Is this Oxford’s best kept secret?
Quirky, under-the-radar and totally delicious - Fish 4 Lunch is the kind of business that Muddy exists for. Check out this hidden gem.
Haven’t heard of Fish 4 Lunch yet? I can’t say I’m surprised, it’s one of Oxford’s best kept secrets. The tiny restaurant can be found tucked away on the Osney Estate, just a few minutes south of the Botley Road, above the Osney Food Shed, a branch of the family-run Aldens empire, which also owns Meatmasters just over the road. As you can see from the photo, it doesn’t look very promising. But appearances can be very deceptive…
Counting MasterChef 2018 finalist (and Oxford University post-grad) Nawamin Pinpathomrat among its fans, it opened in 2015 with the intention of promoting fish cookery and a positive image of the fishing industry and does exactly what it says on the tin – serves great quality fish dishes, at insanely reasonable prices, at lunchtimes Tues – Sat, with fish and chips on Fridays.
For a weekday lunchtime Osney Food Shed was surprisingly buzzy – the Fish Market busy with shoppers (side note: it’s your new go-to for local wines, preserves and an amazing selection of fresh and frozen fish) and a group of people standing at the bottom of the stairs, deciding what to order from the mini menu, or waiting for the restaurant to open upstairs.
It’s an obvious point but if you don’t like fish, this probably won’t become your new regular lunch spot – you have to walk through the market to place your order, and there’s a full-on fishy pong from the day’s catch which is displayed fresh on ice.
It’s a popular spot – when the sign at the foot of the stairs was flipped from closed to open (at 11.30am on a Friday, 12 noon the rest of the week), everyone hurried upstairs. I was surprised at how tiny the restaurant is, with no more than 10 tables, plus an overflow room across the hall that’s mainly used for the stampede during the fish and chip Friday rush.
There’s a no-frills approach to dining here and the space looks more like it’s used for employees’ lunch (workers are actually given free breakfast in a near-identical canteen across the estate), rather than a restaurant serving a standard of food that rivals the best in Bucks and Oxon.
The restaurant operates like a canteen too – there are no waiters here. You collect your food straight from the chefs in the kitchen, then grab your cutlery, napkins and a glass of water, tea or coffee from a station in the corner. When you’re finished you put your empty plates in the rack to be cleared. As you can imagine, they don’t take bookings.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Fish 4 Lunch is all about the food – it’s a concept kitchen at heart – with the menu offering a small selection of dishes created by chefs Robin and Dave (who have previously worked at super-groovado The Oxford Kitchen, in Summertown, and The Porterhouse in central Oxford). There are no starters or desserts, with the mains changing fortnightly depending on what’s in the market and to date no dish has ever been on the menu more than once.
My friend and I decided to scoff our way through the menu starting with Thai-style sea bream cooked en papillote (baked in parchment paper) with savoy cabbage, carrots, pak choi, coriander and chilli (above).Its fresh, zesty and the flavours bounced off each other, having been cooked all together in the paper. My friend, who has just come back from Thailand, says it’s as good as the real deal.
Next up we tried coley with red lentil dahl and pickled veg. The fish was perfectly flaky, the dahl smooth and the homemade pickled cauliflower elevated the dish. Given the restaurant’s name, I expected the fish to be the star (don’t get me wrong, these guys could cook fish with their eyes closed), but all the other components of the dishes here are refined and really clever. Case in point: our next dish, mackerel ceviche (my personal favourite).
Super-fresh and tender mackerel, seaweed, tomatoes, sour grapefruit and blobs of smooth orange gel that I was told was made with a whizzy machine, it was truly delicious. As was the sea trout served with smoked potato, romanesco (part of the broccoli fam) and crispy shallots, and the salmon served in a superlatively smooth cucumber gazpacho, below. Presentation is also en pointe.
And guess what? Unbelievably, every dish is under £10 (on fish and chip Friday even less). You’d pay double or triple for a main course of this calibre at any of the city’s upscale restaurants just down the road in central Oxford. I would recommend ordering the lot and sharing the dishes.
OUT & ABOUT
If you fancy a post-lunch coffee, Oxford indie Jericho Coffee Traders‘ roastery is just over the road on the Osney estate (the main café is on High Street), or head into central Oxford for a whizz around Westgate. On a sunny day, head over to Port Meadow (a 15 minutes walk away) for a pretty stroll along the river and an afternoon G&T in The Perch.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: If you’re on the hunt for something unusual and under-the-radar. I haven’t come across another restaurant like this in Oxford. Having an appreciation for creative cuisine guarantees you’ll love it here but anyone partial to a great fish dish will be impressed. And if you can’t/won’t walk far, it’s that rarest of things: an Oxford restaurant with a free car park right outside.
Not for: Er, people who don’t like fish. Or if you’re looking for snazzy interiors or silver service (there are no waiters at all) then Fish 4 Lunch clearly isn’t for you – it’s all about the food here, with a DIY, no-fuss attitude. I would say that it’s more of a grown-up restaurant (bar fish and chip Friday) – the flavours are unusual and may not suit fussy children. Plus you’d struggle to get a buggy up the stairs.
The damage: It’s insanely good value. The coley came in cheapest at £8.90 while the Thai sea bream was a little more at £9.20. Fish and chips are £6.45, or you can have a tuna burger for £7.95. Chips are an extra £2.
Fish 4 Lunch, 7 Ferry Mills, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX2 0ES. Tel: 01865 242827.
Words: Nancy Serle