pubs guide, so it's definitely doing something right for all its visitors, not just the famous ones…)
A fig bellini and whip-thin cheese straws with tapenade are only to be expected as sharpeners here – although my companion has a pint of Hooky from a local brewery, because he's wearing wellies and is trying to hold on to some semblance of pub-ness. This doesn't stop him ordering a couple of ritzy dishes from the brisk five-starter, five-main menu, though: crisp pig's head croquette with smoked eel and sauce ravigote (£10), then loin of venison with a cocoa-nib crust, pickled red cabbage, celeriac and poached quince (£28). Ooh, get him.
I've eyed that standard, steak and chips, but, in the absence of a prawn cocktail starter, I have ravioli of crab and scallop with crab bisque (£14.50). It's a single raviolo, which comes entirely smothered by a thick, creamy blanket: the culinary equivalent of those super-soft neutral-shaded cashmere wraps customers to the Daylesford Organic shop round the corner tend to wear.
It's a blissful thing to eat, though. The pasta yields at the gentlest approach and it is packed full of delicate, shredded seafood. The bisque may be pale in colour, but its flavour is rich and rugged. My friend's croquette is similarly chic to look at but even more hefty, tastewise. And the sauce is a mouth-puckering joy to complement the pleasurably greasy piggy.
His venison, meanwhile, is wonderfully earthy, and unctuous puréed celeriac is the perfect foil. Smart, seasonal, elegant.
The lunch's only descent into standard pub grub is the rather pedestrian, overcooked steak. This is a maddening disappointment – the open kitchen has a Josper grill in its armoury of designer kit, and chef Adam Caisley has a deft hand elsewhere. But it comes on a searing-hot plate, so perhaps stayed too long at the pass… Unforgiveable, at £30, whatever the reason. The chips are of the type that resemble, in size and taste, roast potatoes. I do wish there were some widely adopted measure for chip scale – or that we got more intel on ordering: shoestring or girth-of-Aunt-Bessie? They're perfectly nice, just not what I wanted.
We take pudding back in the bar, better to enjoy the fire and to allow Olive to stretch her legs. My chocolate mousse with salted-caramel ice cream is redonkulus – vast and crazily sweet – and there's honeycomb, double cream and cocoa-nib tuile for good measure (on any scale except the diabetes one, perhaps? This doesn't stop me poking it all down). The other pud, a spiced apple-crumble soufflé with apple sorbet (£8.50) is as sublime as that ravioli starter – melting-soft, superbly judged flavours and glamorous, too.
We all three waddle out, full and happy. My wallet has been emptied – but, then, I'm more grungy than grandee.
The Wild Rabbit, Church Street, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, tel: 01608 658 389. £120 for two, with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the past week
Fully addicted to the fried sprouts at the new Kensington outpost of this ramen restaurant. Yuzu and pomegranates make the dish zing.
For the new year, worthy-sounding chicken and quinoa salad. But being Leon, it's pretty tasty (would still rather have garlic mayo, though!)
A simple starter of roasted shallots and curd at arguably London's most influential restaurant, 20 years and still going strong!
Made a lentil and rice-ish dish using the grain Rotorino's Stevie Parle recommended to me – with fried onions, totally delicious.Reuse content