If I had a good mooch around the UK and asked one hundred people the first thing that came to their minds when I shouted BICESTER at them, I’d put a nice fresh £10 on them all saying shopping.
I packed my suitcase and plenty of elastic and headed to the North Eastern Oxfordshire town for zero retail therapy, but a hell of a lot of eating at Grays Restaurant in Bicester Hotel Golf & Spa.
In full transparency for this review, I did spend approximately a month prior to this visit calling it “BYE-SES-TER”, not “BISTA”, and I can confirm that will be the only bit of this review incorrect (though a part of me still believes my pronunciation is correct).
Bicester Hotel and Spa is a four-star resort set among beautiful acres of Oxfordshire countryside. With 52 spacious rooms and suites, decorated in four various contemporary styles this family-owned estate is surrounded by quaint gardens and a glorious 18-hole Golf Course offering a backdrop to some seriously beautiful views.
Nestled in the hotel is Grays Restaurant headed up by Executive Head Chef Alan Paton, whose career has notable highlights including working in five-star hotels, three AA rosette and bib gourmand restaurants. Establishments include Hotel L’Horizon in Jersey, a five-star game lodge in South Africa and on The Seabourn Pride cruise ship, Turnberry Golf Hotel, the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon and Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf and Spa.
Do a brief google of Alan and you will find two things: one, a South African author, or two, a chef highly regarded for his love of all things pork alongside his notable achievements working alongside the Craft Guild of Chefs and Master Chefs of Great Britain. I suggest you follow the latter.
When I set off on my merry travels to Grays Restaurant, I wasn’t assuming that my night would be a celebration of all things pork, but boy it was. Now, if like Alan (and now me) rejoice in all things pig, then this will be the review and venue for you. If not, keep reading, it still gets very good.
The restaurant visually is all you expect of a hotel restaurant nuzzled around a love of golf in the countryside. It is warm, welcoming, with an array of fabrics, uplighting, dark wood and colour. If you prefer your dining in stark white walls and minimal furniture, then this isn’t probably for you, but if like 98% of the population you enjoy something more soothing, then I think you’ll like it here.
So let’s get to it. The food and drink, and why at one point I was so indulged I felt I would never get my clothes off, let alone on again.
I know I am here to review the food offering for you, but I always like to raise a point when I have great service - and on this night, I had great service. I felt fully welcome as a female diner on her own, the service was polite, attentive but not overwhelming, so I was comfortable before I had even begun.
The menu is set up like most menus, with a solid mix of snacks, starters, mains and desserts. The snacks include pork crackling with apple sauce and olive mixes.
For starters, you can choose from seven starters including cider and maple poached mackerel, a chicken liver pate with sweetcorn butter, smoked haddock fishcakes and black pudding bonbons.
Mains cater for every taste with dishes including roast cod with merguez sausage and a burnt lemon jam, the menu includes every day favourites such as ribeye, rump and a Bicester burger, and a baked onion with baba ganoush and spiced pistachio.
If you have the capacity for pudding then some classic favourites await including apple crumble, treacle tart and bread and butter pudding. The menu also throws a slight dessert curveball (and obviously I chose that) which we will get to very soon.
For my meal, I kicked off with a selection of snacks including a bread basket, hummus and pork crackling. The bread basket comes with ample portions which include a slice of Alan’s signature white chocolate and stilton bread that is as astonishing as it sounds. I managed to grab the recipe (available here if you wish to try and recreate this in your own home).
The bread comes with a portion of homemade butter, and I had the pleasure of trying two, a moorish chicken butter and a new one for me - pig butter. I can only describe it as a marriage made in heaven between a pork scratching and a lump of good quality butter, and so may the marriage last.
The hummus was sweet, fresh and not claggy, and was accompanied with a selection of crispbreads. The pork crackling was what all pork crackling should be; crisp to the point you are concerned about your teeth and dunked in a homemade apple sauce.
To start I chose the Grays ‘Cheese’, which was a whipped blue cheese warm doughnut, blueberry jam, crushed pecans and glazed bacon. The warm doughnut came filled with rich blue cheese and copious amounts of jam and the addition of the bacon and pecans helped cut through the sweetness. A substantial starter and one people who are hesitant about blue cheese would enjoy.
For my main, I ordered the pork course. The dish consisted of Woods of Witney pork belly, roast potato puree, crackling, baked plum, sage roasted carrots, kale and bacon crumble. The pork belly melted in your mouth, the carrots were roasted with just the right amount of sage to take you into autumn, but not punch you in the face with it. The addition of the baked plum meant that the dish balanced from rich and fatty to actually not being too overwhelming, and there is no real requirement for any sides.
Alan ensures all his produce is sourced locally, with an abundant herb garden on-site and fish and meat suppliers on the doorstep. It is this level of detail that sets meals like this apart from the rest - the true respect of the ingredients you are cooking.
This dish was the Jason Momoa of a meat and veg dish; it would pick you up and throw you around the room, and always leave you fully satisfied. If you love comfort on a plate, don’t skip this course.
I was very lucky that evening to also be able to taste a pork dish close to Alan’s heart, and one I have no doubt will be making an appearance on the menu very soon. The previous night, this dish had been served to a little known critic William Sitwell, so I felt in very good hands.
My extra course was confit pork belly, roast mackerel, candied bacon almonds, blueberry gin jam, marzipan, carrot butter puree and pork jus. I will hold my hands up at this point and say prior to eating this, I was not convinced. The thought of mackerel and pork belly just didn’t quite compute in my small brain, and I had yet to be convinced in my time on this planet that marzipan was nothing more than a creation of the devil (or whichever other religious demons you follow). But I also like a challenge, and sometimes like to be proved wrong, especially when it comes to food.
And wrong I was.
It actually worked in ways that I thought it wouldn’t. It wasn’t overly fatty or greasy and the blueberry gin jam was very special. This dish has followed Alan throughout his career and has been carefully tweaked as time goes by to create something marvellous. I should never have had any doubts.
In my brain and belly, I now felt I was at full pig capacity. Surely there was no more pig to eat.
If you glance through the dessert menu at Grays Restaurant, as mentioned, you will find classics such as bread and butter pudding. Keep reading and one dessert stands out as being a little smidge out of the classic realms and that is the chocolate dish. A very rich dark chocolate terrine, with espresso mousse and bacon. Yes, bacon. My pig-fest had not finished yet.
If you like your puddings rich and intense, then order this one. It really does smack you in the face with rich chocolate and espresso, with the pancetta glazed and roasted in Guinness offering an almost toffee-like addition. It was a proper luxurious dessert. The kind of pudding that almost warrants rolling into bed afterwards for a well-earned nap.
Talking of beds, if you are lucky enough to be staying at the hotel, then you will not be disappointed. The rooms are spacious, the views are beautiful and the beds are what I call a “three roller” (takes you three rolls to get out). I am usually always about the food, but I feel I would be doing Bicester Hotel Golf and Spa a huge disservice if I didn’t recommend you slept here for at least one night.
The hotel is spacious, grand and obviously a keen haven for the golfing community or groups wanting a well-earned rest in the spa. I have no doubt Grays restaurant gets a lot of its custom from people confined to the walls of the vast grounds. But what about potential diners from outside the grounds?
I assume this is the battle all restaurants in hotels face, and one hotels situated in large grounds have to face more than others. How do you become popular with the local area? The meal I had, I would happily get changed, get in the car and go to.
And my only hope is that the people of Bicester and its surrounding areas know that Grays is not just a restaurant for golfers, but a restaurant for them. It really deserves that.
Chatting Food Contributor: Ellen Pope
Self-confessed potty mouth, mother of guinea pig and eater of 99.9% of food (don't bring me marzipan and tell me it is food). Ellen is the founder and Editor of Chatting Food Magazine and on a one-woman mission to talk food at everyone. Usually found tweeting, eating, sleeping, repeating.