I have to admit I was fairly gutted when The Punter announced it was reopening as a vegan and vegetarian hotspot. Not that I don’t love vegetarian food – I do – but as one of my favourite Oxford boozers I was reluctant for it to change.
Run by Tom Rainey, who also boasts The Porterhouse steak and guest house down the road, he could see the writing on the wall. Oxford was lacking good vegan/vegetarian offerings and he wanted to do something about it for the country’s biggest growing food group.
“when people actually try the food they really like it. You won’t miss the meat,” head chef max promised.
Besides, little needed to change anyway. The Punter would still have a prime riverside location, faithful locals, boaters, tourists and students flocking to sit in the lovely beer garden or watch the barges float past, and a great head chef Max Cooper in the kitchen.
The only difference would be that there wouldn’t be a scrap of meat or fish to be seen on the menu.
Head chef Max laughed when I questioned him about that. “I can’t tell you how many people have offered to pay me for a steak or a bacon sandwich. But when they actually try the food they really like it. You won’t miss the meat.” he promised.
The challenge was on, especially as I hadn’t mentioned its new status to my elder son or husband, who are ardent carnivores.
It was as much of a test however for my two vegetarian children, who tend to like what they like. Would they cope with a more experimental menu?
To cut a long, delicious story short, yes was the answer to all of the above. Meat-stars and veggies alike, we were all impressed with Max’s eclectic summer menu. And that’s what’s most important.
The vegans and vegetarians will flock, no question, but can they entice their friends? Can we all eat herbivorous food communally?
Yes, because there was a great selection of dishes on offer; from mezze, spaghetti and burgers to more sophisticated dishes such as stuffed courgette flowers and pissaladiere, covering all bases, occasions and appetites.
In fact, we couldn’t have had a more convivial meal. The mezze board broke the ice, all homemade but the humuus and babaganoush, the toasted peppers and aubergine and the beetroot and walnut dip, with strips of warm pitta proved a familiar and perfect accompaniment for that first drink sitting in the sunny courtyard garden, socially distanced of course.
The ricotta stuffed courgette flower with balsamic radicchio was another must – so seasonal with the softness of the cheese, contrasting with the crunch of the batter and the sharpness of the radicchio.
The twice baked Charmer cheese soufflé with spinach and a mustard cream sauce was another winner, if a rather wintery dish – but my daughter loved every mouthful, and the chestnut mushroom with garlic and tarragon on toasted sourdough had all the right juices running through.
The pressed and fried aubergine parmigiana with caponata suited the mediterranean climes and was another novel and exciting dish, simply presented.
So far so good.
Choosing from the mains was as difficult – there was so much I wanted. We tried pretty much everything; from the leek, sultana and olive pissaladiere (£11) which came with a dressed rocket salad and wonderfully rustic.
The chilli, lemon and fennel spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and parmesan was nice but needed more visible veg and could have been a tad juicier. Having said that both portions disappeared without a trace.
The almond, chickpea and courgette burger with rosemary fries, avocado and a brioche bun (£14) was impressive. Definitely home-made – there are no meat replacements here – the portions were generous, the extras tasty – and they went down a treat.
The crispy tofu stir fry with udon noodle kimchi and a poached duck egg was another unusual but successful and hefty meal.
Which meant we had to decline the burrata, heirloom tomato capers salad, the maple and caraway roasted heritage carrot, fennel and tender stem with Puy lentils and chimichurri, as well as the broccoli dhal with flatbread, for another time.
It seemed only fitting to go out with a bang so we ordered both desserts – the strawberry and pistachio parfait (£7) and the dark chocolate and raspberry delice hit all the right notes.
So what did we all think of the vegetarian and vegan options? Judging by the clean plates, they loved it. “I didn’t even miss the meat to be honest,” my son said, looking as surprised as anyone. “But that was really good.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth.
The Punter is a good ‘un whoever you are. Other than that very little has changed. It’s still a glorious place to eat out either way.
The Punter is open seven days a week serving from 12pm – 2.30pm & 6pm – 9.30pm on weekdays, and 12pm – 9.30pm at the weekends!