ANYONE who has been on holiday in rural France and had to pull over in an unlikely-looking spot to find something to eat will know the unfailing reliability of that country’s tiniest taverns to provide the most mouthwatering of meals.

It’s something we don’t do over here: even establishments that call themselves restaurants (and we have reviewed enough of them in the Herald) will happily serve up swill, seemingly with no shame.

On the other hand, the really joyous thing is walking into a humdrum-looking local and being served spectacular food that is so unexpected.

Such is the joy one gets at the Eagle Tavern.

The first time I went there, a few years ago, having read some rave reviews (and struggled to get a booking on my first attempt), when we pulled up in the deserted village square outside the humble red brick pub, I thought we must have driven to the wrong Eagle or the wrong Coxwell.

Even when you step inside, there is nothing that screams fine dining. You enter a single room, with a large bar in the middle, locals propping it up with pints of beer and, on the occasions we have been there, a meagre scattering of locals at tables around the room.

The icing on this unlikely cake is that the Eagle is not run by either a French or English team, but Slovakians Marcel Nerpas and Peter Narsansky.

Any doubts I had on my first visit were allayed almost as soon as I looked at the menu: the dishes on offer are reassuringly ambitious, the menu reassuringly small (our rule is always ‘the bigger the menu, the worse the food’).

One of the most eye-catching and seemingly permanent features of the Eagle menu is its famous Oxford Blue cheese savoury creme brulee, served with apple sorbet.

Tonight, though, I spot two fishy treats I’ve not seen on the menu before: mussels in cider and cream for a starter and skate wings served with butternut squash and spiced lentils for a main course.

With the reassurance of dining companions that one of them will get the brulee (we wouldn’t want chef Marcel getting rusty) and one will get the omelette main course (when was the last time you saw an omelette as a main course at a restaurant?) I take the plunge and go for the fish.

As always, we are not disappointed. The mussels are beautifully-cooked and tender, the sauce a sweet variation on the traditional, and the fresh bread and butter on the table perfect for soaking up the leftover juice.

The real revelation of the night, though, is my skate. I’m not sure I have ever had skate at a restaurant before and the wing is an unusual piece of fish.

For anyone not familiar, you get a rough idea from the picture above: the wing is a triangular fin, ribbed with bones which have meat on both the top and below.

My Eagle wing was again cooked beautifully, succulent strips falling off the bone.

The promised butternut squash (which came from Coleshill just a stone’s throw away), was served as a creamy puree as sweet as apple and the spicy lentils came in a tiny saucepan of their own.

The slightly remarkable thing about the dish was that it didn’t come with what I would call a real ‘carb’ – either potatoes, rice or some kind of pasta – but it was just as well, because three elements formed the perfect trio.

All of this was perfectly complemented by a bottle of Italian Barolo.

Katie, who got the omelette (which came with a neat cube of Dauphinoise potatoes, sour cream and seasonal vegetables) was just as impressed with her elegantly simple supper.

Partly because I was so excited to start eating at the beginning of the night, I had forgotten to take a photo of my mussels (they were nicely presented, I assure you), so I felt obliged to order dessert just to get another picture for you to look at.

The other deciding factor was that they had one of my favourites, sticky toffee pudding made with Medjool dates.

Thankfully, as I had already stuffed myself on my first two courses, this was very modestly-sized, the perfect sweet treat to end the night.

I personally can’t stand strudel, but my companions assured me they enjoyed theirs.

In Gallic style, the restaurant charges per number of courses and, at £26 for three, the prices were extremely reasonable.

Christmas bookings are being taken now.

l The Eagle Tavern, Little Coxwell, Faringdon SN7 7LW. Call on 01367 241879.