The Dining Room at The Ashmolean, Oxford

First published in The Financial Times.

The Dining Room at the Ashmolean, Oxford

This restaurant has the good fortune to sit atop the roof of the Ashmolean museum – and the wonder of its situation is twofold, writes Rebecca May Johnson. There is the pleasure of ascending the white stone staircase that runs up through the centre of the building, which allows snapshots of all the floors simultaneously as you climb; second, there are the views over Oxford from the light-flooded restaurant, with glass on all sides.

I recently went there twice in a day. In the morning I met a former tutor for coffee. When I reached the top, a little out of breath, the place was bustling. The design of the restaurant is 1970s retro: wooden chairs are all ergonomic and curvy, there is a moss green velvet sofa that runs the length of one wall, and the light fittings are huge snowball-like white spheres composed of “individual feathers”. My black coffee was good and my croissant warm and buttery. Best of all, Alan Bennett was sitting two tables away.

When I returned that evening, the museum was closed and, instead, the Dining Room was reached by an entrance round the corner on St Giles. It’s a shame, though, that dining in the evening means missing out on the staircase – there’s a lift instead.

The menu, designed by executive chef Arun Manickam, offers many ways to eat a meal. There are tapas-sized bits, such as half a dozen quails eggs with cumin salt; “small dishes”, such as pumpkin ravioli with sage and pumpkin seed butter and steak tartare; a selection of charcuterie and cheese; and then seven “large dishes”, as well as sides and puddings.

This may sound confusing but, as the menu is available from lunchtime onwards, it means you can have a light lunch, a glass of wine with some nibbles or a full meal. I suppose the multi-functional menu makes sense at what is, essentially, a tourist attraction, with a constant stream of people visiting all day.

After really fresh red radishes with olive tapenade and the delightfully creamy quail’s eggs, my friend and I both had hearty main courses. He had duck confit cassoulet with Toulouse sausage and pork rind, and I had Cornish fish stew with bread. Both arrived in satisfyingly large terracotta dishes. Unfortunately his duck, while rich, savoury, and falling off the bone, definitely erred on the side of being over-seasoned and was only just saved by the beans in the cassoulet; my superb fish stew had meaty chunks of red mullet, mackerel, clams and mussels in a fishy tomato sauce. Our waiter was attentive, charming and very efficient. The atmosphere was sufficiently convivial that we ended up chatting with diners on the next table.

In short, though there could be a few more leaves on the menu (there were no salads at all when I visited a month ago), and the kitchen needs to tighten up a bit, I’ll definitely be booking a table on the roof terrace in summer.

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