When I review a restaurant or wine bar, as well as the quality of the food, the level of service, value for money and atmosphere of the place, I also look for interest on the menu and diversity on the wine list. Does the establishment cut a pioneering path and offer something captivating, or is it just playing it safe? Fundamentally, I ask myself: “After a glass of wine and starter here, would I stay for a main and order a bottle, or go find somewhere else?”
Tucked away in a quiet, suburban corner of North Oxford lives The Anchor. The Anchor is ostensibly a ‘pub and dining room’. You may think of it as an excellent restaurant with a safe – but safely excellent – wine list and a bar, presumably included just so it can call itself a pub.
The dining room has the air of a Victorian glasshouse meeting an oversized chessboard (think Alice Though the Looking Glass) with tables daintily laid out as if for high tea. The bar resembles the waiting room of the poshest train station in the world with wooden floors, leather bench seats and oodles of space. If all the train stations I have to go through had bars like this, I would quite happily spend all my time waiting for trains.
The Anchor is the sort of place you can’t quite believe gets enough clientele to facilitate its existence. Every time I’ve been it’s been quiet (except on Mothering Sunday, but surely a restaurant cannot dine out on Mother’s Day alone?). The staff have been attentive, accented, humorous and helpful and it’s a place that makes me want to return in order to check it’s still there. Especially on a cloudless, windless spring evening, when one is so transfixed by the moon appearing out of the sunset while enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace that you fail to notice the chill of the Oxfordshire air gradually seeping in (cushions and posh blankets for the outdoor seating would be a welcome addition).
The food is generally excellent. Think ‘modern British’ rather than ‘gastropub’. The menu is seasonal and changes frequently. In spring, we have available: gravadlax (with dill, cucumber & radish); pig’s head croquettes (+ celeriac remoulade); candy beets, rocket and ricotta. All year round I suspect we have the 16oz chateaubriand, moules frites and flatiron chicken. And if you must, the house cheeseburger is available with fries. Complementary bread and butter is a big plus.
Opting for the vegetarian selection, we tried the butternut squash risotto with pumpkin seeds and rocket (yes, yes I know not especially seasonal, this one) and herb gnocchi with mushroom and truffle. The risotto was a riot of bright oranges and greens, wonderfully savoury and wholesome without being salty, and the rice cooked to perfection. The gnocchi dish delivered an intensity of mushroom umami with lilting truffle highlights. However, somewhat incongruously for a vegetarian meal, the support for this dish – the gnocchi dough itself – was doing its best to impersonate a Cumberland sausage.
To accompany, a 2016 Viognier from the Pays d’Oc in the south of France. Domaines Preignes Le Vieux is a family-owned establishment that makes technically excellent wines in an underrated part of France. Through accidents of history and geography, the highest appellation this wine can achieve is the lowly Vin de Pays d’Oc, yet it punches far above the weight of this designation. All this means for the canny connoisseur is that it is excellent value. The label is reassuringly entirely in French – i.e. local French people actually drink this wine. The nose is fresh apricots and drying hay. The palate is taut with concentration – a core of apricot tarte tatin, barley sugar sweets and fecund undergrowth – just waiting to evolve into filamentous structure of flavour with time in bottle. It is far too young and The Anchor’s biggest crime is surely to be releasing this wine to their clientele so soon.
In general, The Anchor’s wine list is very sound. It won’t win points for wacky varietal wines or obscure blends from obscure countries. But all the classics are represented and represented well. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc make up a full half of the white list, with Albariño, Picpoul, Grüner and the aforementioned Viognier adding spice. The reds reside primarily in France (Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône) with Italy, Spain, New Zealand and Latin America making appearances. European wines make up the bulk of the list. Of the new world wines, the Terravin Sauvignon Blanc is one of the few Marlborough Sauvignons of which I would willingly order a bottle. Wine by the bottle is the best value (ranging from £19 for the house wines through to £95 for the Château Giscours 1999 Margaux), though I really appreciate that almost all wines can be ordered by the 250 or 500mL carafe. (Bonus points too for not serving wine in an offensive ‘large glass’ = 250mL size.)
Family-owned domains are heavily represented on the wine list. One gets the impression that every wine has been carefully tasted and selected to offer not only a good tasting experience to the customer but good value too. We may not change it up too much, but you are in good hands here, the wine list seems to say. Unlike many other pubs that do food well (or think they do), The Anchor seems a bit shy: as though it hasn’t quite appreciated its own excellence. If anything, The Anchor could add a bit of interest to its safe, conservative credentials by including some variation, or a couple ‘wines of the month’ perhaps. But this won’t stop me returning to sample my way through the menu – even if it’s just to check this faintly magical place still exists.
The Anchor: 2 Hayfield Road, Oxford, OX2 6TT. 01865 510282.
Starters £6-8; Mains £10-16