Restaurant review: The Perch at Binsey

The September issue of The Sunday Times food magazine included a list of “the 30 places serving the best vegetarian and vegan fare in the UK”. This was a very positive piece and stated: “These days, Britain has some of the most impressive vegetarian food in the world, thanks in part to some of the ground breaking restaurants on this list.” Unsurprisingly, the list included some well-known establishments (such as Mildred’s in London) and many that I’ve never heard of. However, the glaring lack of anything in Oxfordshire wasn’t surprising. Brighton has Terre A Terre, Bath has the Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen, and Oxford has The Gardeners Arms (which is excellent but hardly ‘ground breaking’). So when I read a glowing review of “the vegan menu” at The Perch (Binsey Lane, Oxford) in Vegan Life magazine I was encouraged to go there. The anonymous reviewer declared that the “fresh tasty veg are the star of every plate” and the menu “was put together by someone who really understands balancing flavours”.

The availability of the vegan menu at The Perch isn’t obvious, and we had to ask for it. However, when supplied we could see 7 items including 3 starters, 2 mains and 2 puddings. We both opted for the main Baby spinach, oak-smoked tomato & roasted onion pappardelle. You might ask what ‘papparedelle’ is (we had to enquire as well). Despite ordering this dish I’ve still no idea what it looks or tastes like because we were served the very unremarkable penne pasta. The dish definitely wasn’t (as described in Vegan Life) “a huge portion of pasta, full of vegetables and topped with tasty leaves”. What we received was a smallish quantity of overcooked pasta with tiny bits of tomato and onion. Was the tomato oak-smoked and the onion roasted? I’ve no idea – there wasn’t enough of it to tell. I reckon that the cost of the ingredients couldn’t have amounted to more than £1, but this plate of semi-soggy mush cost £12-50.

Was I expecting too much and being slightly picky? Maybe the chef hasn’t heard of al dente? I decided to try the crumble, and it was perfectly OK except that it wasn’t strawberry and elderflower as advertised. Perhaps they just haven’t bothered to print new menus? Unfortunately, the crumble topping had a gritty texture (possibly large grains of sugar) and it was quite unpleasant. Also, a pudding like this requires a scoop of vanilla ice cream or some custard to complete and compete with the tartness of the fruit. Oh no, I’m starting to sound like one of those pretentious restaurant critics, but The Perch is a pretentious sort of place (with prices to match).

I sent The Perch an email and explained why I was so disappointed, especially after that Vegan Life review. In fairness they did say that I could return and have a free meal, but I declined. If they knew I was coming they might make an effort and improve things. Who knows, they might actually serve up some of that exotic pappardelle pasta (it’s large, flat and very broad pasta noodles apparently). It’s a great shame because I would really like to recommend any eatery in the Oxford area that has a specifically vegan menu, but this was a dismal culinary experience. The pub itself is in a very pleasant setting near the River Thames and the staff were friendly and attentive, but I wouldn’t describe it as “quite possibly the most beautiful pub I’ve ever set foot in”. However, it’s probably the most expensive and badly cooked ‘pub grub’ that I’ve ever eaten.

Paul Freestone

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