The Macdonald Randolph Hotel – Oxford

Review by Patricia & Dennis Cleveland-Peck

The Randolph Hotel

The Randolph Hotel

Morse Bar at the Randolph Hotel

Morse Bar at the Randolph Hotel

Randolph Hotel Bedroom

Randolph Hotel Bedroom

Duck Starter

Duck Starter

Rabbit Terrine

Rabbit Terrine

Lemon Sole

Lemon Sole

Oxford is undoubtedly a jewel amongst British cities. A walk through the centre takes you amongst incredibly beautiful colleges, religious foundations and libraries, some of which date from the 13th century and are still being used for the purpose for which they were built – learning. In few places can you find such a concentration of ancient institutions devoted to scholarship – and it is this combination of history and everyday life which gives Oxford (and it must in fairness be said, to some extent Cambridge) a very special flavour.

The city though, has much more than its architecture to offer the culture lover. So many writers have lived and studied there that one finds literary associations at almost every turn. In has been celebrated in verse as Mathew Arnold’s “City of dreaming spires…” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Towery city and branchy between towers.” It influenced Charles Dodgson in the Alice stories and formed the background to many novels including Max Beebohm’s Zuleika Dobson and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It is now also known to mass audiences from the popular television series Morse, Lewis and more recently Endeavour, all based on the books by Oxford resident Colin Dexter which are filmed in a great many locations around the city.

One of these, in which we are to stay, is the Macdonald Randolph Hotel. A large imposing building, the simplified Victorian gothic style of which (known oddly as “Scottish Early English”) was chosen to blend with the elegant Georgian architecture of Beaumont Street when it was built in 1865. It is in fact an Oxford institution; generations of students have been taken there by their parents, many more have dined there on special dates and some have even married there.

As one approaches the doors swing open, not automatically, but operated by welcoming members of staff. We arrived a quarter of an hour after the appointed checking-in time but our room was not quite ready so we were invited to have a complimentary drink in the bar, a gesture which made a very good impression and a fine start to our stay. The bar in which we found ourselves was The Morse Bar as The Randolph is apparently one of Colin Dexter’s favourite haunts. We knew that the hotel had appeared in some of the TV dramas and indeed we were directed to a hall of fame where photographs of many actors and writers are displayed. It was however, the very helpful Head Concierge Neil who, on hearing of our interest, actually phoned Colin Dexter (who was in the middle of his supper – sausages…) and found out that the hotel itself was mentioned in the novel Last Seen Wearing in a scene where Morse has a dream he is in the bar of the Randolph, talking of “‘space and light and beauty…”.

For us it was no dream. Our room in fact turned out to be a spectacular corner suite containing a large bedroom with adjacent lavatory and wash basin, a larger sitting room with table and chairs, sofa, armchairs and a separate well-equipped bathroom with bathrobes, plenty of shelving for cosmetics and lots of sweet-smelling Molton Brown toiletries. Within this impeccably clean suite there was in fact everything one could need or want; a desk, fridge, nespresso machine, two televisions, magazines, a huge comfortable bed, good lighting and (important detail some hotels overlook) light-defying curtains.

The view from the sitting room brought us eye-level with the Gothic revival style Martyrs Monument, while that from the bedroom, only a rather banal view of the hotel’s own roofscape – showing that even the city of dreaming spires has some mundane areas.

Having settled in we decided to see something of the city. Gothic stained glass windows illuminated the great staircase as we made our way down, passing marble statues standing sentinel on each floor. Immediately opposite is the wonderful Ashmolean Museum (admission free) and the very heart of Oxford is a three to four minute stroll away. After a splendid afternoon’s exploration which included a visit to the Covered Market, the Oxford Botanic Garden and a walk through Christ Church Meadow, we had worked up an appetite for dinner.

This was not our first visit to the hotel and so far we had not noticed many changes. The general ambience perhaps seemed a little more staid than before but it was in the dining room that this became most apparent. There were few diners and the atmosphere was hushed and subdued as members of the waiting staff flitted quietly between the tables where conversation between diners was at a minimum and the sound of laughter non-existent. We had memories of joints being carved at the table but this time the menu struck us as more limited with only 6 starters and 5 main courses on offer. The service nevertheless was good especially the young and helpful sommelier who suggested a white wine with which we were not familiar, the Italian, Gavi de Gavi “Fossili,” spicy, with a hint of mineral, which proved an excellent accompaniment to our meal.

Patricia began with a potted rabbit terrine, which arrived looking attractive on a crystal plate but was slightly greasy and lacking in taste. The accompanying candied fennel and coco beans in a thyme and orange dressing did however, liven it up to some extent. Dennis chose and enjoyed, Duck & Sweetbreads which consisted of pieces of home-cured Gressingham duck breast and grilled sweetbreads with truffle salad, Jerusalem artichoke and a sliver of pork crackling. Both of these starters involved a tricky combination of tastes and we both slightly regretted not going for the smoked salmon which we saw being hand carved at a neighbouring table – billed as ‘John Ross Jr award winning Scottish smoked salmon, ’ it looked first class. Sometimes in matters of taste, the simpler option beats the pretty plateful.

The main courses on offer included Highland Lamb and Spinach Risotto but there were also some rather innovative dishes. Had we skipped starters and had more room, we might have been tempted to try Pork “Head to Toe”, the pork elements of which consisted of balsamic glazed jowl, 30- hour cooked belly, barbecued fillet trotters on toast – or even the Scottish Beef, a dish made up of grilled bone-in rib, “royale” of bone marrow, tartare of marinated beef filet and snails on toast! This however carried a £10.00pp supplement to the £44.95 3-course or £39.95 2-course menu. In the end we both opted for what sounded the lighter option, Lemon Sole and Langoustines. It was. The fillets of lemon sole decorated with steamed and grilled langoustines were small, but together with the cauliflower and bisque dressing, enjoyable.

With rhubarb just coming into season Yorkshire Rhubarb with iced rhubarb and ginger parfait, champagne poached rhubarb, honeycomb and pistachios made a fresh and delicious finale. That being said the Marjolaine of hazelnut meringue, praline cream, caramelised white chocolate sorbet, vanilla brûlée, dark chocolate mousse and Frangelico jelly sounded mighty tempting. There was also a choice of apple fritters with chilled rice pudding and blackberry ice cream, a lemon and mascarpone mousse, a variety of sorbets and ice creams and cheeses. A well made and well presented Irish coffee made a great conclusion to an enjoyable evening.

We awoke refreshed after a good night’s sleep in the large comfortable bed. The dining room at breakfast was a quite different beast from the one we’d encountered the previous evening: full, buzzing with conversation and much more lively. Service was attentive and we were soon offered coffee. The buffet was well stocked with all the usual juices, fruits, cereals, breads, croissants etc and our cooked breakfast did not take long to arrive. There was a slight hiccup with Dennis’s, possibly because of the numbers, in that his ‘over and under’ egg arrived rock hard. Patricia’s only complaint was that she’d been given too much scrambled egg – which is hardly a valid complaint! It was in fact a very good breakfast.

So, how did this visit compare with our previous Randolph experiences? It remains Oxford’s most traditional hotel and a national treasure but sedate can easily segue into stuffy and now in Oxford newer establishments of a similar standard are creeping up to challenge it. When all other factors are equal, it is the professionalism and kindness of the hotel staff which the guest remembers. In our case we would rate our stay as enjoyable and most of the staff we encountered as either excellent or very good – but unfortunately we did experience one encounter where the standard of courtesy from a senior member of hotel staff slipped well below what is acceptable. It didn’t spoil our visit – but Morse wouldn’t have approved.

Informatiom

On a bed and breakfast basis, a classic double room starts from £260 and executive suites from £459, both based on two adults sharing.

The Macdonald Randolph Hotel
Beaumont Street
Oxford
OX1 2LN

Tel 0844 879 9132

www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk/randolph

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