By Katrina Ffiske

The Royal Oak finally reopened yesterday, October 28! It has been long anticipated since the word got out that former Top Gear presenter, James May bought ‘half of the pub’. “It is the only pub in walking distance from my house in Ansty. Without a pub country life would be pointless so I felt like I had to do it!”

Arriving on the opening night there was a buzz in the air. We were greeted by general manager, Chris Bryett, who has come from Lacock, and previously worked at the Red Lion and The George Inn.

He was extremely cool and calm considering it was the first night and was attentive without being intrusive during the evening. Every table was booked and waitresses in smart oak leaved aprons were buzzing around with plates of delicious looking food. First thing, wine, chosen from an interesting and varied list. The tasting notes are jaunty and typical of May’s brand of humour: El Viejo del Valle Pinot Noir, Chile, Valle Central – We listed ‘The Old Man of the Valley’ because we’ve each aged about 10 years during lockdown and the wine was pretty decent; Papagiannakos Assyrtiko, Greece Attika – We don’t know how to pronounce it either so best of luck. The Greek ‘Chablis’ works for us.

The Menu is reassuringly good pub food with a slight twist and reasonably-priced. There is an inviting choice of nibbles entitled ‘While you wait’: perfect for those starving, but don’t want to ruin their appetite with a starter: house malted bread with salted butter, Nocarella olives or the Royal Oak sausage roll with brown sauce, each at £4.

There is a good range of choice for meat eaters and vegetarians: potted rabbit, celeriac remoulade, pickles with sourdough (£9) or Crispy chickpea fritters, butternut squash, harissa and tahini dressing (£8), two examples of a starter. We chose two Royal Oak Classics, the Cheeseburger, bacon, sesame seed bun, lettuce, tomato chutney, pickle with skin on fries (£14) and the Chicken Kiev, colcannon, pancetta, parsley with sprouting broccoli (£16). Accepting that burgers are not a very adventurous choice, they are, however, a good benchmark of a good chef. It was cooked to perfection from locally-sourced beef, and the Kiev, was a comforting throwback to the past, and as Christopher said, as he passed the plate to me: “Nice to see a Kiev back on a menu; cooked by the chef, Jonny Sutcliffe who is young, ambitious and capable.”

Everyone was welcoming and attentive. James May ensured he chatted to every table to welcome them. Taking time out from his first meal at his own pub to tell us he was “proud to own 50% of the windows, he said: “I’ve never run a pub before and this is wonderful. I am enjoying the atmosphere and pleased to see the pub full of locals.”

His new cookbook OH Cook! was on display. “At the moment, the chef is cooking my fish pie for the menu,” James said and we look forward to tasting more of his recipés in the future.

Expecting the evening to be an over-the-top event, we were pleasantly surprised by what a pleasant low-key event it was. The pub was very much supported by locals, the absence of celebrities toasting the celebrity partner was a blessed relief. Pick up the phone soon to book a table as news has already got out and the Royal Oak is already booked up.

The Royal Oak, Swallowcliffe, Salisbury SP3 5PA

01747 870211