Christopher Gray delights in a rejuvenated inn which is sure to be another jewel in Woodstock

Since reopening six weeks ago, the new-look Crown in Woodstock has become a much-talked-about, much-visited and, I feel pretty sure, much-enjoyed addition to the sipping and scoffing facilities of a town already boasting lavish provision of these. This is a new role for a place that seems previously to have been air-brushed from history.

A very fat file in the library at Newspaper House charts the ups and downs over the years of such establishments as the Bear (lots of downs, alas), the Feathers, the King’s Arms, and the Woodstock Arms — a favourite of mine when I lived in the town 40 years ago. “Ladies and gentlemen, purchasing time has ceased,” called the dapper landlord Henry at the end of each day’s service.

Among the hundreds of cuttings, there are but three concerning the Crown. The oldest (1957) asserts that the inn is reputed once to have supplied stabling for Oliver Cromwell’s horses but that, in essence, its history is a mystery. Another deals with rowdiness leading to suspension of an entertainment licence. The third is a restaurant review from my late and much lamented friend and colleague John O’Callaghan.

Dating from the decade, the seventies, when I was in the town, the article probably explains why the Crown went unvisited by me, a situation that persisted, indeed, until the last day of last month.

The piece speaks of “a tomato Soupe du Jour, hot but packety”, “a frozen macedoine of vegetables” and “Spanish wine”, which in those days meant something quite other than the rioja or cava of today. Corrida probably. The masterly piece of comic writing builds towards the revelation that the French manager Philip Laforest and his Swiss wife (yes, Heidi) have handed in their notice to Courage. “He did not feel that merely being a slightly superior bar person was enough in life.” Heidi said she would have liked to do some fondues, “but all they want is frozen peas”.

Five weeks before John’s visit the property had undergone a renovation costing the then tidy sum of £25,000. This is probably the last time the place saw major works before the costly, immensely tasteful, improvement it has undergone over the past 20 months under the new ownership of Julian Rosser. Is still undergoing, in fact, because five boutique bedrooms are to be added above the neatly tricked out bar, with its pine floor, cool green walls (plus lots of exposed stone ones) and open fires. The job is a credit to Julian’s wife Justine and her design company Dexterous.

Julian has been a significant mover and shaker on the Oxford catering scene over many years — though it’s the cocktail barpersons who do the shaking (and stirring) at his most famous establishment, the Duke of Cambridge in Little Clarendon Street, and the newer House off High Street.

Bar manager Paul Meriguet, a veteran of both these establishments, put his skill to good use in setting up the drinks we enjoyed on arrival at the Crown, a Cosmopolitan for Rosemarie and a no less classic Negroni for me, as ever demonstrating that booze, booze and more booze (gin, Campari, red vermouth) is what a cocktail requires.

Following these, manager Sara Robinson led us to our reserved table in the airy new conservatory, where chefs can be seen at their work before the wood-burning oven that imparts its own special flavour to a number of dishes, including the pizzas. But would we, she asked on arrival, rather be in the bar? By now nearly full, this was significantly buzzier, and preferred.

Nestled at a table in an alcove by the fire, we were at once supplied with chunks of a delicious, salty home-baked focaccia by cheery waitress Cressie, who quickly followed up with starters proper.

Wishing to try the pizza, but not the whole big thing I asked for the pizzetta of the day from the bar snack menu. This featured wild mushrooms (chanterelles and pieds de mouton) and goat’s cheese, a happy combination, on a super crispy dough base, with smoky, slightly charred flavour.

Witney Gazette:
Tasteful: The Crown's interior

Rosemarie’s starter, also from the oven, was a pair of king prawns — regal indeed at about 8in long. The finger bowl was a very necessary accessory on account not just of the peeling but of the glorious buttery juice in the skillet beneath them, fiery with chilli. More of that fabulous focaccia helped in the mopping up.

She continued with slow-cooked shoulder of lamb, which stood as a superb example of the robust, full-flavoured food produced by executive chef Fiona Cullinane, who also has charge of the kitchens at Julian’s Oxford restaurant and pub, the Anchor, in Hayfield Road. The meat had been cooked to the point at which it fell from the bone (in the process being freed from a lot of the fat), then fashioned into a patty. It was served with caponata, that favourite aubergine-rich Sicilian stew.

There was a strong, continental flavour to my main course, too, which teamed a sizeable chunk of hake — moist and pearl white beneath the skin — with a stew composed of beans (arrocina rather than the larger butterbeans of the menu), pieces of chorizo and salty samphire. A dollop of garlicky aioli was a neat finishing touch.

With owner Julian now on the scene we were persuaded (it hardly required thumbscrews) to sample a selection of the puds, which included a fabulous pear and almond tart, chunks of chocolate brownie and three varieties of home-made ice-cream (apple, blood orange and banana). A pungent dolcelatte and thin slices of pecorino with honey were also supplied. The dessert wine, Chateau Calabre 2010, from the Semillon Doux grape, brought a welcome flavour of grapefruit which, as a taker of pills that make dangerous their consumption, I had not tasted in years.

Earlier we had been drinking the fresh-flavoured French white, Les Hauts du Canalet 2013, Colombard Vermentino.

The Crown 
31 High Street, Woodstock, OX20 ITE 
01993 813339

* Opening times: Food served daily, 10am to 10pm.
* Parking: In surrounding streets or the free municipal car park
* Key personnel: Owner Julian Rosser,  general manager Sara Robinson, executive chef Fiona Cullinane, chef George Livesey.
* Make sure you try the... Wood-roast king prawns (£6), pizzetta of the day (£5), slow-cooked shoulder of lamb with caponata (£12), hake with arrocina, chorizo and samphire (£12), chocolate brownie, pear and almond tart, ice creams and dolcelatte (all at £5).
* In ten words: Delicious food in Italian style at a tastefully renovated pub.