Without a blackboard signposting the way, you might miss Baldon Lane – but make the turn, head down through glades of trees, past fields, over a little bridge and round a bend to the village green and there it is – the bucolic little Seven Stars pub.
One of five venues in the Free Spirit Pub group (The Castle at Edgehill and The Sun Inn at Hook Norton are also in our ‘hood) the dog-friendly country pub in the swoon-worthy village of Marsh Baldon offers something a little different to your usual pub grub with a sharing plates menu that’d be at home in a swish central Oxford restaurant.
The pub is split into two sections that are both functional and smart but inviting, adorned with local artwork and chunky wood furniture. There’s a cosy bar/ dining area at the front and a barn at the rear. Rarely used by previous owners, Free Spirit Pubs have transformed this space since acquiring the venue just over a year ago and it’s now a welcoming, light, airy room with vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, flagstone floors and skylights. If you’re visiting in the warmer months or coming with a group, I would try and score a table in here because of its light and buzzy vibe (while the front is better suited to more intimate cosy meals).
The garden here also shines (literally on the day I visited, it’s a sun trap). It’s one of those pub gardens that’s just made for summer with a few tables shaded under a stretch tent and picnic-style seating scattered on the grass and around the atmospheric weeping willow tree. We visited on a lazy Friday lunchtime, but I can imagine on a summer weekend the garden is buzzing with families, friends and Fido.
There’s also plenty of space to bring picnic blankets to perch on the grass (G&T in had, natch), plus a sweet Aunt Sally pitch tucked away at the back of the garden (by the looks of the scoreboard, it can get pretty competitive!).
SCOFF & QUAFF
The best type of meal out is one that’s fun, sociable and – of course – delicious and Head Chef Patrick Smith has it nailed with the small plates concept introduced to the pub earlier this year – split into dishes from the land, sea and allotment – with provenance high on the agenda.
There’s a real focus on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients here with new recipes being tried and tested in the kitchen weekly (lucky staff!), so don’t be surprised if what you see listed online is slightly different to what’s being served on the day. There’s also a small but perfectly formed menu of pub classics if you don’t fancy sharing (fish and chips, steak et al.) or, if you can’t make up your mind, grab a group of 8+ and go for the Feasting Menu, a selection of dishes chosen by the chef, or bespoke to your party.
The menu recommends to have 1-2 sharing plates and two sides per person and we made a pretty impressive dent in the menu including….
… dry-aged sirloin with bone marrow butter and pickled shallots – a firm favourite of my plus one who described it as perfectly salted and melt in the mouth. Accompanied with house chips and maple glazed carrots (hoovered up in seconds) it was like a posh steak and chips dinner!
Also from the Land, was a menu favourite recommended by the team – braised pig cheek, pork belly, celeriac puree and rhubarb jam – heaven for carnivores.
From the Sea, we chose pan-fried sea bass with fennel, sun-blushed tomatoes and black olive with moreishly crispy skin. My only wish was that there was more of it – one fillet was a little hard to share.
I was especially impressed with the Allotment offering here – vegetables are not an afterthought with the dishes packing equal flavour to the meat and fish dishes which is no mean feat. The lemon and thyme cauliflower with toasted hazelnuts was punchy and perfectly charred – leftovers taken home for tomorrow’s lunch never made it to the next day.
And finally, my favourite dish, the cajun sweetcorn ribs – a revelation! Like real ribs, these are a get stuck in, a eat with your hands affair and they were genuinely the tastiest pieces of corn I’ve ever eaten. Spicy, sweet, smoky, buttery – all the right adjectives.
For dessert I swerved my go-to sticky toffee pud and chose the most interesting option of lemon curd, gin & tonic sorbet, meringue, biscuit crumb and, er, cucumber (yes really!). Fresh, cooling, beautifully presented and the ideal serve for a warm summer day.
OUT & ABOUT
Two minutes drive from the pub you’ll find Harcourt Arboretum, the sister site to Oxford Botanic Gardens, with over 130 acres filled with rare and endangered trees, wildflower meadows and wildlife (keep your eyes peeled for strutting peacocks). There are also gorgeous walks aplenty nearby, my favourites being around historic Dorchester with its stunning Abbey (9 minute drive) or Wittenham Clumps with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside – some of the best in the county – and soaring red kites (13 minute drive).
For hustle and bustle, central Oxford is under a 20 minute drive, or head in the opposite direction to buzzy market town Wallingford (one of Muddy’s Best Places to Live, natch) with its lively high street brimming with quirky indie shops.
Fancy something active? Oxford Wet’n’Wild on Queenford Lake is a 7 minute drive with its giant inflatable, floating obstacle course and paddleboard and kayak hire – just remember to wait 30 minutes before hitting the water (especially if you’ve scoffed the Feasting menu!).
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Check out the doggy bar!
Good for: It’s hard to imagine a group that wouldn’t enjoy a meal here – friends, dates, parties, family meals (there’s a kids menu), and pooches are welcome too. The menu also caters well for dietary requirements with lots of options for veggies, vegans and gluten free.
Not for: If you like your pubs traditionally ‘pubby’ with nooks, crannies and classic pub grub. The Seven Stars is immaculately presented with refined, restaurant-style food to match. The pub isn’t in the easiest to access if you’re not driving/ don’t want to fork out for a taxi.
The damage: Sharing plates range from £8.25 – £14.75 with sides all priced at £4.25. Main courses average £15.95, desserts from £6.25 – £9.25.
The Seven Stars, The Green, Marsh Baldon, Oxford OX44 9LP. Tel: 01865 343337