Oxford vegans and vegetarians received at least one nice piece of news on the back of lockdown – The Punter Oxford pub on Osney Island was reopening as a veggie pub. With a delicious sounding sample menu on their website, I was eager to try it out. As luck would have it, I’d managed to predict a swelteringly hot day and booked it off work by chance, when the team behind The Punter invited me down to try out their new food. My boyfriend and I took the opportunity for a lazy walk along the river from Iffley Lock all the way down into town, and were greeted with a friendly welcome and a shady table in the pub’s beautifully sunny courtyard.
They have quite a small menu, with an almost 50/50 split between vegan and non-vegan dishes, with vegetarians faring slightly better. The focus is on seasonal and local produce, therefore the menu is likely to change on a semi-regular basis and I’m looking forward to coming back and trying more of what they have to offer. Because what we enjoyed already was great!
We ordered a couple of starters to share. Mushroom on toast is a classic vegan option often found on the Christmas set menus of pubs who don’t really know what vegans eat, I have to be honest. However, this version of the dish was definitely elevated into something a bit special. They’ve used a mixture of chestnut and meaty king oyster mushrooms, which were good quality and cooked excellently to ensure the dish had a number of different textures going on. They were piled onto a crisp slice of sourdough and drenched (in a good way) in garlicky oil with tarragon. It was all nicely seasoned and a tasty start to the meal.
Secondly as a starter we’d ordered the mezze board for one. This could have done me as a lunch on its own, which is admittedly reflected in the price. When it came out, it was just beautiful to look at. The vibrant pots of houmous alongside huge green olives and juicy vegetables were so enticing. Once we tucked in, the flavours didn’t disappoint either. Both the houmous and baba ganoush were wonderfully creamy, with the beetroot and walnut pot being sweet and earthy, while the plain houmous had more of a smokiness. Give me a big bowl of that houmous and some toasted pitta bread and I’d be very happy. The veggies were cooked nicely too, with sweet pepper, melt-in-the-mouth aubergine, and chargrilled courgette to choose from. This dish made me almost sad not to be returning to my office, which is only a short walk away, as I could absolutely picture walking down to the pub on a Friday night to enjoy some drinks and mezze boards to share with work friends. Particularly as the wine list has all your vegan options labelled too!
On to the mains, and a vegan’s choice is either a burger, or salad. Readers probably know how I feel about ordering salads at restaurants, so we opted to try the two vegan burgers The Punter had on offer. I know it seems like you can’t move for vegan burgers these days, but at least these two sounded really interesting and different from the general mock meat variety available here there and everywhere. With both of the burgers, natural plant-based ingredients were the star of the show. First we tried the beetroot, fennel and dill burger, with an apple and kohlrabi slaw. The patty was quite sweet and earthy, but lots of dill and then an aniseed flavour from the fennel really cut through. It gave the textures and eating experience of a meaty burger, but the flavour profile was very much a veggie burger, with quite unique flavours.
I didn’t expect their other burger, the almond, chickpea and courgette patty, to come with a perfectly crisp deep fried breadcrumb coating, but I loved it. Crushed tomato in the bun kept it from going dry, as well as some slices of ripe avocado on top. The flavours were more familiar in terms of veggie burgers I’ve eaten before as it seemed predominantly made of chickpeas, but it was well seasoned throughout and really great quality. Both burgers felt like something we might attempt to make at home, but would never manage to come close to this delivery. Served alongside gorgeously thin and crispy salted rosemary fries, the portion size is huge, and we had to leave the tops of our brioche-style buns. We were told they would usually be served in charcoal buns, but I could really take or leave that anyway. If we’re honest, what does the charcoal really add, apart from the Instagram aesthetic?
We were also brought out a little of the ‘superfood salad’ to try. The name is a huge turn off for me, but the salad itself was actually very tasty. The portion size is very generous (the bowl pictured is half of the size it would usually come as) and I can see it would have been a filling meal – which addresses my main concern about restaurant salads, that they leave you hungry and unsatisfied. The salad comes with handfuls of red and white quinoa, fresh greens and crisp vegetables, with a sprinkling of nuts and hint of mint running through. There was a nice zing from pomegranate seeds and then the addition of vegan feta from Violife makes it feel much more substantial than a lot of vegan salads. I’d not tried it before as I’m not a huge fan of mock cheeses but both Jamie and I were impressed by how powerful the flavour was. The salad was a really summery dish and in the heat, a big bowl of it would’ve been very enjoyable.
We rounded off the meal by forcing ourselves to eat a dessert between us. At this point we were definitely fit to burst. I loved the sound of their vegan pudding though: creme caramel with biscotto. A far cry from the scoop of sorbet that many pubs are trying to fob us off with. When it arrived, it looked like it had a good wobble, though it was quite firm when we slid in with a spoon. I can only imagine how hard it would be to replicate this particular dessert using vegan ingredients so they’ve done a great job of it. The bitter caramel topping meant it wasn’t too sweet and was a nice light way to round off the meal. The flavour of the almond and orange biscotto was absolutely delicious but texture-wise it was a little on the solid side. An ambitious dessert and with some tweaking I think it could be fantastic.
This was my first meal out since Covid-19 had us all staying home. I’ve had many a takeaway during that time, and I was a little nervous about heading back to a restaurant, but when we got there that all disappeared quite quickly. They were clearly on top of their cleaning regime, with the picnic bench style seating outside all covered with wipe clean tablecloths, which we saw being sprayed down properly as soon as customers left. I would definitely choose to sit outside in a garden where possible for future meals to try and keep the experience as enjoyable as this one.
The Punter are taking part in the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, giving you the chance to have 50% off your food and soft drinks (up to £10 per person) on Monday-Wednesdays throughout August. If you’ve read the review and want to give it a try for yourself, I definitely recommend booking a table so you don’t miss out on this amazing deal! Throughout August, I’ll be donating any savings I make from the scheme to charities in the UK working to end poverty. Please do consider joining me if you feel you can afford to!
Our meal was complimentary courtesy of The Punter; the review is an honest account of the food and experience.