Oxford dining, for so long a rather old-fashioned affair, has been invigorated in the last few years – and that’s even before we consider the arrival of the revamped Westgate Centre, which brought with it a good smattering of the brands that you’d actually want to eat in (Pizza Pilgrims, Cinnamon Kitchen, Shoryu et al). Oli’s Thai and its tapas sibling Arbequina have both made East Oxford the place for serious foodies to head, just as the Magdalen Arms round there has been doing very decent nose-to-tail cooking for some time. Upmarket Summertown has the Oxford Kitchen, there are plenty of highly regarded places in Jericho, and even South Oxford has some good pubs. But what of West Oxford, for so long the slightly forgotten part of the city past the train station?
Well, West Oxford has always had Osney Island, a rather beautiful (if deeply flood-prone) part of town that few know about, but which features a remarkably good pub called The Punter. It’s the sort of place that’s stylish (lots of interesting art on the walls and carefully mismatched furniture), but which serves top-notch food and great drink at extremely fair prices. It’s the kind of pub that one goes to, has a great time, and then is pleasantly surprised the next day at the reasonable size of the bill. Owned by Tom Rainey, who also has a sister establishment of the same name in Cambridge, it’s one of the very nicest places that one can go in Oxford.
There is now, courtesy of the talented Mr Rainey, another very good reason to head to West Oxford, namely the newly opened Porterhouse Grill and Rooms. Situated on the unprepossessing Mill Street a stone’s throw from the station, a boring pub has been transformed into a combination of a cosy pub, a top-notch boutique hotel and a steak house that is easily the equal of any of London’s finest. How it has managed to be all things to all men is both a mystery and a miracle of sorts. Yet when one enters to find dark blue walls, leather banquettes, carefully restored original features and a genuinely warm and friendly welcome, you’ll know that this is a place to luxuriate in.
The rooms are superbly comfortable and well-appointed; a black Smeg fridge contains all the milk and water that you might wish for, but the major aim here is to break new ground in the Oxford market and to cater to the sort of people who’d enjoy a weekend break but don’t want to stay in either a soulless chain or a rather old-fashioned boarding house. The beds are comfortable and the bathroom well-equipped; the TV has built-in Netflix. However, with the delights of Oxford on your doorstep and the grill downstairs, you’re unlikely to be spending a vast amount of time snoozily watching The Crown.
This is because another royal accolade – a knighthood, at least – really ought to go to Rainey and his carnivorous cohorts in the grill. As a place to go and drink, this is a top-notch destination only stymied by not having more keg beer options. But as a place to eat, dinner is something else. It’s a short, well-chosen menu, and steak lies at the heart of it, although non meat-eaters are catered for, not least with a mushroom-heavy ‘vegetable grill’.
A blackboard tells you what cuts are available, and at what (extremely reasonable) price they are per 100g. A rib-eye is the stuff of dreams, especially after a starter of duck hearts salad; the marbling, the preparation and the cooking in Bertha, a grill that can hit a mighty 350 degrees are all the sort of thing that a steak aficionado like me can only salute. I can’t remember having had a better cut of meat in England, and it’s paired beautifully with a big hearty Malbec and very fine chips.
Steak also makes a return in the morning on the breakfast menu, which I found the faintest overkill; it was still excellent, of course, but it was a bit like having seen the best gig you’ve ever been to, and then being waylaid by the lead singer and guitarist doing an acoustic set on your way home. Which is to say it’s still enormously appreciated, but perhaps it doesn’t add as much to the dish as it should. But this really is pedantry, especially as the sausages are every bit as good. In fact, the Porterhouse should be saluted for offering something exciting, innovative and fairly priced. For the steak alone, I can’t wait to go back.
The Porterhouse Grill & Rooms, Mill Street, Oxford ox2 0al. For more information, and for reservations, visit www.theporterhouse-oxford.com.