IT had been a fair few years since I had set foot in the Bear and Ragged Staff, so much so that I barely recognised the old place. But then, much has changed at this queen of village pubs.

It was always a pretty spot and well-liked by villagers, but is now gorgeous. It is also big, or to be more precise, long – with a succession of spacious dining areas and a conservatory arranged either side of its quaint old bar, which still feels like a proper local.

After years of coasting, the pub has been acquired by Peach Pubs – who also have The Fishes in North Hinksey, Fleece in Witney and The Thatch and The James Figg in Thame. And its new owners have thrown both cash and love at the Tudor gem – with its fireplaces, flagstone floors and carved lintels – stripping away modern intrusions and revealing her inner beauty, enhanced with bespoke block-printed wallpaper and a sprinkling of enthusiastically sourced antiques.

Arriving early on a Saturday evening we found the place already buzzing. Word of the transformation, and of 27 year-old head chef James Durrant’s culinary magic, has well and truly got out, with a mix of couples, groups of friends and extended families crowded around tables, between which waiters hoist blackboards of daily specials.

We took a table in the cosy dining room, and made our choice – mixing it up between the menu and specials from the board. Deciding had scarcely been so difficult, but on the advice of our cheery waitress we went for a wonderful-sounding roast chicken ravioli (£10.50) and the highly-recommended split pea and ham soup (£6).

The ravioli was even better than I had hoped. Firm homemade pasta parcels stuffed with moist roast chicken – the flavour amplified by a drizzling of chicken juice and flaked crisped skin and topped with shavings of parmesan. It was divine in both taste and texture, and required absolute willpower not to lick every last drop of galline goodness from the plate.

Banbury Cake:

The soup wasn’t half bad too, the contrast of fresh aromatic pea and comforting chunks of ham elevated into a higher taste dimension by the subtle addition of mint oil and smoked bacon.

The main courses had a lot to live up to.

The hot choice around these parts, we have been told, is their signature 14-hour braised beef and ale pie, but, I’d also been tipped-off about the steaks, so found myself face to face with a beautiful 8oz 28 day dry-aged rump cap (£19.75) courtesy of the Queen’s butcher Aubrey Allen. This was served with chips, a fresh and peppery little watercress salad and slathered with a rich shallot and red wine sauce. And because I can never resist it, a side of creamed spinach (£2.50). The steak, served properly rare as requested, was perfect – juicy, melt in the mouth and with a lovely seared finish. It was so filling the chips went largely uneaten.

My accomplice’s roast free-range chicken (£16.50) was also a formidable dish, served with char-grilled leeks, toasted hazelnuts and mash. The chicken was moist and the mash buttery: comfort food par excellence.

It was seen on its way with a robust plummy Argentinian Malbec (£25.50).

Banbury Cake:

By this stage we were practically defeated, but I mustered enough strength to tackle a banoffee Eton mess (£6.50) – a riot of banana, lime and caramelised pecans which was light and full of interesting textures – crunchy, smooth and sticky.

It was a tantalising and elegant twist on an old favourite – just like the Bear and Ragged Staff itself.

I can’t wait to get back.

  • The Bear and ragged staff, 28 Appleton Road, Cumnor, near Oxford. 01865 862329

Stop press: We weren’t alone in enjoying James Durrant’s kitchen wizardry.

The 27 year-old chef this week won a national hospitality award, an Acorn, which recognises 30 young achievers under 30 – each nominated by their peers for their outstanding ability in their field.

Well done James...very well deserved, indeed.