Immediately upon arrival, it’s clear that The Ivy is ‘running the game’ when it comes to Oxford’s fine dining scene. It’s 6:30 PM on a Tuesday evening, and the restaurant is already humming with diners. My companion and I arrive at the front desk, our coats are taken, and immediately The Ivy’s signature flair for outstanding service begins. Our waiter Karim delivers us the best service I have ever experienced – along with a side of anecdotes about his sons’ love of the fair to compliment my ‘Candy Floss Fizz’ Cocktail. A crucial part of delivering ‘luxury’ is ensuring guests feel special and valued, and in this respect, we couldn’t have asked for anything more.
While a full 3 course meal for one with drinks might easily total up to over £60, the set menu offers a very fair price, at an incredibly reasonable £21 per head for 3 courses. The Ivy also takes bookings to be seated at the bar, where you can enjoy the ambiance and a drink if you are more interested in spending money on liquid treats. The vast menu means you can effectively tailor a meal to both your palate and purse strings.
On first impressions, the restaurant is simply beautiful. The old-fashioned mirror panelled bar is a beacon of alchemy in the main dining hall, and the attention to design detail means it stands out by a velvet padded, golden wall-papered mile. Take the Ladies washrooms for example. Karim told me they were his wife’s favourite part of the restaurant, which at first seemed slightly odd, but I immediately saw why. Rose quarts wash basins? Pink toilets? Deep velvet padded stools with golden mythical figures lining the walls? Yes, to all of these, with the added touch of ambient 1920’s soft Jazz. Even the toilets of this restaurant would be at home among the editorial pages of House & Garden.
As for the main dining area itself, I was slightly sceptical of the delivery men wheeling a small rainforest into the building just before opening, but the ‘1920s tropical jungle’ vibe really works. The decor is eccentric while remaining tasteful, and the richly floral palm lined walls set the scene for an indulgent dining experience. The 18th century prints of Oxford scattering the walls are also a nice touch, alluding to the restaurants historic location without veering into the tacky. The copious location tags on Instagram are a testament to how photogenic the space is.
This extensive menu left me torn between at least 3 options at every course. We started with cocktails to aid the decision process (unique compared to anything I have tried before), and Karim brought us Truffle Arancini to nibble on while we decided. Truffle is often used in toxic quantities in the name of ‘luxury’, but here the balance was mastered and they were utterly delicious. I eventually chose to start with the scallops, which for a food I greedily eat whenever I get the chance, were served in a refreshing way unlike anything I had ever tasted. My friend’s choice of the Rosti and Wild Mushrooms actually made me jealous (despite a plate of scallops being before me), and again showed how the Ivy have mastered the use of truffle which proliferates the menu.
I would say the main course was for both of us the lull of the meal. I ordered the Roast Salmon, and while certainly among the best I have ever had, it felt somewhat unoriginal after the Scallop concoction of the first course. My friend had a steak and felt the same way. Both were obviously delicious and comforting, but we just expected a little bit more after the fantastic opening to the meal. I think the key to cracking in the menu here, is making sure you have enough sides to compliment the main course, if like we did, you opt for a more standard main like meat or fish. Next time I think I will just go for a more unique plate altogether to see what they can come up with.
Walking in, I had expected the food on the whole to be good, but I hadn’t expected to be so enamoured by the deserts. Both my friend and I have eaten a significant number of puddings in our time (so much so a punnet of treat tubs pushed her into her overdraught) and therefore are well placed to say that both our choices were truly among the best desserts we have ever eaten. A very bold claim indeed, and one I do not make lightly.
My own bowl of tarte frozen berries and creamy yogurt sorbet, was finished by a generous and theatrical drizzle of hot white chocolate source by the waiter. A grating of Vibrant green lime zest softly rested on top of the whole ensemble in an utterly genius combination. I am now very tempted to dust everything I ever eat with lime zest if only it makes all food taste that blissful. My friend also proclaimed the Malted Banana desert the ‘best she had ever eaten’. Just a few days earlier I had been gushing to her about a banana ice-cream I had eaten in Rome which could ‘never be beaten’, and to be honest, I was pretty shocked that The Ivy managed to supersede the Italians with this sweet icy banana heaven in the middle of Oxford. Both deserts were utter perfection, and I would be more than happy to next time just sit at the bar working my way through another bottle of the Sicilian Rose we were drinking and one of their celestial puddings.
The Ivy Oxford Brasserie has brought a touch of 1920’s retro glamour to the high street, both in terms of good old-fashioned service, and retro decadence. It seems to have taken prime spot as the ‘it’ location for dining out, and deservedly so. It feels exclusive without being uncomfortably stuffy, and despite its grandeur, the personability of the staff (especially our waiter) immediately eased us into our push window seats and primed us to enjoy the experience to the full. In a town packed with some really good places to dine, The Ivy has found the perfect balance between old school luxury and comforting ‘trendy’ gastronomy.