Muddy eats: The Mole Inn, Toot Baldon
A true foodie haven hidden away in the Oxfordshire countryside, The Mole Inn is a rural retreat of a pub that's worth a detour.
You’d never know that The Mole Inn is just five miles south of the city centre, as the quiet location and cosy, cottagey feel of the pub make you feel as though you’re squirrelled away in deepest countryside. In fact, you’re tucked in the tiny village of Toot Baldon (not to be confused with nearby Little Baldon or Marsh Baldon).
The Mole is well-known in these parts for its foodie credentials, a 2 AA Rosette restaurant that’s previously had the nod from Raymond Blanc, winning the Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons Award for excellence in 2015. It’s also the sister pub to the excellent The Mole and Chicken at Easington, mid Bucks, so the creds are good.
A clever combo of snug, candlelit corners, a sunny conservatory and the outdoor terrace means this pub has perennial appeal. The surrounding fields give the place an open feel, despite there being no massive pub garden or expansive green space. Instead there’s a pretty front courtyard, peppered with tables and chairs hidden away behind hedges and lavender bushes for a little more privacy. It’s a stunner in summer by all accounts.
Inside, The Mole is attractive, making full use of its 300 year old structure – think timber frames, stone brickwork, neutral paintwork, welcoming roaring fire and plenty of comfy leather seats to sink back into. The bright conservatory is a more modern take on the theme, with its blond wood tables, tiled floor and garden view. There’s nothing here that will surprise in terms of design but you can’t fault its classic appeal.
The menu is relatively small but perfectly formed which I like – nothing more worrying than reading through pages of dishes. Expect a variety of elevated pub classics, 28-day aged steaks and some Eastern-inspired dishes for good measure and a small daily specials board above the fireplace.
There’s an enticingly long drinks menu here, but ever a creature of habit, I opted for a glass of Chenin blanc (£5.65), although next time I’ll try one of the local gins from Chalgrove Artisan Distillery just 6 miles away. My husband went local with a bottle of the Mole Inn Ale (£5.25), brewed in Shotover Brewery in Oxford, which was a hit.
For starters, I chose the goat’s cheese salad special (£8), which came beautifully arranged with pine nuts, roasted beets, green apple and a honey dressing. I only stopped to admire the gorgeous plating for a moment before falling upon it ravenously – the cheese was just melty and sweet enough, and the beets were wonderfully earthy.
Mains were a bit tricky for me as vegetarian, as I only had one option on the menu, although The Mole does make it clear that they’re happy to provide an alternative given 24 hours’ notice if you’re not a fan of their meat-free offering. Luckily, I love mushroom risotto (comes with the territory), so it wasn’t a problem on the day but the rise of veggie and vegan eaters will no doubt mean a rethink on the menu at some point.
The good news for this veggie was that the risotto was delicious – literally the best I’ve had in many years. Rich and creamy, it had a pleasing amount of crunch from the pinenuts and a deep flavour thanks to the truffle and mix of wild mushrooms. The portion was mammoth, and great value for £15 – I was deeply upset that I was unable to finish it but it’s a bit off to ask for a risotto doggy bag, right?
With three steaks on offer (rib eye, fillet and a sharer bone in rib), my husband was unable to resist, and opted for the 250g rib eye (£28). It came resplendent with the chunkiest triple-cooked chips I’ve ever laid my eyes on – they were practically roast potatoes – along with a slow roasted tomato, shallot and a side of Café de Paris butter (an intensely seasoned and flavoured butter that has to be tried to believed). The report across the table was that the steak was perfectly cooked, with everything (even the rocket side salad) fantastically seasoned.
Despite my failure to finish my main, we soldiered on to dessert, choosing from a small selection of hearty pub classics that were perfect for winter (treacle tart, sticky toffee pudding and the like) as well as a selection of ice creams and sorbets. I chose the apple crumble and salted caramel ice cream, and Matt opted to sample the cheese board.
Another course, another giant portion – my crumble went down a treat, and was buttery and surprisingly crunchy (it tasted like there may have been honeycomb in the crumble topping, but by this point I had slipped into a bit of a food stupor and didn’t check).
The elegant cheese board was certainly more varied than your bog standard British platter, with several that we’d never tried before (including Lord of the Hundreds, a raw sheep’s milk cheese, and a Langrès that practically blew my husband’s head off), all served alongside a sticky slab of membrillo.
OUT AND ABOUT
The Mole is a popular stop-in for dog walkers thanks to various country routes nearby. From St Lawrence’s church in Toot Baldon, you can strike out across the fields as far as Berinsfield (and beyond, if you’re feeling adventurous). You’re only 2 miles from Harcourt Arboretum too, so you can walk there (or drive, if you want to get there in 10 minutes rather than 45) to see the best collection of trees in the county – although be aware, from December to February it’s closed at weekends. Prime time to visit in April/May when the bluebells are in a frenzy and the peacocks are strutting around.
You’re very close to Garsington (it’s famous opera season runs from May to July), or you’re close-ish to Abingdon with its lovely lock, riverside walks and extensive children’s playgrounds and lido. For super-rural getting back to basics, visit the much loved Wittenham Clumps and the Earth Trust, 20 minutes south. The Clumps consist of Round Hill and Castle Hill from which you get stunning views of the open countryside.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Foodies who love a laidback environment rather than starched tablecloth pomp, families (The Mole has a kids’ menu and high chairs available), and couples looking for a cosy date night. The pub’s upcoming Valentine’s Day menu features a selection of sharing courses, as well as specially designed cocktails, so get booking, you might still get lucky.
Not for: Vegetarians or vegans who like plenty of options available, those with energetic children who need plenty of space inside and out – the outside space is limited, and inside the pub is so popular that it’s often packed)
£££: A bit pricier than your standard gastropub, but with portions to match and superlative quality. Starters are generally around the £8 mark, mains £15 (with steaks closer to £30 and Sunday roasts around £17) and desserts £8. Wine averages around £6 for a 175ml glass, with draught beer coming in around £4.50 a pint.
The Mole Inn, Toot Baldon, Oxford , Tel: 01865 340 001.
Words: Izzy Turner-Hicks