- Jay Rayner - The Observer
- Giles Sheldrick - The Oxford Mail
- Christopher Gray - The Oxford Times
- Kids Kitchen - Newspaper Article
The Black Boy
91 Old High Street,
(01865 741 137)
Meal for two, including service, £60
Because I have the boredom threshold of a three-year-old who's been at the Jaffa Cakes then dropped face first into the sugar bowl like Al Pacino in Scarface, I can become easily irritated by the claims made for each gastropub that opens. If I had a penny for every one that has tried to sell itself to me this year because its kitchen will be using seasonal and local produce I'd have, er, 37p. Local and seasonal is no longer a unique selling point. It's a minimum qualifying standard. Frankly, if a gastropub happened along declaring its commitment to unseasonal produce, flown in from a very long way away, I'd probably book my table immediately. (No, not really. For God's sake don't see it as an invitation.)
I do understand the problem. The gastropub movement is such a success, and so established, that most now fit under the bland heading: that place not far from where you live, where it's possible to get a decent meal. Trying to get attention for one of those is like trying to get tabloid column inches for a page three model who has embarked on a loving relationship with a Premier League footballer, in which neither side has ever been unfaithful or tried to get their partner to dress up as a pony. Where's the story?
Happily, the Black Boy pub at Headington, on the outskirts of Oxford, does have a unique selling point. It serves nice food which is cheap. The latter is not at all common. The dividing line between gastropub and restaurant is now so hazy that the £19 gastro-pub main course is now nothing to write either home, or to you, about. The Black Boy, a tidily renovated Thirties roadhouse with an unfussy monochrome-papered dining room to one side, is attempting to re-engineer the proposition. I hope they succeed, because it's exactly what we need. Starters are generally under a fiver. Mains cluster around the £7.95 mark. If you manage to spend more than £60 on three courses it's only because you are trying really hard.
The one dish that didn't work was a celeriac and bramley apple soup that was too sweet. Nothing a hefty dose of salt couldn't sort. A ham hock terrine, the friable meat bound by a wobbly, savoury jelly that paid homage to the animals boiled down for it, came with its own chunky piccalilli and still-warm bread rolls. In the main courses, virtue lay in the details: not just the big, solid smoked haddock fish cake but the smear of smooth lemon beurre blanc that came with it; not just the thick gravy and properly braised meat in the steak and kidney pie, but the slab of crumbly, burnished suet pastry that lay on top of it.
Nothing on this menu will shock or surprise. The dessert list includes both bread-and-butter and sticky toffee puddings, but, like almost everything else, they deliver. It's good food at a good price. Gosh, it just might catch on.
Selfish Secret Shared...
3:24pm Friday 14th November 2008
For the past month or so, Abigail Rose and Chris Bentham have been trying to restore the reputation of a once-proud pub.
And for a while The Black Boy did have something of a ‘reputation’. One well-informed individual told me that a few years ago a wedding party got a little over-excited and a street brawl erupted in the genteel environs of Old High Street.
Thankfully, things have changed since then and the latest incarnation of the pub has lots of promise. Inside, it looks more like a gastro pub than a spit-and-sawdust boozer, but that’s no bad thing.
It’s clean and clinical, but don’t interpret that as having no atmosphere; it’s probably to do with the fact the venue has only been open for a few weeks. The decor is striking and warm, but it needs time to grow into itself.
There’s a cosy lounge area with roaring fire, perfect for pre-dinner drinks or a pint of real ale (guest beers change weekly), a large bar area, a casual eating area and a separate restaurant.
On Sundays, the pub runs a kids’ kitchen where youngsters can learn to cook (Abi and Chris were both pupils of Raymond Blanc); on Sunday nights (monthly) there’s an acoustic open mic; Tuesdays it’s quiz night and Thursdays it’s jazz.
Food wise, hearty home cooked meals are the order of the day with a menu that’s unpretentious and stuffed full of old favourites and cunning twists — all under £10.
As a starter, the ham hock terrine was a delicious and delicate plate of cold meat – perfectly accompanied by tangy and crunchy piccalilli.
The roast at £7.95 is excellent value (it’s £4.50 for children) and although it wasn’t the best I’ve had, three or four succulent slices of pork with crisp winter vegetables and gravy (technically, I think it’s called a jus) was spot on.
The only criticism was the steak and kidney pie, for which the word ‘pie’ was a little generous. It was essentially lumps of meat (delicious, I am told) with a small pastry hat..
However, there were no complaints from the person who ordered it.
Portion-wise, I was left a little disappointed with the size of my meal — but that might be a little unfair given I generally like it piled high.
Given time, this place will surely become a great success.
THE BILL: Ham hock terrine x2 £9 Smoked haddock fishcake £8.95 Fish pie with green beans £7.95 Steak and kidney pie £8.95 Roast pork £7.95 Bowl of chips £2.50 Two pints of draught real ale £5.80 Carignan merlot x2 £23.90 TOTAL: (four people) £75
The Black Boy, Headington
11:08am Thursday 5th March 2009
Political correctness that I cannot entirely reprehend presumably lies behind the decision to promote the Black Boy in Headington with the image of a horse rather than a human.
It was as long ago as 1990 that the sculpted figure of a black servant, which once occupied a niche at the front of the building, was smashed by vandals and replaced by a painted image of a child chimney sweep. Now this has gone, too, and Abi Rose, and chef Chris Bentham, who took over this fine Old Headington pub in partnership last October, have adopted an equine theme (see right) in their advertising.
While traditionalists will no doubt object to this, it seems to me a proper reflection of changed times – even though I entertain a warm regard for the Black Boy as it was. I knew it well, and visited it as often as my liver and nose could stand during the long tenancy of Leigh Jackson, who sadly died (retired some years by then) in 2007. The liver was tested by the need always to taste Leigh’s latest malt whisky discovery and (of course!) compare it with many of the others in his vast collection; the nose suffered through an intake of snuff of which there were always copious quantities in considerable variety behind the bar.
That bar would hardly be recognised (see right) by Leigh were he to return. He would likewise be surprised by the modern decor which gives an altogether airier feel to the place. What he would certainly be pleased with, I think, is the food, for Chris and Abi have had the rather bright idea of offering what is essentially up-market pub grub within the ambience of a restaurant.
The menu features, for example, such ‘comfort food’ main courses as beer battered fish and chips, home-made burger, steak and kidney pie, sausage and mash, and steak frites. Among the starters are . . . er, well, apart from soup there’s not much else you could call ‘pub grub’, but then pubs didn’t use to have starters. Here you can sample, for example, ham hock terrine, salmon fishcake and herb salad with beetroot, goat’s cheese and walnut.
Actually, this should be ‘herb salad with beetroot’ since all ‘bs’ that appear on the menu are printed in bold type. This makes you realised how comparatively infrequently the letter appears: only once, for example, among the 11 hot drinks listed, and that in ‘double espresso’.
Like the sound of the food? I certainly think you might like the taste.
The popularity of the Black Boy is such that Abi could only just squeeze us in when we called on Saturday lunchtime begging for a table that evening. But squeezed in we were – or rather not, since our table in front of the fire gave us plenty of room and a commanding view over the rest of the room and its happy crowd of diners.
I chose to start my meal with a dish that can either be ordered as a starter or (for £8.95) as a main. This was a superb champagne and wild mushroom risotto, bursting with the woodland flavours of the fungi and with the rice just as I like it, not in the sloppy modern style but with a touch of bite to it. For Rosemarie there was the day’s soup – an enjoyable (if worryingly Germolene-coloured) blend of carrot and beetroot with pleasing orange overtones.
My first plan for main course was wild mushroom lasagne but, realising this might have been rather too much of a good thing, I switched to the fish pie. This was excellent – mainly salmon, with some smoked fish and a very cheesy topping. It came with green beans and I ordered a well-dressed herb side salad. Rosemarie had braised Lincolnshire pork belly (I knew she would!) – superb rich-flavoured, moist meat, served with mashed potatoes, green beans and a red wine jus.
She managed after that to find room for a dark chocolate pot, not as runny at the centre as she had hoped, with home-made shortbread. I passed on pud but – with a warm thought for the late Leigh – treated myself to a Talisker malt. Just the one!
Youngsters get cooking lessons at Oxford pub
3:44pm Monday 23rd February 2009
The owners of The Black Boy pub in Oxford are hoping to inspire a future Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson – with weekly cookery classes for four- to 12-year-olds.
Abi Rose and Chris Bentham took over the gastropub in Old High Street, Headington, last October, and one of their first projects was setting up Kid's Kitchen.
Mr Bentham, 32, explained: "Abi and I are both passionate about food and, as well as providing our customers with great dishes, we also wanted to pass on our passion to the younger generation.
"Children are no longer taught Home Economics in school like we were, so we decided we would invite them along to the pub to learn about cooking, in the hope they would continue cooking at home.
“It's really caught on."
Asked whether the classes were attracting new custom during the tough financial climate, Mr Bentham said: "It is a difficult time for pubs and restaurants, and although we started the classes out of a love of food, rather than as a way of attracting new custom, we have found that some families do come along, watch their little ones cooking and then stay for lunch.”
Kids Kitchen is held in the pub every Sunday, from 10-11am, with two groups, four- to eight- year-olds and eight- to 12- year-olds, creating simple, easy recipes ranging from pizzas and lasagne to cheesecake and muffins.
Mrs Rose, 33, said: "We put a lot of thought into what we cook with the children.
"Firstly, it's about the enjoyment factor – techniques like bashing or creaming make it fun and interesting.
"Last Sunday, for example, we all made passion fruit cheesecake, and the bashing of the biscuits was a definite favourite.
"But we also choose recipes which involve new skills, such as the kneading technique in making pizza bases.
“These are simple skills which can be repeated again and again in different recipes.
"Taste and ingredients are also important. If it's not hugely healthy, we at least make sure it’s partly healthy!
"Trying to get some children to try new things is difficult – but I do tend to slide things under the radar, like Calzone pizza with a spinach and ricotta filling, which the kids loved making, and because they loved making it, they loved eating it.
"All the recipes have to able to be repeated at home, and not take too long to cook. I guess what I'm trying to do is establish a foundation in food and recipes for the kids to build on when it comes to their own cooking in later life.
"I haven't heard of any other pubs doing this, but it's something I've always wanted to do since my own son Henry, who is four, was tiny. It was he who actually inspired me to attempt to do this. His favourite is Banana Bread – he loves the mashing and the mixing!
Eight-year-old Maisie Wilson lives in Marston, Oxford, and has been attending Kid's Kitchen classes for a month.
Her mum, Gillian, said: "Maisie enjoys cooking with her friends and tasting things she normally wouldn't want to try – like spinach, and passion fruit which she liked.
"I think it is a good idea to get children interested in food preparation and to help them feel confident to try food they may reject at home.
"Abi gets them to interact with her, so they are thinking, not just doing, and Maisie felt inspired to give me a shopping list from memory and then made her own cheesecake at home, which was delicious!"
Mrs Rose added: "Getting children intrigued in food at an early age has the potential to help their diet in the future, without the preaching."
Classes cost £10 a session and can be booked online at: theblackboy.uk.com or by phone on 01865 741137.