Restaurant review: Wild Thyme, Chipping Norton

Date:19-03-2014 08:58:09 read:0

Restaurant review: Wild Thyme, Chipping Norton

David Cameron and the Chipping Norton set love Wild Thyme. Will Matthew Norman agree?

Photo: John Lawrence

The latest in an occasional series of bespoke reviews, micro-targeted with breathtaking precision at sub-demographics of the readership, takes us to the Cotswolds on behalf of a once regnant but now disbanded clique.

I refer, as you may already have guessed, to the Chipping Norton Set (CNS). These days, we hear of its former members only as individuals, and all too often what we hear rends the heart. The marathon trial of Rebekah and Charlie Brooks meanders on at the Old Bailey, and David Cameron watches as his erstwhile Bullingdon compadres, the Chancellor and the Mayor of London, begin their war of attrition to succeed him. Elisabeth Murdoch and husband Matthew Freud, who fell out grievously with Rebekah a few summers ago, see their own succession to the throne of the Murdoch Empire threatened by strained relations with Rupert. How did it come to this, they must wonder in bewilderment, when not so long ago they bestrode the worlds of politics and media like green-wellied colossi? I hereby call for a moment’s silence as we all strive to master the collective anguish occasioned by these remembrances.

Right. Having composed ourselves, let us turn to the question at hand. In some 20 years, when the dust of battle has settled and the hatchets need burial, where should the CNS meet to reflect, with the wry perspective of late middle age, on the country suppers of yore?

Pan-roasted scallops with pancetta at Wild Thyme (JOHN LAWRENCE)

The answer is Wild Thyme. Do not be misled by that hilarious pun. This restaurant (with rooms) has the ideal atmosphere – subdued, faintly wistful – for such a reunion.

The small, narrow room elicited from my friend a Sir Humphreyish analysis. “This decor,” she said, “is brave.” The chairs, with slots for hymn books at the back, must have come from a church furniture fire sale. Patches of pink and silver wallpaper nestle between stone and brickwork. Bundles of twigs shaped into hearts hang from the walls. “It’s charity shop chic,” observed my friend. “Though I’m taken with the fuse-box by the door.”

What followed, once we had ordered from a menu tinged with Mediterranean flourishes, underlined that sense of ambition thwarted which seems so apposite in the CNS context. The food had enough in its favour to suggest that this joint will survive to host the reunion; and that Nick Pullen, who cooks in a tiny kitchen while his wife Sally runs the front of house, needs a grander stage to showcase his talent.

These Pullens certainly strive to please. The prices take no liberties, while treating punters to three types of bread with excellent black olives establishes this as a determinedly honest venture in the labour-of-love style. As for the cooking, this was accurate and at times impressive, but incessantly brought to mind the “less is more” maxim.

Pan-roasted scallops with crispy pancetta were fresh, plump and sweet enough to elicit an elongated “Mmmmmm… nothing wrong with those”; but one of those irksome purées (butternut squash) did nothing but confuse the flavour. My wood pigeon breast (roasted, with the same startlingly left-field originality as the scallops, in a pan) was juicy and potent, and worked well with delicately pickled diced vegetables, but another purée – parsnip, this time – again detracted from the dish.

With the arrival of the main courses, we were joined by what seems to be a stock accompaniment to a Cotswolds lunch – a pair of septuagenarian walkers with the body mass index of Masai warriors, who sit in companionable silence at a neighbouring table.

Rabbit three ways: a little too busy (JOHN LAWRENCE)

My main course franked the form. All the components of “local wild rabbit three ways” – puff pastry pie, steamed loin and a salty, intense wonton – were fine. The pastry, in fact, was superb. But the addition of wild mushrooms, winter roots, greens, puy lentils and a Dijon cream lent the dish a sort of panicked, Clapham-Junction-at-rush-hour congestion.

My friend went for “a plate of winter vegetables and purées” (when will this befouling of crockery with faux-artistic squiggles of mush cease?), with pan-fried halloumi (said pan now officially enshrined as the Hardest Working Utensil in Showbusiness) sourced to a cheesemaker by the Dickensian name of Crudge. She was underwhelmed by the waxen blandness of the cheese – but then halloumi is the dairy’s answer to squid, the only point to it being its texture.

Perhaps it was a subliminal craving to counterbalance the quietude. But after my Chas and Dave-themed “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit”, I went for a pudding entitled “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb”, which lined up a deliciously sharp crumble, an adroit crème brûlée and a soppy, feckless scoop of ice cream. My friend opted for a dark chocolate cylinder filled with a sub-Milky Way mousse, and served with dainty Cointreau jellies, salty caramel, clementines and a hazelnut crisp – yet again, far too busy.

Our nice waitress reported that David Cameron was in recently for lunch with constituency party officials. It is comforting to assume that this was a long-range scouting mission, and that he means, in due course, to return with Samantha, Rebekah, Charlie, Elizabeth and Matthew (and, God willing, Jeremy Clarkson) for that rapprochement dinner.

*Wild Thyme,10 New St, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 5LJ, 01608 645060; Three courses with wine: about £55 per head. Winter set lunch: £18 for two courses, £22.50 for three

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013