Late arriving she may have been, but Katherine MacAlister says here was a meal worth the wait
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray, so says the Robert Burns adage, and such was the case on Friday night, despite my most concerted efforts. (Read Oxford Mail online version here)
The M40 was closed, meaning Oxford was sealed off to the outside world as effectively as if the Berlin wall has been built on the London exit of the Headington roundabout This shouldn’t have been a problem, considering I was off to try out The Feathered Nest in Nether Westcote, miles away in the other direction, except that my dinner guest was on a bus, stuck some-where near Hillingdon, rendering our meal something of a challenge.
I postponed the babysitter and the table reservation twice, and as time ticked on he edged his way painfully towards Oxford. Eventually I rang The Feathered Nest to enquire innocently what time last food orders were, discovering we had a deadline of 9.15pm or like Mother Goose would have to go to bed without any supper.
Realising it was now or never, I raced over to Thornhill, picked up said guest who had the glassy sheen and pallid complexion of someone who’d been on a bus for four hours and roared off to Nether Westcote, screeching up in the car park at 9.13pm like Penelope Pitstop. Having to put my make-up on in the car park meant we arrived bang on 9.15pm, like Cinderella but in reverse, and without the prince.
So why the Herculean effort? Because The Feathered Nest has slowly but surely, with the stealth of a hungry panther and the relentless drip of a long forgotten tap, been building a very English, unshowy reputation which is now so impress-ive it’s become impossible to ignore.
Open since 2010 when it transformed an unimposing pub/caravan park into the discreet, upmarket, refined hotel/restaurant it is now, awards have been coming in thick and fast — the 3 AA Rosette, Winners of VisitEngland Pub of the Year 2013 & 2014; Beautiful South Pub of the Year 2013/2014 and 2012/2013; AA Pub of the Year (England) 2011/2012 and Good Hotel Guide César Award now adorning the mantelpiece of owners Amanda and Tony Timmer.
Amanda was on duty the night we arrived and without batting an eyelid welcomed us in, found us seats on the comfy sofas in front of a vast log fire, gave us some medicinal drinks, the menus and left us to it. The Feathered Nest runs like a well-oiled machine without any fuss and bother, just how we Brits like it, with the service second to none. And what a fabulous place, like a little hunting lodge hidden away in the depths of Oxfordshire.
That aside, chef Kuba Winkowski’s reputation precedes him. Ex-Manoir (aren’t they all these days?), the Pole has chosen The Feathered Nest to make his mark, and judging by the accolades pouring in, making it he is, his menu a charming mix of wild, local, seasonal, countryside food compiled with finesse, a tip of the hat perhaps to Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in the Lake District.
The tiny canapés of black pudding and smoked fish set the scene for what was to come, the attention to detail whetting the appetite, as did the moreish home-made bread. The amuse bouche of tomato jelly with mozzarella and basil, was so delicate and so refined I wanted to weep, but I made do with scraping the plate clean, the perfect palate cleanser.
For starters we had quinoa with broad beans, apple, granola, vanilla and wild asparagus (£10.50) which tasted like a deconstructed hedgerow, full of flowers and wild asparagus, black quinoa and apple purée. Except, because it was Kuba’s version, the hedgerow had been to the best coiffeur in town and transformed into a magical creation of foams and jus and purées, crumb and crunch, creating a really astonishing but utterly compatible range of flavours and textures that burst in your mouth.
The carpaccio of veal (£14.50) was less of a success although equally as experimental and colourful. It’s an odd combination, veal, tuna and a citrus dressing, and not one I’m likely to repeat, however beautifully executed it was.
The second course of poussin with duck liver, smoked mash potato and shallot (£26.50) was a return to form, with the bird and livers perfectly complementing each other. Accompanied by artichoke and girolles, it shone.
The stinging nettle raviolin (£19.50) jumped off the page for both its originality and daring. And yet the nettle remained indistinguishable in its little pasta parcels. Accompanied by spring vegetables, pine nuts, honeycomb and marinated cottage cheese, it was crying out for a sauce, jus or foam to whet the dish and bind it together, a glaring omission I thought, and yet so nearly there.
But I’m picking hairs, because there is no doubt that Kuba is on to some-thing here. The dessert proved this, the morello cherry and chocolate soufflé arriving the advised 20 minutes later and worth every second of the wait; puffy, sugary with whole morello cherries nestling inside and a wonderful chocolate ice cream, this was the pièce de résistance for me.
The rhubarb trifle was not as good, the expected tart smoothness of the rhubarb becoming slightly lost in its concoction. But, needless to say, we finished both dishes, washed down with some specially matched wines.
As usual we were the last to leave, although hardly a surprise considering our tardy arrival, and we disappeared into the night almost as suddenly as we’d appeared, spurning coffee and the wonderful sounding Simon Weaver Organic Brie ice cream & fritter served with celery, apple, walnut, poppy seed (£9.50) like highwaymen at dusk, winding our way down the tiny country lanes, back to civilisation, leaving the memory of The Feathered Nest shimmering away in the background like a magic kingdom.
Make sure you try the... If the steep prices make you wince, opt for the ‘Nest’ blackboard menu which boasts Fish & Chips for £16 or the Nest’ beef burger for £16.50. And eat outside if you can. The al fresco deck has views to die for.
In ten words: Well worth the trip to experience some-where so uniquely special