The Duke, just on the outskirts of Woodstock, was heaving when we arrived for dinner on Friday night. There was a large family party tucked into the private room and the remains of a wake sharing photographs, reminiscing and enjoying a glass of wine long after the rest of the funeral party had departed.
“The duke is everything a good pub should be”
Every table in fact was either full of expectant diners (the food here is really good), young people out for a good time, weekenders staying in one of the 13 rooms, or regulars lining the bar.
In short, it’s exactly what a good pub should be. All things to all people with an extra frisson on Friday night because the Sofa Sessions were about to get going – a brilliant night of live music.
the Sofa Sessions were about to get going – a brilliant night of live music
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and mustn’t do head chef Alan Dann out of his moment in the sun, because his kitchen is pumping out some really impressive food.
Sister pub to the much acclaimed Back Lane Tavern in Woodstock itself, The Duke has much more of a relaxed village pub vibe than its more sophisticated sibling.
But the food is just as serious. It’s a sharing plate menu scenario but the dishes also work in a straight forward starter/main/pud setting.
We dived in and tried a bit of everything from the generous and succulent sesame prawn toasts with sweet chilli gambas to the piquant red pepper hummus (£6) with a coiled flat bread and the more grown up and strident goats cheese panacotta, pear and walnut salad (£8.50).
The special was seared tuna with Asian slaw and a wasabi mayo, which will be making a comeback this summer, and really took our breath away.
By now the band MR C – a fantastic covers group – was setting up, but we still managed to sneak in our mains before the main event kicked off, plates of home-made herb gnocchi with wild mushrooms, spinach and a delicious madeira cream sauce and a lovely crunchy parmesan and bread crumb topping (£16).
The excellent pan fried sea bream fillet came with champ potatoes, samphire, shrimp, caper and a creamy beurre blanc (£18), a real taste of the sea with the salty samphire and perfectly cooked fish.
The sirloin of beef with chimichurri, from the specials menu (see main pic) was cooked in a sous vide to make it tender and soft and served with the best stuffed rosti chips I’ve had in a long time. I could have eaten bowls of them locked in a cupboard under the stairs and been more than happy.
But the piece de resistance was the venison with red cabbage, fondant potatoes and its deep rich port sauce (£24), as we all clamoured to finish every last morsel.
The bar was filling up, the final sound checks being undertaken. We snuck in a quick dessert order for some sticky toffee pudding with calvados mascarpone (£8.50) and the classic vanilla creme brûlée with raspberry and golden syrup biscuits (£8), which came layered like a custard creme and was heavenly.
But for me, the elegance and textural dexterity of the white and dark chocolate pistachio cheesecake (£8.50) took the biscuit, clever in its reconstructed aesthetic with the satisfying tap of chocolate leading into the soft cake and pistachio cream beneath.
And then the band ripped into action and the crowd in the bar started tapping their feet and moving their bodies until finally everyone was up and dancing, the dining room watching in enjoyment, some joining in.
Billy Joel, Sterophinics, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and classics like Walking in Memphis, and Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone boomed out.
It was a wonderful evening of music, food and fun as the night wound its way to a vibrant end and young and old sang and danced to their hearts delight.
So yes, I’d recommend the Sofa Sessions and the food. The music programme at The Duke is extensive and with bands starting at around 8.30pm there’s more than enough time for a mighty fine supper first.
The next Sofa Session gigs at The Duke are on April 14, June 23 and September 8, while on June 10 there is a Caribbean BBQ with live reggae, July 15 features well known ska band 2 Tone All Ska’s and then Oktoberfest follows on September 30.
The Duke of Marlborough is at Woodleys, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, OX20 1HT. For more information or to book The Duke go to https://www.dukeofmarlborough.co.uk