Talk about ‘tucked away’ – The Mole Inn is in the tiny hamlet of Toot Baldon with fields and farms in every direction, and the nearest large building is a 12th century church. And yet you’re three miles from the edge of Oxford.
On the winter’s night when we arrived, the avenue of trees leading to the entrance were twinkling with fairy lights and the windows were glowing orange like doors on an advent calendar. Bucolic box ticked!
The first thing you see on stepping through the door is the huge open fireplace, framed by two Chesterfield armchairs and above it the day’s specials. Note to self: next time allow an extra half hour after the meal to lounge in these with a digestif.
The dining area is large but divided into sections so it still feels intimate wherever you’re seated. It was full on the Saturday night we visited, and some friends who turned up one Friday lunchtime recently couldn’t get a table, so you definitely need to book, whatever time you go.
The decor is simple and definitely not the star here – it’s substance over style, with simple chunky wooden tables and chairs, lots of exposed beams and brickwork, lime plaster and tongue and groove woodwork in F&B shades. The lighting is low in the evening with lots of candles and lamps setting an inviting and cosy tone. The waiting staff too hit the felicitous vibe – chatty, but not over-familiar, and efficient.
The day time feel is more airy and bright, especially if you opt for the conservatory, which has a more modern, open feel. In summer there’s tables spread through the garden and courtyard amid the blousy planting, urns and sculptures.
SQUAFF & QUAFF
The specials board ran the full gamut of meat, fish and veg dishes, with provenance high on the agenda and classic flavour combinations, but with a twist. You can see why it’s held onto its two AA Rosettes, because it’s a definite step ahead of the average gastropub. For example, the whole grilled plaice advertised on the specials board came served with samphire and fennel, caper and hazelnut butter, where elsewhere the flavour combo might just have come from one of those ingredients.
As well as the flair, this is a pub that manages to cater for pickier tastes (and indeed the night we went I spotted at least four teenagers at various tables enjoying the house burger). Age-old classics include steak, and fish and chips alongside more gastropub-worthy dishes such as crispy calamari, which I had. It was made a little more cutting edge with the addition of gochujang and miso aioli, a tangy foil to the squid, which itself was crisp and nicely cooked. My other half started with the miso cured sea trout with avocado puree, pickled ginger, caviar and ponzu dressing. It was a really pretty dish and was super fresh with a delicate balance of flavours – there’s nowhere to hide with raw/cured, and this didn’t disappoint.
The pan-roast guinea fowl supreme, spring greens, sauteed mushroom, pan-fried foie gras and nougat jus had the potential to be overly rich but was well balanced, with each flavour coming through and the meat crisp but moist. My slow braised ox cheek with pappardelle ragu, roasted jerusalem artichoke, wild mushrooms, rocket and parmesan salad was equally flavoursome and the meat slow-cooked as yu’d expect. It was a stonking portion though and I didn’t finish it – definitely a good choice for anyone who’s hiked to the pub on a winter’s day.
For dessert, we settled on the cereal milk panna cotta, dulce de leche tuille and candy floss, which, somewhat theatrically had a rose spritz added to it at the table. The white chocolate tonka bean parfait, hazelnut creme patisserie and scorched milk skin was equally showy and the latter part didn’t taste like the scrapings of a saucepan, but actually delicate and delightful.
The wine list had a diverse selection of grapes with an impressive 14 to order by the glass, so there was plenty of scope to taste around. Old world dominated over new, alongside a couple of sparkling English options from Gusbourne.
OUT & ABOUT
If you’re visiting in the day, The Mole is well placed for a post-prandial feast, and welcomes dogs in some areas of the pub (it even featured in our fab local autumn walks with pubs feature). Harcourt Arboretum is a five-min drive from the Mole with its impressive tree collection and easy walking trails. The pub also has a kids menu of mac n cheese, fish and chips and the like, and in the summer the garden makes for a scenic family dining spot. So that’s the wholesome family day out sorted.
You’re very close to Garsington (it’s famous opera season runs from May to July), or you’re close-ish to Abingdon with its lock, riverside walks, boats for hire, children’s playgrounds and lido. For more walks, visit the much loved Wittenham Clumps and the Earth Trust, 20 minutes south. The Clumps consist of Round Hill and Castle Hill from which you get fab views of the open countryside.
Otherwise, there’s Oxford’s city centre 15 minutes away with all the spires, cobbles and quirky history you could wish for as well as world-class museums and a university you might have heard of…
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Equally good for a family get together as a date night, with top-end food and a convivial vibe without the stuffiness of other foodie hotspots.
Not for: Couples or groups looking for the fine dining/taster menu vibe and a chance to wear your finest gladrags… not a stiletto in sight the night we went.
The damage: Starters £7.50-10, main courses £15-30, dessert £8.50-£13. Wine from £5.60 a glass and £21 a bottle.
The Mole Inn, Toot Baldon, Oxford, OX44 9NG.Tel: 01865 340 001.