The Magdalen Arms, Oxford

I've been wanting to go to the Magdalen Arms ever since I saw it reviewed in some of the major newspapers. My weekends aren't complete without the Saturday papers, but every time I read them my life is injected with a modicum of sadness. It's taunting, sitting there reading about some innovative and delightful new culinary establishment, getting all excited about how delicious the carpaccio of tuna or venison loin or rhubarb foam is, scanning to the end of the page, and discovering it's a) in London or b) unaffordable or c) both. Not that Oxford is a million miles from London, but it's not as if I could say "Ooh! That looks nice! I'll hop on the 2 hour bus to London for dinner". I've eventually, on scheduled trips to London, finally made it to a few of these places (Polpo, Bocca di Lupo), but imagine my delight when I saw the name of my own beloved place of residence at the end of a review one day.

My general impression from reviews of the Magdalen Arms (dodgy pub turned gastropub) is that it serves good, honest food, some of the best you'll find at an Oxford pub, but the service isn't great. The latter was definitely true. We waited nearly 40 minutes for our lunch. However, it was a Sunday, the pub was completely full, and desserts were very prompt to arrive, so I'm entitled to almost forgive that. Plus there's a complimentary bread basket while you wait. This slightly makes up for the hunger pangs, except not really, because the bread is so bloody good you'll just sit there staring at the empty basket, contemplating licking the butter. Unfortunately, you have to pay £3 for extra bread. I suspect they've done that because, as I mentioned, the bread is so DAMN FINE that if you were anything like me, you'd keep emptying the basket, allowing them to bring more and more and more, until you developed a crisp crust and started to smell of yeast.

So I just waited. And waited. And thought about the bread - which, by the way, is so superawesomely great - and watched other tables being brought more bread. I nearly went over and said, by the way, don't you think this bread is exceedingly spiffing? And then, just as I was about to make a mad leap for the bar to steal some more delightful leavened substance, plates arrived.

Between us, we had venison shank with quince, roast pork with apple sauce, and Hereford ox cheek with dumplings and horseradish mash. Three guesses as to which was mine. As one of my companions observed, "You love animal cheeks, don't you?" Although that said, I am a quince fanatic, so I bet you guessed the venison, didn't you, dear readers?

The first thing I will say is that presentation isn't brilliant. My dish looked rather like a road does when it has just been re-tarred, and there are bits remaining that have clumped together in the sun: the sauce was almost black, thick with vegetables and bay leaves (four of them! Did the chef make this underneath a moulting bay tree?), the dumplings were large and lumpy, and the ox cheek was essentially a huge mound of meat. The venison was also dark and covered in sauce, with some slices of poached quince on the side. But I feel it is silly to bemoan the lack of presentation skills, because as any Masterchef contestant knows, it is extremely hard to present stew in any kind of haute cuisine fashion. Stew is rustic; it isn't designed to be faffed about with and put into presentation rings and quenelled and topped with foam and micro-herbs. If the flavour is good, who cares? The only tiny thing I would criticise is the presentation of the roast pork: I think the kitchen had run out of large plates, because the whole thing (an enormous mound of mash, pork, and apple sauce) had about a centimetre of plate surrounding it. It looked untidy and thoughtless, as if they couldn't be bothered. Not what you'd expect when you're paying £16 for what is essentially a Sunday roast you could make at home.

However, the food was tasty. My ox cheek was braised to perfection, the meat melting and unctuous, though rather fatty and gelatinous in the middle (but I think this is more down to the cut of meat than the cooking). The sauce was thick and rich, the dumplings satisfying but light, and it was topped with some horseradish cream, which went very well and cut through the fattiness of the dish. I would have liked something green with it though, some cabbage, kale or broccoli: I'm just not enough of a carnivore to appreciate a huge, steaming plate of meat and dumplings. Especially when the meat in question is roughly the size of my face. Ox are LARGE. Larger than pigs. You heard it here first.

The venison I sampled a little of, and it was delicious. Quince and venison go perfectly together, and you need something fruity to combine with rich meat and sauce. Again, though, some vegetables wouldn't have gone amiss. The pork was very tasty, but rather fatty: not in a sexy, crackling sort of way, but in the sense that there was a huge rim of moist, white fat around the edge of the meat. Not particularly appetising. All in all, it was good food but rather unbalanced; it may have been because it was a gorgeous spring day, and sitting in a dark pub with huge plates of meat and mash seemed a little odd, but I would have liked some vegetables with the dishes. You can order them for extra money, but really, how much would it set them back to cook a few cabbages to go with the main courses? And incidentally, how much would it set them back to offer extra bread for free? I only say this, you understand, because the bread really is rather sumptuous.

Desserts were almost not on the cards, so full were we from our wintry fare. But I saw the words "pear", "almond", "tart" and "vanilla ice cream" in the same sentence on the menu, and suddenly my dessert stomach expanded. (It also expanded literally after eating said tart. In fact, it is still expanded, two weeks later). We also tried the sticky toffee pudding, which was immense. Now, I like this - better to be given too much dessert than too little. But it really was massive, and also tongue-searingly hot, and positively drowning in sauce. All of these are good things, provided you're not feeling full of ox. My pear tart had the most wonderful texture: really crisp and crumbly pastry on the outside, with a moist and melting almond filling. My only complaint is that the pears were tasteless; the tart was a little too blandly sweet, and needed something sharper to contrast. But texturally it was a delicious masterpiece.

We spent, all in all, a couple of hours or more sitting in the pub. It had a cosy feel and a good atmosphere, though also felt rather frenetic at first, but I'll put that down to it being Sunday lunchtime. The interior is half pub, half bistro, with dark wooden tables, daffodils in little vases, and nice espresso cups with salt and pepper in. I imagine it would be a very nice dinner destination, or good for a dark, gloomy day, but it was rather oppressive in there when there was glorious sunshine outside.

I believe they have two menus every day, one for lunch and one for dinner. There were lots of other delicious-sounding dishes on there, like wild rabbit with chorizo and white beans, or baked sea bream, or octopus salad. They also do lots of dishes that you can order to share, like a lamb shoulder or large pie. It's classic gastropub food, but with a modern twist, and using all sorts of interesting seasonal ingredients - in the shooting season I believe they do a lot of game, and when I went they had a tagliatelle with purple sprouting broccoli on the menu.

If I had to summarise, I'd say it was good, but not worth the prices. It's not outrageously expensive, with most starters £5-7, mains between £11 and £17 (for individuals - the sharing dishes are obviously more), and desserts about £6. But given the slow service, the average presentation and the unbalanced nature of some of the dishes, I wish I could have been a fiver or so better off. To be honest, I preferred my lunch at the Anchor in Oxford a few weeks ago - it's a bit cheaper, service is better, and the food was perfect. But I'm planning to go back to the Magdalen Arms in the evening, midweek, when I imagine it'll be less busy, so I can see if the service improves, and I'm also eager to sample more of the dishes. It's had amazing reviews in many places, so I'm hoping my experience was an average as opposed to a good day. Watch this space for an updated review.

Oh and I forgot to mention - the bread is great. Really great.