All pub grub is not built the same. Some is sublime, worth booking ahead for and travelling miles to get to; some is the reheated or deep-fried contents of various freezer bags and flung at plates. My job – and it is a real job – is to decipher what goes in which category. Take the Victoria at Oxshott in Surrey, for example: newly refurbished and reopened, and with Fat Duck alumni at the helm, which feels instinctively like the sort of place you should force your partner to change into trousers for.
Charles and I frequently lock horns whenever we set off somewhere like this, which claims to be a pub but in fact serves “pan-fried” stone bass with keta caviar and smoked confit duck with pistachio. “But it’s a pub,” he’ll say, casting a hand over his designer track pants. “No,” I’ll reply. “They do wagyu bavette and rib-eye with bordelaise sauce. It’s trousers, proper trousers.” And off he’ll trudge back to the wardrobe in the manner of a man forced to complete the London marathon in a 140lb vintage deep-sea diving suit.
That isn’t to say the Victoria specifies any sort of official dress code; rather that some places just exude a certain level of genteel correctness. The dining room is rather dreamily staged, like an olde English inn with the light blueprint of a pricy West End brasserie, all cosily furnished, with burgundy panelling, low beams and an open fire. Chef director Matt Larcombe was once head chef at The Crown at Bray, and met manager Simon King when both worked for Heston Blumenthal. There’s a bar area for locals and an extensive regular wine list that starts with house white, a grenache blanc, at £25, as well as a “rare wine menu” from which, if you’re really making a night of it, you can blow £9,750 on a bottle of 1997 Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley. See? I told you it’s a proper trousers type of place.
I’ve knocked booze on the head for the time being, leading to a life of shrubs, kombuchas and seltzers, so they made me a “Light and Firey” with Lyre’s alcohol-free cane spirit and ginger (think dark’n’stormy, but without the morning-after clouds). We sat close to the blazing log fire as two thickly beer-battered oysters were brought to our table, perched back in their shells along with a puddle of pale green, seaweed-infused mayonnaise. If you’re someone who thinks they can’t face oysters, deep-frying the slimy blighters really does help, I assure you.
Beautifully presented pickled cucumbers arrive with a mildly seasoned homemade gentleman’s relish, after which we share a plate of sweet, almost al dente salt-baked beetroot that’s even prettier than the cucumbers. Food doesn’t need to be a beauty contest, but it takes real skill to take a dowdy beetroot, then peel it, smoke it, pickle it, salt-bake it, top it with curd and scatter it with hazelnuts, and end up with something that wouldn’t look out of place on an afternoon tea cake-stand at the Ritz.
There’s a fish and chips main course option at £19, as well as that Trenchmore Farm bavette at the same price, feasibly to stop the locals from rioting, but then prices hurtle upwards rather dramatically, and at a rate that might leave anyone picking up the family’s dinner bill in need of a lie-down in a darkened room afterwards. Beef wellington wrapped in light, crisp-yet-moist puff pastry with a rich, herby duxelles inner casing, for instance, came at a memorable £45 a slice. Chips, of the triple-cooked, stubby genre, were a fiver on top.
Now, it must be said that this was almost certainly the finest beef wellington I will eat in this lifetime, filled with a chunk of rare beef similar in texture to chocolate truffle, but it’s rare that I leave a restaurant wondering if we should perhaps have saved a few pennies by going for the whole turbot with red wine and kale to share at £85. I know all too well, however, that restaurants – sorry, I of course mean pubs – such as this are astonishingly expensive to keep afloat. At least four different smart, cheery front-of-house staff served our table, and the desserts are made by the sort of imaginative patisserie wizard who takes the concept of the Snickers bar and reimagines it as a large square of soft, sweet, nutty mousse with chunks of aerated chocolate and an oozing, caramel centre. This is a very, very good pudding, and I doubt I’ll eat many finer things this year. We also tried a banoffee pie at £9, too, but it paled into insignificance in comparison.
The Victoria at Oxshott is a very decent, semi-formal destination restaurant hiding in plain sight inside a village pub near Leatherhead. I’m certain the £40 Sunday lunch here would be an outstanding experience, particularly for a special occasion. No jacket required, but if you ask me … well, I’m still insisting on trousers.