Wilding Oxford has a pitch that makes it stands out from the pack — here, wine comes first and everything else follows. At their site on Little Clarendon St., owner and founder Kent has created a hub for all things good wine and food. Sustainability and high quality come first in all areas, as does the democratisation and demystification of an often daunting world.
There is a lot going on at Wilding and before anything, it is worth breaking it all down. Firstly, when you walk in you’ll find the bar area: here there is the option to sit and enjoy some nibbles and it is also the home of the wines on tap. These are changed less often than others but by their very nature allow a huge variation in serving sizes: you can just as easily order a small glass as a carafe or a bottle. To the right of the door is the shop: here there are more than 400 bottles, ranging in price from £10 to as high as £400 from a wide variety of producers and grapes. The predictable vineyards and vintages are present, but there is also the chance to discover countless new and exciting producers. The fact that these can all be enjoyed in the restaurant for a £15 corkage fee also offers the potential of huge value for money, avoiding the mark-ups standard in most restaurants.
Also in the shop is the Enomatic machine. Here four bottles are available in various quantities from as little as 10ml to a bottle. Again, this opens up enormous opportunities for experimentation and venturing into high-value wines that you would never want to risk trying a whole bottle of given their high price point.
Alongside all of this there is of course the restaurant. Here, there is also a conventional wine list with around 40 different choices on offer, all by the glass, carafe, or bottle. The restaurant itself stretches to the back of the building and outside into a garden area, open from May and throughout the Summer.
Now, I know that is a lot about wine, but food is front and centre of priorities here too. The team have built on the unique concept of wine leading the way and curated a pleasingly short but comprehensive list of dishes that all pair with different drinks on offer.
Among the starters, we sampled the Soused Red Mullet, the Devon Caught Scallops, and the Beef Tartare. The Mullet dish was the one that stood out for me. In the podcast we recorded later, Kent talked passionately about how long it took to get this one right. Now, the pickled cauliflower and onions enhance the flavour of the fish while giving it room to shine. Normally, I prefer scallops to be left alone but here a dash of herb oil and some prosciutto crumb adds a unique twist. The tartare too was good with the high-quality meat that is all important.
Bread here is also all made in-house. There is both sourdough and focaccia prepared each morning in the kitchen — rather amusingly Kent didn’t want to commit to saying that it was their own given how perfect it looked! The sourdough is seeded and carries a good flavour but the foccacia is the real star of the show. So often, people get lazy with focaccia and you end up with either a massively dry loaf or one that is so heavily drowned in oil that it carries no flavour. Wilding strikes a perfect balance — the top is crisp and coated in salty goodness whilst underneath there is a light and moist consistency that both has a flavour of its own but also carries a balsamic or high-quality olive oil well.
The main courses are split into two sections: ‘From The Grill’ and Pizzas. We tried the Celeriac Steak, the Ox Cheek, and the Guinea Fowl Ballotine. The first is a vegan offering and a welcome break from the cauliflower steak that most restaurants turn to as a meat substitute. It was superbly juicy and the simple walnut salad alongside it was a nice touch when combined with wild mushrooms. The Ox Cheek is a seriously hefty dish and the price point of £26 reflects that. Price aside, the portion is extremely generous and the meat itself falls apart just as you would hope. Rather bizarrely though, it was the braised cabbage that made the dish for me. It is drizzled with a dash of chilli to add spice and depth, brandy sauce and bacon counter that with the smooth carrot crush. The ballotine was good too with the mushroom stuffing a pleasant twist. More brandy sauce here brings some moisture that is perhaps otherwise missing and hasselback potatoes take on a lovely saltiness.
Desserts-wise, we were offered the Cardamom and Orange Creme Brûlée, the Chocolate and Rosemary Tart, and a homemade vanilla ice cream served with Pedro Ximenez (think affogato but naughtier). Normally I find creme brûlées fairly dull but this one stands out thanks to that orange and cardamom twist. The tart is intensely chocolatey and needs the Chantilly cream that it comes with to balance that but together the two make a great paring. The ice cream simply does what it says on the tin. A delightful take on an affogato, the only problem is the dilemma you have at the end as to whether to drink the remnants or not! There is a cheeseboard too with three local selections served with crackers and chutney for £15. The Oxford Blue was my favourite of the three but I couldn’t help but feel like there was more potential here for a plethora of wine and cheese pairings.
Wine-wise, we had Vorgeschmack, an Austrian unfiltered blend of Gruner Veltliner and Riesling and a 2021 Bergerie du Capucin. The latter is a much more traditional Languedoc-Roussillon white that blends Chardonnay, Roussanne, and Viognier. My favourite though was the first that carried a huge nose and was pleasingly sharp. With desert, the Banyuls Domains de Valcros is a French Grenache that is intensely sweet and is bound to dominate anything you have alongside it.
All in all, Wilding Oxford is unique in this city. There are other great restaurants and there are other good wine bars but the pairing of both of those elements here makes a location for all occasions. There is the chance to come in for a quick pre-dinner drink at the bar, discover a new grape from the Enomatic machine, or settle in for the evening with a selection of high-quality and carefully thought-out food.