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Star Inn Review - The Oxford Times

on Thu, 23/05/2013 - 8:43am

Intelligence that The Star at Sparsholt is a first-class place for food came with a force deserving of respect, for it was supplied to me by the Wantage MP and Arts Minister Ed Vaizey. He has a constituency home in the lovely Downland village and regularly eats in his welcoming ‘local’. In one of the more out-of-the-way parts of The Oxford Times’s territory, the 400-year-old Star has barely troubled the columns of the newspaper. By a strange and delicious irony the one story in our library files from the past 20 years (which was written by me in 1994) concerned villagers’ delight at having their ‘real pub’ back after a disastrous attempt to move into fine dining. “Customers had stayed away in droves,” I reported, “preferring to enjoy each others’ company in cosier and less starchy surroundings” .

Not these days, I think, bearing in mind the happy crowds I saw eating there. And the traditional pubgoers out for their pint (and more!) are catered for with a fine choice of hand-pumped real ales — Sharp’s Doom Bar, Hook Norton Bitter and Bandwagon, from Abingdon’s Loose Cannon Brewery.

The Star’s change of fortune follows the sale of the Punch Taverns pub last summer to village resident Caron Williams and the appointment of Dave Watts as chef patron. He was the Good Food Guide’s ‘Chef to watch 2013’ for his work at the Cotswold House Hotel in Chipping Campden. His impressive record also includes an eight-year stint with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. Nothing speaks with greater clarity of his skills as a chef. How much less appealing would our restaurants be without the scores of bright disciples Raymond has sent out to work in them.

Dave’s approach to food mirrors that of his mentor. It is summed up at the head of his menu as “balanced, light-textured and seasonal; rustic yet neat”. Dishes are designed, he says, “around different flavours and techniques with simple combinations that complement and enhance each”. Sounds good? Not nearly as good as Dave’s food tastes. For our sampling of it on a recent Friday evening, Rosemarie and I were delighted to be joined by the estimable Mr Vaizey himself. After a week of ministerial business, which earlier in the day had brought a meeting with the Duchess of Cambridge on Pinewood Studios’ Harry Potter sets, he was clearly in the mood for more magic, this time from the kitchen.

With subterfuge out of the question in the circumstances, we were pleased, too, that Caron and her husband Ian also shared in the meal, in the efficient serving of which their son Toby had a role, alongside the exceptionally food-savvy Jamie.

We had the first evidence of Dave’s skill in a trio of ‘snacks’ — potted brown shrimps with pickles and toast, succulent rabbit rillettes on toast and a Scotch egg with a nicely tacky glowing yellow yolk amid the meaty casing.

Having taken our seats at a table in the rear part of the building, we were quickly supplied with our starters. Ham hock terrine made an agreeably rustic opening for me (and Ian), with accompanying mustard, yoghurt, tangy piccalilli and rye crisp breads. Caron was experiencing an explosion of frisée in the eye-catching dish that was roasted roots, baby leaves and truffle dressing, attractively displayed on a slate plate.

Rosemarie was cooing with pleasure over her seared scallops with round slices of Jerusalem artichoke and a lemon sauce, while Ed was happily engrossed beside her in charred mackerel, cucumber, oysters, fennel and dill. He followed this with a scrummy main course of seared calf’s liver with onions and bacon, which came with mashed potatoes and buttered spinach.

I had seared lemon sole, served filleted on a bed of onion and samphire. All was excellent, though the teaming of the fish with a surrounding spiral of a sweet dressing resembling lemon curd was an experiment in taste too adventurous for me. It clearly found favour, though, with Ian, through whose intimate knowledge of the wine list the table had been furnished with two excellent burgundies. These were Santenay Le Beauregard 2008 and a 2010 Volnay ideal for Caron’s chunks of venison haunch, with chestnut, red cabbage and a chocolate sauce.

Rosemarie had lightly salted cod, with saffron cream, mussels and quinoa, which still left room for chocolate tart, oats and barley cream, a pudding very popular around the table. I went for the British cheeses, Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, Barkham Blue and Somerset Golden Cross goat’s cheese with quince jelly, grapes and spiced pear chutney.

In all, a fine meal. As Ed Vaizey said later: “The Star is a fantastic local pub, but the food is good enough to persuade people to travel from far around. It’s certainly worth making the trip for calf’s liver!”

Make sure you try the...

Lamb sweetbreads, hazelnut puree, cauliflower cous cous, sour dough and poultry jus (£6.50); asparagus, poached free-range egg, crispy bacon and nut butter bearnaise (£6.50); new season lamb loin, crispy belly, parsley puree and garlic polenta (£17.50); seared Cornish monkfish, spring stew of peas, broad beans, wild mushrooms (£17.50) white wine and basil poached peach, raspberry sorbet and toasted almonds (£6.25).

In ten words:

Fantastic ‘local’ with food attracting folk from far and wide (from Ed Vaizey).

Opening times for food:

Mon closed (except bank holidays); Tues-Thurs noon-2.30, 6.30-9.30; Fri noon-2.30pm, 6.30-9.30pm; Sat noon-9.30pm; Sun noon-3.30pm.


Front and rear.

Key personnel:

Owner Caron Williams and chef patron Dave Watts, pictured


© The Oxford Times, May 2013

Reproduced with the kind permission of Chris Gray & The Oxford Times.

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