Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Ashmolean Dining Room, Beaumont Street

I was going to begin this review with some thoughts on being a provincial food blogger: given that most Oxford restaurants charge less than their London equivalents, should we expect lower quality, or at least less finesse? Or does good food come at a more reasonable price outside the capital? I thought that the restaurant at the Ashmolean, which after its high-profile opening in 2009 was hailed as a significant new addition to the Oxford dining scene and reviewed in most national newspapers, would be an ideal testing-ground for my theories. Unfortunately, though, my experience there was disappointing by any standards.

I'll start with the positives. There is a decent wine selection and we enjoyed a carafe of Australian Cabernet/Shiraz. Our starters were fine: 'confit duck pate' (£6) was light, more like rillettes actually, but with a subtle and not too rich favour. A girolle mushroom salad (£6) with pancetta and balsamic mayonnaise, which looked like alarming brown gloop but was rather tasty, was also good. It was quite a gutsy, savoury dish with pleasantly meaty mushrooms, but beans and watercress balanced this out. Chips (£3.50) were thin, crunchy and salty, if slightly desiccated. Oh, and the glass fronted-restaurant space on the fourth floor of the museum does afford a unusual and airy view of the Oxford sky, although this would be a lot more impressive if it were not for the imposing presence of the Randolph Hotel just across the road.
That, I concede, is not the fault of the restaurant. The same cannot be said of most of the other aspects of our meal. The problems started early on when there was a misunderstanding over the starters and two portions of the duck pâté arrived. These things happen, you might think; however, someone had already returned to double check the order. I didn't mind that but I was dismayed when it didn't resolve what was clearly a lingering problem, and to make matters worse a member of the waiting staff then told me I was mistaken and there was no mushroom salad available (admittedly it's called a 'smoked pancetta, watercress, fine beans, girolle mushroom salad with balsamic mayo' on the menu, but I hadn't committed all that to memory). 

The salad's existence was subsequently confirmed but it then took twenty minutes to arrive, while I munched on a hunk of toasted ciabatta and tried not to get crumbs everywhere (a side plate would have helped). I should say now that while there were no more major service errors and the waiting staff seemed to be trying hard, most of them didn't have an especially professional air: we suspected that specific staff weren't assigned to specific tables and that this didn't help matters. Our main course plates were also left uncleared for far too long.

The Photographer then chose rump steak (£16.50). He asked for it to be cooked medium but what appeared was definitely tending towards the well done, and was distinctly tough at that. No steak knife was offered. Due to another slight misunderstanding he ended up with both dauphinoise potatoes and chips (perhaps he should have made it clearer that he wanted to replace the former with the latter, but I feel the waiting staff should have again been more proactive). I had chicken with sweet and sour sauce and pak choi (£14.50). Despite being billed as the 'butcher's cut of the day', it was unmemorable. One small leg and two wings do not provide all that much meat, and although the sauce wasn't too sickly and coated the leaves nicely I think this dish needed a bit more umami.

Desserts were a little better, but seemed designed for the very sweet-toothed. A pressed chocolate cake with toffee sauce (£7) was good in the way that a slab of neat chocolate truffle can't fail to be, but its richness was unrelieved by the sugary sauce. Blood orange and lemon tart (£6.50) came on flaky, crumbly pastry but the filling was uniformly sweet and desperately needed some lemon tang.
I admit that I didn't mention all this at the time. Perhaps I should have, but part of the reason is that while it's easy to complain about a hair in the soup or a chipped glass, it's much harder to draw attention to a slightly overdone steak and an unadventurous dessert without creating bad feeling, prolonging the meal, and quite possibly being told that the chef intended it to be like that. In this case I wasn't sure I would get anything more than a formulaic apology: although I may be doing the Ashmolean staff a disservice, I didn't get much of a sense that they were that interested in what was being served. It occurs to me now that no one actually said sorry for the starter mix-up and the resultant delay, and normally I would have pointed this out when paying: not in an attempt to get a reduction, but as a piece of feedback.

But on this occasion I wasn't paying, as I had been invited in for a review. You may think that this serves me right for accepting a freebie but I still would have wanted to speak to whoever was in charge. When we wanted to leave, however, it became clear that the staff weren't aware that I was there as a reviewer at all (n.b.: I had booked, so someone knew I was coming). Cue mutual awkwardness and a ten-minute wait for the duty manager who luckily believed I was who I said I was but didn't seem at all concerned about what my impressions had been. Still, at least the experience of this provincial food blogger at the Ashmolean was no different - for better or worse - from that of any other diner.

Ashmolean Dining Room
Beaumont Street
Oxford OX1 2PH

01865 553823

The Ashmolean Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Square Meal


  1. Oh dear!!

    We've eaten at the Ashmolean roof top twice, the first time was disappointing - we had an afternoon tea and whilst the food was good, the service was poor.

    The second time the service was so poor that I got up and found the manager and complained - the only time I've ever done that (I'm shy and non-demonstrative, which shows had bad it was)
    To their credit, some of the staff were working hard, but a couple of them stood at the bar flirting with each other whilst we (and others) were waiting.

    I would not only expect better service at such a venue - I would have expected better at a Little Chef.
    If we do find ourselves at the Ashmolean, we always eat in the basement - better cakes and a lot better service and friendlier staff.

  2. Sorry to hear you had a bad experience too - going by what other people and other online reviews says, we're by no means alone. It's a shame. How did the manager respond, out of interest?

  3. If I remember correctly, the manager apologised and said this had never happened before (although it does seem to have built a reputation for poor service) and disappeared, when our bill eventually turned up he had taken money off it (can't remember how much) - although he didn't actually tell us this what he would d.
    Maybe if they read this blog it will encourage them to make an improvement to the service.