The Wild Rabbit. Not wild and no rabbit.
“Can I have some of the vegetable curry”, said the man next to me at the Farmers’ Market. The voice sounded familiar. “Oh and some of the rice too, please”. I looked sideways. It was David Cameron. I suppose I was asking for it, hovering round the Farmers’ Market on a Saturday morning in Chipping Norton. The Prime Minister and I had a brief conversation (of course we did, I wasn’t going to miss that gift horse) the details of which I won’t share.
Yet again I find myself in the North Oxfordshire countryside, not, for once, to use the Daylesford headquarters meeting-spot but instead to go to nearby Kingham, picture-postcard pretty, an estate-agent’s dream and only 90 minutes from Paddington, in case you were wondering. “Daylesford” is of course Daylesford Organic; the brainchild of Carole Bamford, entrepreneur and wife of Anthony, king of the JCB digger. For someone who presumably can use The Haybarn Spa at Daylesford whenever she likes, Mrs Bamford always seems quite stressed when she is marching round the restaurant, as she has been, every time I have visited.
I am in the area to meet R, who is local and has suggested The Wild Rabbit, about which I know little, other than it is owned by Carole Bamford. It strikes me as the lovechild of Daylesford and OKA, that furniture empire run by Sam Cam’s mother, Lady Astor. OKA is aspirational, pastiche country-house furniture. I would be surprised if Lady Astor has it scattered around her home.
This is a pub in the same way that Fortnum and Mason is a supermarket. It’s a pub for men who wear red trousers and see nothing wrong with that. The outside is covered in the latest Farrow & Ball shade of neutral, there is wisteria and topiary. Of course there is, because this is a fantasy pub, the sort of pub you dream of, if you don’t really like pubs that much but you like the idea. It is definitely not a boozer.
The pub also has rooms, so you could easily make it into a weekend outing, Belgravia in the Cotswolds. Chipping Norton, just up the road, is full of antiques, human and otherwise.
We are led into the dining room which is attached to the rear of the pub, all glass, wood and brick. The tables are large and well-spaced. We sit next to the window and I jump as a peacock flies up onto the table outside.
I have not looked at the menu online so there is slight sticker-shock when I first see it; £13.50 for an asparagus starter and £14.50 for a ravioli of crab and scallop. Pricing which seems rather ambitious for a gastropub in NotLondon. But forget NotLondon, because we are actually in the heart of London, Chelsea, to be exact, in both price and feel, not to mention demographic.
The prices raise the bar of my expectation and I am thus quite disappointed by the mediocre bread and a few modish radishes on a plank. There is a slug-shaped portion of seaweed butter which R thinks tastes of bootpolish. I quite like it but it is entirely wrong for the radishes and I make an executive decision to use it on the bread instead.
I had high hopes for the bread, having once done a breadmaking course at the cookery school bit of Daylesford, following which I vowed to make my own bread, which I did, just the once.
So, not entirely bowled over by the preliminaries, I think it best to go for simple, although when I say simple, I mean as simple as you can be when something is described as Wye Valley asparagus, truffle mayo, asparagus juice and hazelnuts. The asparagus is prepared two ways, shaved raw and cooked whole. There are, it appears, no more than two stalks of asparagus, what with all the shaving and for £13.50 this is simply not enough. It would be pushing it at £8.50..
The salty theme is continued with my roasted fillet of turbot, kohlrabi, purple sprouting broccoli and vanilla velouté. I have ordered this because I am intrigued by the combination of vanilla and turbot and because it sounds so wrong that they must know something I don’t. The fish is a good firm slab, slightly marred by the over-salted crust but eaten together with the broccoli, the velouté and the kohlrabi it starts to make sense and the greens neutralise the salt to the point I don’t notice it.
The turbot and vanilla is a superb combination and the velouté is subtle, creamy and not sweet. It is an interesting dish and the toasted almonds add crunch. There have been studies about vanilla, which is said to have no taste and only a smell. When paired with sweet things, the vanilla smell is familiar but combined with something savoury and the same vanilla smell tastes unfamiliar, so whilst this sounds an odd combination, it works differently to the way your brain expects.
If you’re still awake, you can read all about it at http://www.tastescience.com, From Tongue and Nose to Brain.
There appears to be vanilla in the dessert too. We go for poached rhubarb, white chocolate and rhubarb sorbet. A riot of pretty in pink, there are red and cream blobs surrounding the sticks of rhubarb and a deep pink egg-shaped sorbet in the middle. The cream blobs are white chocolate, the consistency of lemon curd and the red blobs are a rhubarb gelée. We both like the sharpness of this, for although it is the My Little Pony of desserts in appearance (all that pink) it tastes remarkably grown up.
We forego tea or coffee but they still bring us the petits fours or rather two rather lovely large madelaines, fresh from the oven. Tip: these would function as dessert should you wish to have something smaller than Pretty In Pink.
I see that The Wild Rabbit was Michelin pub of the Year in the 2015 Eating Out In Pubs guide. This stretches the definition of pub, and in food terms, it is a pub in name only, much like The Hand and Flowers. The cooking is assured and sophisticated and the only nod to gastropub is the steak offering, done on a Josper grill, natch. If you’re expecting country pub, you’ll be disappointed. More West London than West Country and none the worse for that.
Note: The Dyson tap in the Ladies is shaped like a crossbow and is also a hand-dryer. Your granny might die of shock.