The Fishes (August 2013)

‘Gastro-pub’ has become an unhealthily over-used expression, one often favoured by establishments wishing perhaps to suggest that they are more up-market (and have moved beyond microwaved dinners to – heaven forefend – having a real chef in the kitchen). Nonetheless, if you happen to be in the Oxford and are looking for a pub that undoubtedly merits the moniker gastro – in other words, it cooks great, gastronomic food – then do visit The Fishes. Although just three miles from the centre of town, there is not a dreaming spire (or tourist) in sight, and the pub is set in a wooded idyll, a perfect place to while away a lunchtime leading into the afternoon. That it was more than half full early on a Wednesday lunchtime suggests that they must be doing something right. My comrade and I were greeted by friendly and enthusiastic staff, offered a wide choice of tables, and this set the tone for the rest of the experience. Overall, the atmosphere would best be described as relaxed yet efficient – at no stage did we feel rushed and yet everything arrived promptly and with a smile. We liked the blackboard propped up with specials (one soup, two starters, two mains and a dessert) and from this we both opted for the whitebait to begin. A classic dish it may be, but the fish were juicy, just the right quantity and enhanced by the slightly sweet and spicy sauce. I stuck with the pescine theme, opting for fishcakes for the main. Again, a well-trodden dish, but executed excellently in terms of texture and flavour, the latter boosted with their own summer salsa. Another nice touch was the way in which the coffees were served, at our meal's conclusion: the sugar cubes arrived in an old-style used Golden Syrup tin and rather than chocolates, a small plateful of Smarties. These are the things one remembers, quaint yet quirky details, both traditional and still a little different – perhaps summing up what the Fishes is about. Should I be in the area, then I will be back, although one small quibble: there were very few wines available by the glass and those that were, comprised rather conventional offerings. Something small for the Fishes perhaps to work on, but even without this change, this is definitely a clear gastro-pub winner.