Sometimes you just don’t fancy a place. It might be the look of it or the way the menu is written or you may even worry the chairs are uncomfy. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I didn’t like the look of Robin’s Oak – recently opened on Hull’s Princes Avenue – so I didn’t bother going in. I think it may have been I was a little concerned that the restaurant’s name was a weird reference to the unfondly-remembered sitcom Robin’s Nest.
You may recall it was the spin-off from Man About the House that followed the misadventures of Richard O’Sullivan (as Robin Tripp) as he opened a bistro with a one-armed Irish pot washer. It somehow ran for a whole six series in the late 70s despite the only identifiable gag being that one-armed Irish pot washers aren’t particularly adept at washing pots.
Anyway, I took one look at Robin’s Oak and thought that if it was some sort of oddball tribute to a duff sitcom, I didn’t want to know. Then a string of people started telling me I was missing out. Always a sign you need to have a rethink.
Robin’s Oak has taken on the premises of the once highly popular Fudge restaurant, one of the many Hull eateries lost to the post-2017 malaise that has settled like a persistent fog over the City of Culture. It’s not a good time to be opening new culinary ventures in Hull, most places seem very empty and the citywide lust for adventure that last year saw the streets filled day and night with wide-eyed, open-pursed culture-seekers has vanished along with the showcase events that drew them from their homes in the first place. My guess is that we’ve not yet reached the nadir.
At least Ricardo Gheorghita – the Romanian owner/patron of Robin’s Oak – is doing the right thing; he’s offering a relatively compact menu of popular dishes starring very good ingredients. After a trip he took to South America with his wife, he decided that his adopted home city didn’t have anywhere offering steaks as good as those they’d sampled in Argentina. So steaks are the main offering, along with a solid selection of (mostly) meaty favourites.
Robin’s Oak is not an impressive-looking place but if you forget the plain decor and the unflashy menu, you’ll find well-above average dishes that make up in taste and quality what they lack in originality and flair. Starters like baby back ribs in a BBQ sauce, pan-fried gamberoni with chimichurri sauce or arancini with aioli will never win any culinary awards but they go down very well with a couple of pints and some good conversation.
It’s during mains of sirloin steak (a marvellous piece of meat, cooked perfectly) and hanging beef kebab (tasty steak chunks marinated in garlic and herbs, served with rice, salad and dips) that I realise that, rather than Robin’s Nest, this place reminds me of the old Aberdeen Steak Houses. Apparently they still have a few left in London but I remember the bright neon red signs of their restaurants that you’d see all over the capital in the 70s and 80s that were, in turn, a tribute to the east coast American steak houses of Boston and New York.
Robin’s Oak might not have the chutzpah and flash of those more familiar, burly steak houses of my youth but the food does. It’s confident and handsome and highly pleasing – not what you expect at all when you first enter the place. The biggest obstacle Ricardo faces is getting people in the door and to their seats. Once presented with his food, they will almost certainly be back for more.
There are puddings and they are pretty good, particularly the tiramisu I tried. It’s fresh made and a big enough portion for you to have to really dedicate yourself to finishing it. Incidentally, none of this is as inexpensive as you’d hope. Everything is reasonably-priced but you are eating steaks and other first-class meats. They don’t come cheap. Two of us eating three courses, a couple of sides and wine spent almost £100. Two courses is probably enough for most people, though, so you may well be able to eat heartily there for less.
I wish Ricardo well. He’s a jocular fellow and is dedicated to working hard to make his dreams come true. It transpires that the restaurant is named after his son Robin and has nothing to do with sitcoms; opening a new venture in Hull right now is no laughing matter, so that’s probably for the best.
Robin’s Oak, 93 Princes Avenue, Hull, HU5 3QP; tel: 01482 349302; www.robinsoakrestaurant.co.uk
Drink selection 3/5