There was a trio of youngish women quietly sipping cask ale in the Oxley’s dining room the other night. They had barbershop hair and wore fresh tattoos and baggy tank tops. Though the memory’s fuzzy, there was a second- or third-hand fedora sitting near them on a tufted leather banquette. They might have been roadies, or key grips, or members of an obscure but earnest post-punk band.
What they were not, however, was Yorkville material. They were not what you expect to find on the same strip as Dolce, Gabbana, and Sassafraz, with its would-be Christian Greys smoking 46-gauge figurados at the sidewalk tables. Who told them they could drink directly kitty-corner from the Hazelton Hotel, from the city’s most moneyed patio, where playboys and senators laugh into glasses of Pomerol?
“Exclusive” isn’t just a marketing term in Yorkville, it’s a religion around the neighborhood. The Oxley, to its eternal credit, is owned and run by apostates.
A project of Jamieson Kerr and chef Andrew Carter, the team behind downtown’s much-admired Queen and Beaver, the Oxley is a British pub in the truest sense: There’s a hearth inside the front door, plus friendly staff, good beers, $7 highballs, and a juicy, gulpable house red that sells for $39 a bottle, and comes without judgment.
There’s a pub space upstairs that’s furnished a bit like an Oxbridge reading room, where a person could spend happy hours with Lionel Asbo: State of England in her lap and a snifter of Beau’s Wild Oats No. 18 beside her. Downstairs, in the bar area and main dining room, there are lived-in armchairs and antique tables topped with antique lamps that burn soft and warm; the walls are done over with an equestrian scene – hounds, red jackets – and with William Morris wallpaper. They don’t serve Rickard’s Red or Canadian here. Most of the time, you can talk without recourse to shouting.
There are lush, mahogany-coloured curtains in the rear that can be drawn around a large table set with sturdy crockery that somebody’s gran once cherished. There’s a chandelier over the table. It’s hard to look at it without imagining coming back when it’s cold outside, for a Sunday afternoon supper: prime rib and Yorkshire pudding; a whole roast pig; venison stew and dumplings. They do that also, by special order. Mr. Carter grew up just outside Manchester. The food is good.
His menus – there are five of them: dinner, pub, lunch, brunch, and a chalkboard of daily specials – ply the British pub canon, but with a largely seasonal and lighter-than-usual touch. Mr. Carter’s London-cured salmon loin, a carry-over from the Queen and Beaver, tastes a little bit smoky, a little bit cured; it’s fresh-flavoured and balanced, napped at one corner with peppery, garlicky, rocket pistou.
The charcuterie are excellent: simple, plush-tasting liver pâté on grilled bread, with grainy mustard and pickled onion rounds; a rough-textured pork and game terrine enriched with a nugget of buttery foie and served with a roast plum chutney that’s round and comforting, with a wink of palate-refreshing ranginess at its core.
The quail is good, five or six meaty, finger-licking half-bites with just barely gamy undernotes, and a moist, crumbled black-pudding tart on the plate. There are nice beets; whole sardines on toast; large and very tasty (but at $22 for half-a-dozen, relatively expensive) Atlantic oysters broiled under buttery leeks and a cider-and-cheddar sauce, finished with a sanding of panko crumbs.
Mains, too, are solid for the most part. The fish pie’s a hug and a tickle: hunks of flesh, a whitish, meekly seasoned sauce, creamy whipped potatoes that have been piped over top and baked. It comes with a bowl of green peas, fresh, not frozen, pleasantly sweet and firm, al dente instead of mush. The fish and chips, served with a grilled lemon, and creamy-fleshed chips, is passable, though the fish is under-seasoned. (There are 19 disappointing fish-and-chips plates in this city for every one that’s excellent. It’s a problem.)
The sausage and mash is the sort of dish my London-raised father would fantasize about bathing in. The potatoes are decadent and fluffy and gorgeously seasoned, spiked with Tewkesbury mustard; the sausage is juicy. It’s a steal at $19.
But the best thing I ate there was the brick chicken. It was half a bird, aggressively seasoned and grilled flat under a heavy object so the skin was touched with smoke and char and lip-smacking saltiness and the flesh was coursing with liquefied flavour. Mr. Carter’s kitchen had brushed the meat down with a vinaigrette of chopped shallots and mustard to add a sweet oniony note and to keep it all in balance. The meat came with sliced beefsteak tomatoes – good ones, grown outdoors – and a tranche of green zebra tomato, both sopped with the same shallot dressing. The dish went around the table once. It might have done a second tour if I hadn’t fought to keep it. It was simple food, but executed brilliantly. In London they pack a place like this.
The ginger and chocolate terrine is dense and decadent, and the peach pie’s good, but that night we shared a couple of house-made ice creams (they were milky, a bit icy, ho-hum, but it hardly mattered), and a good sticky toffee pudding that tasted deeply of dates and demerara sugar. A while later, we stepped back outside into Yorkville again, feeling ever so slightly superb.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution