God it was nice to be out, so nice I wanted to scream hallelujah and do a little victory dance on arriving at The Hollybush in Witney on Saturday night.
Instead I walked sedately through the busy, socially distancing, friendly neighbourhood pub trying to curtail my excitement, to see what landlords Luke, Alex and their team have been up to over lockdown.
A lot it turns out, and the results are extraordinary, because once you emerge into the courtyard garden at the back, where once there was a BBQ and DJ area, is now a sleek set of pastel-painted, New England style garden rooms complete with wooden dining tables, banquettes, glass doors, mirrors, candles and benches. An ice bucket awaited us, a bottle of Prosecco waiting to be cracked open. It was absolute bliss.
And as we approached, the tinkling of glasses, the murmer of conversation, spikes of laughter, clink of knives and forks on plates, and general hum of customers enjoying themselves greeted us; an unmistakeable tang of excitement and relief in the air. Intimate and private yet strangely communal, they have hit the nail absolutely on the head here.
Beautifully designed and decorated, sophisticated yet enticing we were attracted like moths to a flame as we were led to our specific pod. The beauty of it is that with two families or groups, you can still share a pod and socially distance (they seat 6-12), so we could sit at two ends of the table and enjoy each others company without fear of contamination.
Everything has been thought through. The menus are presented as QR codes on beer mats, easily scanned onto your phone to avoid paper menu contamination or waste, orders are taken and whisked through, all drinks and food brought to the table. It’s effortless for you the customer.
The food helps of course. I love the menus at The Hollybush – fun, quirky and always brilliantly executed, think traditional with a twist (lamb rump with broad beans, feta, peas, lettuce, mint, pea shoots and new potatoes). Plus it offers a huge sharing menu for those wanting to eat tapas style, all of which you can pick and mix with the starters and mains.
Head chef Kevin Jones did the seven of us proud as the array of nibbles and starters began processing towards our pod – tempura cauliflower wings with sriracha mayo, crispy devilled whitebait with tartare sauce, a wonderful succulent burrata mozzarella and heritage tomato salad with basil oil from the main menu.
As grazers and sharers we added the crispy fried halloumi with a sweet chilli dip, beer battered gherkins, cheesy chips and some piping hot and salty padron peppers, the perfect way to kick off our lockdown release celebration.
The sheer joy of choosing and then eating such cracking food, drinking, sipping, laughing, chatting, that buzz of sociability. It was heaven I can tell you.
The service was impeccable – warm but careful – the staff proud and delighted to be back at work, keen to make the experience as enjoyable as possible.
The mains only exemplified that: Lots of 30 day dry-aged 10oz rump steaks – with a choice of French or hand cut chips, sauces (peppercorn, sage butter or garlic butter) with roast cherry tomatoes and salad.
Plus a portion of beer battered fish and chips with tartare sauce and pea puree, the aforementioned lamb and a lovely beetroot risotto with mascarpone.
The steak was immense, not only beautifully cooked and tasty but the cut of meat was exemplary and the sauces faultless. The chips too were a gift and had to be protected from anyone not partaking.
Not that we had anything to winge about – the risotto rice had just the right bite, the beetroot was al dente and not too sweet or sour, the mascarpone ensuring the dish was creamy and delicious, the nuts on top giving it a delicious crunch.
The fish batter was crisp and light, the lamb just the right shade of pink. We were hooked and appreciative.
My only criticism was a need for more veggie/vegan options for mains – there was only the risotto or a gem lettuce, potato and salsa verde salad on offer, but it’s a minor point.
More drinks were delivered, and we watched the other pods enjoying a similarly enticing experience before ordering dessert – sticky toffee pudding, apple crumble and custard, Eton mess, salty caramel and chocolate brownie mess, cheese or ice cream/sorbets to choose from.
The brownie mess won hands down – the home-made honeycomb on top setting a precedent for the dense chewy moist brownie, salty sauce and soft ice cream concoction within, although the sticky toffee and apple pudding were also extremely enjoyable.
Reluctantly we wiped our plates clean, ate the last morsels of desserts and drained our drinks, unwilling to leave this bewitching scene and its heady atmosphere.
Not only has Luke, Alex and their team given us a new dining experience to enjoy which ticks all the boxes, but he has used the lockdown to complete the very project they’ve dreamt of for years. Beforehand, when to close a pub down for months while work was completed posed a big problem. Not any more.
Every cloud eh? In the meantime I’d hotfoot it down there pretty damn quick, because Luke’s pods are going like gold dust. There’s only four for a start and as they present the perfect weatherproof, novel, private and quirky solution to all sorts of dining problems – from lockdowns to occasion eating, social distancing to the good old English weather – will be in huge demand.
Just remember the pods MUST be booked in advance though. And that you read it here first!
Book at https://hollybushwitney.com. Bookings are limited to a minimum of six people, with a minimum spend and deposit required in advance.