Friday, 30 December 2011

My mission: 3 months to go

When I began my Girl Eats Oxford project in April 2011, the idea of eating in and reviewing one Oxford establishment per week seemed doable. Daunting, but also doable. In many ways, my first naive thought was right: it's certainly possible to dine out once every 7 days, but finding the time to review is sometimes tougher. This isn't the real challenge, though. The problem is that by the end of March I'll only have scratched the surface of Oxford's restaurant scene.

This came as something of a surprise. As the city is frequently labelled a 'culinary desert', I had an ill-considered idea that it would be possible to review the majority of the restaurants worth visiting in 12 months. How wrong I was. Nine months in, I've eaten at around 40 different establishments - with much better results than you'd expect of a gastronomic wasteland. So far, so good. But the list of recommendations still to visit numbers over 40.

Will I continue my project for another year? I thought I'd let you decide: if you're keen to keep reading, please leave a comment below or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook. Whatever happens, I've decided to celebrate the end of the year with a dinner at the top-scoring restaurant of the project. So far, the only perfect 10 has been awarded to The Ball Green Door supper club, but with the chef currently away and its future uncertain, there's everything to play for. Please keep your suggestions coming, as comments, emails, Tweets or Facebook posts. And if you'd like to join me for dinner at the end of March, please email me your details.

The Ball Green Door may have scooped the top score so far, but I've discovered plenty of other favourites. For the most part, my top picks from my six-month anniversary still apply: Santorini, Al Shami and the Magic Cafe remain some of my most enjoyable experiences. Since September, I've also had excellent experiences at Oxfork, La Cucina and No1 Folly Bridge.

Who knows what else I'll discover in the final 3 months of my mission? For January, I'll be focusing on budget eats, with the results revealed on BBC Radio Oxford on 10 February. Following reader suggestions, I'll also be trying out more cafes, date-friendly restaurants and family-friendly spots. As ever, if you have any suggestions for me, let me know!

Thanks for reading and happy new year.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Malikas

Although Cowley Road is far from lacking in Indian restaurants, Malikas was the first to tempt me through its doors. Formerly Jaipur, the revamped restaurant opened in August. As far as I can tell, the management team is the same: the name may have changed and the interior and menu been overhauled, but Jaipur fans needn't fear too much change.

On arrival, L and I were struck by both the smart appearance (modern leather chairs, linen tablecloths and tasteful low-lighting) and the polite friendliness of the waiters. On a pre-Christmas Monday night, Malikas was half-full yet calm: not so quiet we felt the need to whisper awkwardly, as sometimes happens on the first night of the working week, but pleasantly relaxed. Put simply, the ambience was spot on.

The menu at Malikas is extensive without being overwhelming, with vegetarians well catered-for. Starters range from £3 to £5, with classics including a lamb sheek kebab and a range of samosas, and more interesting options such as dahi wada (lentil cakes with spicy yoghurt and tamarind sauce). The chef's special section starts at £6.50 and offers meat and fish dishes including murgh nawabi, a whole chicken breast stuffed with medium-spiced mincemeat). The rest of the menu reads much as you'd expect it to: a selection of biryanis, kormas, bhunas and more, plus fish and vegetarian sections and side dishes.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Oxford Blue

Having a man attempt to attach a carpet to the wall behind your head isn't exactly a typical Sunday lunch experience. But then again, not much about the experience of dining at a new establishment is typical. Based on this little incident at the Oxford Blue, I'm quite happy about that.

The former sports pub just off the Iffley Road has been taken over by the team formerly behind Bottega in Jericho and transformed into a chic but cosy spot for a drink and a bite to eat. With white walls and a few interesting decorative touches, it's inviting but still remains within the 'pub' realm. The wine savvy of the management team is evident on the menu, though: each dish is paired with a wine chosen from their list. With tipples including Spanish whites and Portuguese and Hungarian reds, it's an interesting selection – picking up exactly where Bottega left off. Prices are fair given the quality and wide range, but a touch steep for the area, with house wine £4 a glass (i.e. 50p more than in the lovely Rusty nearby).

The menu sticks to more familiar territory, with chef Mark Bradbury (formerly of Smiths of Smithfield and Branca, among other restaurants) cooking up modern British dishes with a gastro twist: the 'Bannister burger' (£10.95), Korean barbecue lamb with kale and baked smoked haddock with cream, spinach, cheese and a poached egg (both £14) feature among the 6 main courses. Mains are reasonably priced, but the starter selection is on the expensive side, with dishes from £5–7.50. Sides aren't included, adding to the bill by a further £2.75. The menu itself features an interesting reverse side, full of facts 'Oxford blue'-related facts: a nice touch.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Christmas at No1 Folly Bridge

Turkey, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, parsnips, stuffing, gravy, looseing a notch on your belt. For most Brits, the phrase 'Christmas dinner' conjures up all these images. Christmas is definitely a time when diets are relaxed and indulgence rules. In the build-up to the main festivities, it's likely you'll eat more than one Christmas meal with work colleagues or friends. And with the majority of Oxford restaurants offering festive set menus, you're spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing where to tuck into your turkey. But what if you're looking for something less traditional? If you can only face the full turkey and trimmings once over the festive period but still want to keep things festive, try No1 Folly Bridge.

With a prime riverside location, this new brasserie no doubt comes into its own during the warmer months, when the terrace opens up. However, it's also a lovely spot for dinner at any time of year, with its white walls, light wood furniture and candlelit alcoves. The main menu changes with the seasons, offering well-priced French-influenced meat and fish dishes (such as swordfish steak, £12.75) along with a selection of stone-baked pizzas. The Christmas menu offers even better value, though: 3 courses for just £19.95. With 4 options for each course, we weren't limited on choice, but at such a good price, would the dishes deliver?

A, N and I greedily sampled one of everything on No1 Folly Bridge's Christmas menu, starting with baked goat's cheese salad, a salmon and prawn tartlet, parsnip and celeriac soup and a ham hock and game terrine. I admit I wouldn't usually opt for soup as a starter, but a taste of this creamy, subtle yet rich tasting parsnip and celeriac number had me rethinking my ideas. Notoriously fussy N also loved it, but preferred the terrine: both my carnivorous companions said that it was a real meat lover's dish, densely packed with good quality meat, and offset well by a cranberry relish.

Badly photographed salmon and prawn tartlet

Thursday, 1 December 2011

On location: The Vaults, Birmingham

Being a food blogger is great fun and all, but there's no denying it's punishing to the pocket. Being a food critic for a publication doesn't just lend kudos to a review, it's also decidedly more wallet-friendly. So when I saw that daily email Emerald Street were looking for food critics to celebrate the 100th issue of their sister publication Stylist, I sent my 90 word sample review in slightly less quickly than you could say 'free dinner'. But only slightly.

Luckily for me and my wallet, Emerald Street chose me as one of their five reviewers, and a few weeks ago I visited The Vaults in Birmingham for an evening of 'VIP treatment'. I roped in my trusty friend N and we hopped on the train, ready to make the most of our three hours in the Midlands.

Located in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, The Vaults is – as its name suggests – a subterranean space. Rather than a creepy crypt, it's half restaurant, half cocktail bar. Its low lighting, exposed brick walls and sleek black tables give a slick, understated feel – not my usual style, but given that the restaurant was already buzzing with diners at 7pm on a Wednesday, The Vaults clearly has plenty of local appeal. Perusing the menu, we were offered our choice of (pricey) cocktails: my raspberry martini impressed, but N wasn't asked whether she preferred a gin or a vodka martini despite both being on offer. The menu itself was also a little confusing: the table d'hote menu bore prices for either 2 or 3 courses (£16.50 or £17.50 mid-week), with supplements for more elaborate dishes. Diners with an appetite more modest than their budget may feel over-faced, but fortunately for us, we'd arrived hungry.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Oxfork

Any Oxford resident who likes their grub will have heard of Oxfork by now. Unless you're a Twitterphobe with selective deafness when it comes to word of mouth, you'll no doubt know that the former pop-up restaurant converted 39 Magdalen Road into a café over summer, firmly cementing this corner of East Oxford as the city's new go-to gastro destination.

Tellingly, the hype behind the venture wasn't generated by those behind Oxfork, but largely by those excited by the prospect of a cosy but chic café serving well-prepared seasonal dishes sourced from local suppliers. Trendy East Oxford types may like to shop and eat local, but if they can do so in a quirkily-decorated, relaxed venue, so much the better.

Visiting on its opening weekend, it was clear that the hype had worked: by the time I turned up on Saturday lunchtime, the demand-supply balance was looking a bit precarious. The cheery staff were rolling with it admirably though; one of the chefs even delivered our order and apologized for the delay. Oxfork's brunches and lunches were clearly in demand.

Although I love the idea of brunch, as a vegetarian who used to pretend to be allergic to eggs as a child, such was my hatred of them, the options available often leave me a little cold. Thankfully for me, although Oxfork's menu is an egg-lover's delight (benedict, royale, scrambled, poached, in a sandwich...), there are a number of other choices for the less enamoured: a vegetarian breakfast, a variety of treats on toast and porridge. And as brunchtime runs into lunchtime (no noon cut off point here), I was also able to pick from the daily lunch menu. From the short selection of dishes chalked on the board, I opted for the potato and thyme soup with wild mushrooms (£4), while S went for eggs florentine (£7.50). Perusing the menu, I was struck by the price of the egg dishes: £7.50 seems pretty steep, especially when you consider that the Oxfork breakfast (sausage, bacon, fried egg, beans, slow-roast tomato, mushrooms and sourdough bread) is the same price. Still, there's no denying the quality of the ingredients: all the eggs used are free-range, sourced from a farm near Witney.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Burford Garden Company

The beginning of winter may not seem the most logical time to visit a garden centre. But then again, Liz Hurley's garden centre of choice* isn't your average retailer of hardy perennials, connifers and compost. Burford Garden Company is a purveyor of the very finest plants and other paraphernalia to the Cotswold set. There's much more than gardening goods here; works of art, glamorous gifts, homewares, Christmas decorations and delicatessen delicacies are also on offer. Tucked away next to the rows of kitchen gadgets, premium olive oils and perfectly-packaged boxes of biscuits is my reason for visiting Burford: the café.

With its high glass ceiling and industrial steel touches, the Burford Café is reminiscent of a greenhouse. There's no roughing it among gro-bags of tomatoes, though: smoothly-sanded wooden tables dot the space, which is adorned with works by local artists. A live piano player tinkles away in the background. As you would expect, the classy touch extends to their edible offerings: on my visit, the daily-changing hot lunch options included venison and red wine pie (£10) and a red onion tarte tatin with Cotswold brie (£7.50). Also on offer are a choice of meat and vegetarian soups, served with homemade sourdough bread (£5), salads and sandwiches. Children are well catered for with cute little lunch packs – and a separate café all of their own, the brightly-decorated Little Burford Café, full of fun features for kids. Produce is local, seasonal and Fairtrade as far as possible, prepared under the expert supervision of former Daylesford Organic chef Diarmuid Rogan. Sweet treats promise to be tasty, too: the man in charge of your sugar rush trained at Oxford's Maison Blanc.


Salad plate


Mushroom and tarragon soup


M and I chose to share a hearty-looking salad plate (£6 for your choice from 4 vegetarian salads and a leaf salad, served with bread) and a mushroom and tarragon soup. Salads are serve yourself; the perfect excuse to pile our plate high with bulgur wheat with vegetables and herbs; cucumber, poppy seed and chilli; butternut squah, caramelized onion, goat's cheese and green bean, and marinated courgette and chickpea. All four complemented each other well, their robust, autumnal flavours healthy and fresh but still satisfying. The soup was creamy but with just enough 'body' to make it filling, the hint of tarragon lifting the mushroom taste. Burford's homemade sourdough bread was another winner: perfectly chewy yet light.

Friday, 11 November 2011

La Cucina

Nowhere in Oxford divides opinion like La Cucina. Having heard everything from raves to rubbishing (with a bit of indifference in between), I decided it was time to check out one of the city's most talked about Italian restaurants.

After two of my foodie friends revealed they'd both been impressed by La Cucina, my expectations were pretty high. And the pressure was on: after meeting fellow writers Katy and Krista on the Travel Belles trip to Italy in September, I decided an Italian restaurant was the ideal venue for our recent Oxford get-together. If Oxford's offerings couldn't compare to the feast we had over several days in Vogogna, my neck would be on the line.

Stepping inside, I was reassured to see that the restaurant was already reasonably busy despite it being early on a Wednesday evening. The interior is smart with a few rustic touches: varnished wooden tables with a few decorative items such as copper pans brightening up the dining area, which extends beyond the bar into a larger room.  We were greeted and seated by a friendly waitress, who talked us through the numerous specials.

The main menu reads like a list of Italian home-cooking at its best. First up are plenty of tempting-sounding starters (such as funghi con scamorza; baked field mushrooms topped with smoked cheese and herby breadcrumbs, £5.95) and salads available in either starter or main course portions (£2.50 supplement). Pastas and pizzas (cooked in the wood-fired oven) are both reasonably priced: just £6.95 for the cheapest pasta dish and £5.95 for a margherita. It didn't sound like there would be any compromise on the ingredients, though, with options including pappardelle with a rich duck and red wine sauce and pizza topped with asparagus and a free-range egg all stimulating our appetites. In addition to these wheat-based mains, there are a number of risottos on offer, as well as a selection of meat and fish dishes. More unusually for Oxford, pizze bianche (white pizzas) also feature on La Cucina's menu. They may lack the usual tomato topping, but promise to pack a punch with toppings including goat's cheese, sundried tomatoes, spinach and red onion.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Ball Green Door

You'd expect a top dining destination to be fully booked on a Friday night, and The Ball Green Door was no exception. With four courses on offer for just £25 and a friendly atmosphere, you can certainly understand the appeal. But where is this people- and pocket-pleasing restaurant? I can't tell you, I'm afraid.

A dining phenomenon that has taken London by storm, supper clubs (or underground restaurants) are gradually extending their reach across the UK. Either held at the homes of keen amateur cooks (or sometimes professional chefs) or organized in unusual spaces, these pop-up dining destinations take many forms. They all have one thing in common though: the ability to bring strangers together over a shared love of food. Some supper clubs are regular, while others, including Oxford's Ball Green Door, are more sporadic, but all must be booked in advance. After perusing a menu, diners either purchase tickets in advance or email to secure a place before their destination is revealed to them: shrouded in secrecy due to their lack of licence, supper clubs should appeal to all those mystery lovers who like a side of the unknown with their steak.

Taking advantage of the Ball Green Door's last date for this year, N and I booked tickets for a  Friday night. For £25 including a welcome drink, the price compared favourably with Oxford's restaurants: but unlike visiting a restaurant, we weren't quite sure what to expect. After attending two very different supper clubs (Fernandez & Leluu and The Shed) while living in London, I wasn't a complete novice, but as each experience is unique, shaped by the host's ideas and tastes, I was excited to see how an Oxford take on the phenomenon measured up.

Arriving at our destination, we were welcomed by friendly waitresses and presented with a sloe gin sling. The softly-lit room was buzzing with chatter as strangers broke the conversational ice, aided by a sip of alcohol. We took our seats on one of three tables of six and introduced ourselves to our table mates: a couple and 2 brave solo diners. Communal dining sets supper clubs apart from a traditional restaurant experience: although many people attend in pairs or small groups, over-dinner conversation is the norm. Sometimes this takes the form of awkward and stilted chit-chat; sometimes common ground is found, laughs had and issues debated. Fortunately, the latter was the case at The Ball Green Door, and I can safely say that it's the friendliest supper club I've attended to date.

Beetroot and horseradish blinis

Our starter of beetroot and horseradish blinis sprinkled with poppy seeds was an ideal entree: light, tasty and fresh, it was enough to whet the palate and tantalize us with a hint of what was to come without being too filling. Timing was impeccable; we had just enough time to chat and relax before the next course appeared. Slow-cooked beef shank osso bucco for the meat eaters and stuffed portabello mushrooms for the veggies, the mains were served with a chunky potato gremolata and green beans. Despite the generous portion size, our table polished their dishes off in record time: the meat was tender and slid off the bone, melting in the mouth, while the mushrooms had a robust quality and were so flavoursome I put aside my reservations regarding stuffed vegetables. In fact, I may even be a convert: the rich tomato sauce certainly packed a punch and with its help the mushrooms made for a satisfying main.

Beef shank

Stuffed mushrooms

Sufficiently stuffed with two delicious courses and oiled with the wine our tablemates kindly shared with us, there was time to rest and chat about every imaginable topic: we even covered those dinner party disaster areas of politics and religion without any kind of disagreement occurring. This triumph was possibly surpassed by the dessert, though. Chef Charlotte's pear and frangipane tart with masala chai ice cream was, as N declared, 'the winner'. The delicate flavours of the poached fruit and the frangipane, the perfectly made pastry and the subtle spice of the homemade ice cream made this a moreish pudding I'd be happy to see on a restaurant menu.

Pear and frangipane tart - this photo does it no justice!

Wrapping up the evening with Oxord Blue cheese served with rowan berry jelly followed by coffee and homemade chocolates, our table concluded that good supper clubs have the edge over restaurants. Attending one is risky, though: unlike a restaurant, you can't be quite sure what you're going to get at a supper club. A keen chef is presumably not always a good chef, you need only watch an audition episode of the X Factor to see that some people's belief in their own talent is sorely misplaced. Although food and venue are key factors, your fellow diners are the biggest gamble of all: the people who share your table have the power to make or break the experience. Luckily for us, our tablemates were excellent company; fun and easy to talk to. After a lovely evening of well-cooked, unfussy but excellently executed food in interesting company, I realized that the best supper clubs combine the ease and sense of occasion of dining out with the convivial, relaxed atmosphere of a friend's home. And with prices lower than most restaurants and a bring your own policy, their appeal in these financially hard times is understandable. In an age where independent restaurants often have to fight for survival as town centres are engulfed by chains, supper clubs are putting the personal touch into dining.

Verdict: 10.
I wasn't sure I'd ever give anywhere full marks, but the food, setting, service and company at The Ball Green Door were worth it.

Unfortunately we attended the last dinner at The Ball Green Door for the foreseeable future, but keep checking their Facebook page for updates. To find out more about our evening The Ball Green Door and other 'dining with a difference' ideas, tune in to my slot on Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford on Friday 28 October from 1pm. I'll be discussing other supper clubs in Oxfordshire, as well as some other unusual dining destinations. You can listen here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Gardener's Arms

With a cosy wood-panelled interior complemented by a log fire in winter and a beer garden for those occasional days of British summer, the Gardener's Arms on Plantation Road is a perfect unfussy English pub. Except according to their website, it's 'Oxford's premier vegetarian restaurant'. With a completely meat-free menu, at least part of that label makes sense, but without even wading into the mire of the pub-gastropub-restaurant debate, the idea that the Gardener's is a restaurant is confusing. Yes, it's currently the only place in Oxford to currently serve exclsuively vegetarian fare in the evening, but with a menu of burgers, curries and wraps, its edible offerings place the Gardener's firmly in the pub category.

Established with the aim of providing an environment where carnivores could dine with their vegetarian friends and not miss that meaty presence on their plates, much of the menu seems designed to appease meat eaters while satisfying the palates of those who forgo flesh. As a result, textured vegetable protein (TVP) makes more appearances than I'm used to seeing on vegetarian menus, with chilli and meat-substitute burgers sitting alongside vegetable-based offerings. There are plenty of the latter too: a mushroom pie, an Indian thali platter, Greek salad and a selection of calzones, among other dishes.

I opted for the thali platter (£9.95), which consisted of the curry of the day (a dhansak on this occasion) served with rice, poppadoms, mango chutney and sag aloo with some salad adding another shade of green to the plate. The dhansak was mild and tasty; the sag aloo slightly unusual with what appeared to be thick-cut chips nestling among the spinach. The portion was enough to satisfy even the hungriest of diners, and the selection of small dishes is ideal for variety-seekers (or the indecisive).

Indian thali platter
Less successful was T's Mexian platter (£9.95): chilli served in an intriguing-sounding 'boat' (which turned out to be a not at all nautical dish, sadly) topped with grilled mozzarella and served with flatbread and a tomato and red onion salsa. T was less than impressed: expecting a vegetable-packed chilli sauce, he found himself faced with a dish of over-seasoned TVP with just a few kidney beans and a rather token apperance from some green peppers. The flatbread was a little on the stale side and the salsa rather tasteless.

Mexican platter


The chilli was definitely the dud dish of the bunch: both A's veggie burger quarter-pound veggie burger (£8.50) and N's spinach, tomato, olive and feta flatbread calzone (£8.95) were much more successful. N confessed that on previous occasions, she hadn't even noticed that the burger was vegetarian: meat-eaters afraid of the green stuff should take note. Served in a basket with chips, it was certainly classic pub food: tasty, filling and unfussy.

Veggie burger
The flatbread calzone was another success: a huge portion that defeated N, it was packed with spinach, tomatoes and cheese, yet wasn't too salty despite the often thirst-inducing combination of feta and olives. We all felt it was a bit on the pricey side for something you could easily make at home, though.

Spinach, tomato, feta and olive calzone

As pubs go, the Gardener's is a winner: with a laid-back atmosphere and no indication that they would ever dare stray into over-sanitised gastro territory, it's an ideal spot to settle in for the evening with a drink or two. Despite not eating meat, I'm not entirely convinced I'd go out of my way to dine there, though: if I found myself famished over a drink there, I wouldn't hesitate to order, but I don't think I'd make a special trip to Jericho just to dine at the Gardener's. A meat-free menu in a pub is definitely a welcome sight, as drinking dens aren't exactly famed for their ability to cater well to vegetarians, but the idea that the Gardener's is a restaurant created false expectations in my head. It does good (if pricey) pub grub: if you want a burger and a pint then great, but if fine dining's what you're looking for, look elsewhere.

Verdict: 6.5

The Gardener's Arms is on Plantation Road, Jericho. Tel: 01865 559814. 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Six months, one full stomach

Six month anniversaries have never seemed worth celebrating, to be honest. Surely it's a bit premature to champion something still in its infancy? In this case, though, I'm willing to set my preoconceptions aside: I'm now halfway through my one-year Girl Eats Oxford mission.

Back in April, I decided to spend one year working my way around the city's eating establishments, visiting and reviewing one per week based on reader recommendations. Six months later, both my waistline and my wallet have taken a bashing, while the list of 'must visit' cafes and restaurants still to try will keep me occupied for almost another year. I've discovered that most of my friends' names begin with either A or S; that even my seemingly boundless appetite can be satisfied and that it is possible to crave a plate of salad. Rare, you understand, but possible. Most importantly though, I've confirmed my suspicion regarding Oxford's 'culinary desert' label, often applied dismissively by foodies spoiled by the capital's bounty. Oxford isn't the size of London, hence its options are fewer, but it's no desert:  you can barely swing a camel for eateries; they're everywhere. Yes, I hear you, doubting Thomas: 'sure, there are plenty of places to eat, but that doesn't necessarily mean there are any good ones'. I beg to differ: I think the most exciting chapter in the city's gastronomic history so far has just begun, with innovative independent establishments such as Oxfork and Atomic Pizza popping up, and new foodie organisation Oxford Gastronomica Seen seeking to raise the standard of dining across Oxfordshire.

In the past six months, I've dined at both old haunts and plenty of previously neglected or unknown establishments as I chomp my way through all the recommendations I've kindly been sent on Twitter. Although it would be impossible to pick a catch-all 'favourite' (restaurants are like shoes; different ones suit different occasions), I've managed to whittle down the 26 reviews I've written to date and compile a list of my top picks so far.

Best budget: If you're looking for good grub that will satisfy your stomach but don't have much cash to flash, try Red Star on Cowley Road. Serving up cheap noodles and rice dishes, you can fill your boots here with change from a tenner. Try the spicy Ma Po Tofu served with steamed rice.
Best smart: If it's occasion dining you're after, it's got to be the Ashmolean Dining Room. With a stunning location overlooking Oxford's rooftops and a light, airy space given a modern touch unexpected in such an ancient institution, the setting is simply perfect. The food doesn't play second fiddle, though: there's a strong, well-priced menu of seasonal dishes which also caters well to vegetarian diners.
Best for vegetarians: It's certainly not new to Oxford, but the Magic Cafe was new to me. Serving tasty meat-free dishes on a budget, it's a winner in my book. If you're dining with a mixed group of veggies and meat eaters, try Al Shami in Jericho or The Vaults & Garden on the High Street (review coming soon).
Favourite cafe: Avoiding the chains (and the crowds) in central Oxford can be tough, but the cafe at Modern Art Oxford is a welcome relief: bright and funky, it serves delicious Monmouth coffee. The pop up cafes at East Oxford Farmers' Market are well worth a visit: brunch at the Moving Teashop was a real treat, with a range of seasonal eats washed down by their own blend tea. And I may only have visited once so far, but Oxfork looks set to be a favourite with its inviting atmosphere and excellent quality dishes (review coming soon).
Favourite new discovery: The best part of my project is the fact that it's taken me to places I may not have otherwise considered. Santorini on Cowley Road may not look much from outside (or even really inside, unless the holiday on a Greek island circa 1995 look works for you), but I was charmed by the quality and taste of their lip-smackingly good offerings. It's also reasonably priced and great for vegetarians. In central Oxford, Edamame gave me my first experience of Japanese cuisine, and although I still doubt that chopsticks and I will ever be friends, I'll definitely be returning for more of their home cooking.
Best meal so far: Somewhat surprisingly for me, my my favourite meal so far was in a pub: the Rickety Press in Jericho. Pubs aren't exactly famed for their ability to cater well to non-meat eaters, but the Rickety Press managed to woo me with its feta, squash and pine nut pithivier. On my visit, this refurbished pub seemed to have the whole package: a well-decorated interior, friendly service  and a seasonal menu of competitively-priced deliciousness.


Who knows what I'll discover in the next six months? Whatever happens, I certainly won't be going hungry. I hope you're enjoying reading my reviews as much as I'm enjoying writing them (OK, researching them), and if you have any feedback please do get in touch or fill in this short survey: I'm always looking for ways to make the blog more interactive, so all comments and suggestions are much appreciated. You can also interact with Girl Eats Oxford on Facebook, and I always welcome your opinions for my monthly slot on BBC Radio Oxford. In the coming months, I'm hoping to have a bit of a makeover (well, the site, not me personally) and I have some exciting plans afoot for visitors to Oxford, so please keep checking back.

Thanks for reading, and here's to another six months of gluttony.



Saturday, 1 October 2011

The High Table

Set menus strike horror into the hearts of some people. That pared-down list of culinary offerings signifies a lack of choice; a limit on your tastebuds. This is sometimes undeniably so. However, set menus can also represent significant savings: they can be a chance to check out what’s on offer at a ritzy restaurant while keeping your spending on the down low. Personally, I don’t mind eating early and picking from a reduced menu if it enables me to satisfy my stomach with chi chi cuisine at a fair price.

The aptly-named High Table sits inside the High Street’s Eastgate Hotel. Popular with tourists due to its prime location, it’s also increasingly name-checked by local residents on Twitter. I visited a number of years ago and remember being impressed by the high quality of the traditional dishes served, but memories of a rather stuffy interior delayed my return visit until this year. Following a facelift, the High Table is no longer a staid hotel dining room: the traditional space has been given a modern touch with fashionable furniture and light colours. It met with my mother’s approval: and that’s no mean feat.

Mrs T also approved of the menu, too: at The High Table, prix fixe merely restricted to the earlybird slot. In addition to their excellent value Monday to Saturday offer (£10.95 for two courses at lunch and from 6 until 7pm), there’s also a slightly higher priced set menu on Sundays until 2 (two courses for £13.95, three for £16.95). With four options on offer for each course, there’s slightly more choice than on most set menus, and I noted to my satisfaction that two of the starters were vegetarian.

Over a basket of fresh warm bread, we perused the options.Mr and Mrs T both chose smoked trout salads with mango, chilli, lime and coriander to start.

Shocking phone photo of smoked trout salad

Immaculately and artistically presented, they were what Mrs T termed ‘proper starter sizes’: no spoiling your appetite here, these entrées were designed to leave you salivating for more rather than satisfied. I suppose serving so many set menus encourages balanced portion sizes. The salad’s ingredients worked harmoniously together to create a fresh, summery flavour combination rather than an overpowering culinary equivalent of the tower of Babel.

Watermelon and ricotta salad

My watermelon and ricotta salad with podded peas and green beans was also perfectly presented and an interesting summer dish, but I did feel that the taste of the watermelon dominated the cheese, so perhaps an extra flavour element would have been welcome here.


Blurry chicken

Much to Mr T’s dismay, there was no roast beef to be had by the time we sat down, so the traditional roast was substituted for chicken. As a chap who likes his hearty meals (a little too much, Mrs T might say), my dad was a little disappointed by the portion size but once again impressed by the presentation. The rosemary-infused roast potatoes also helped to win him around. Mrs T’s pork belly with apple purée and Madeira jus looked decidedly unappetising to my vegetarian eyes, but she assured me it was well-cooked and melted in her mouth, although the crackling could have been crispier. My pan-fried Cornish bream was perfectly cooked, light and flaky, combining well with the accompanying panzanella salad (although this was just a touch too oily).

Pan-fried bream

With friendly and efficient service and tasty and interesting dishes served in an inviting setting, The High Table deserves to steal another High Street institution’s crown. The price-quality ratio was spot on, and the ample availability of set menus is a definite winner in my book. However, if the portion sizes on the a la carte menu are similarly sized, you’ll definitely need more than a main to satisfy your stomach – even if your appetite isn’t as healthy as Mr T’s.

Verdict:7.5/10

The High Table is at71-73 High Street, OX1 4BE. Tel: 01865 248695.

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Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Magic Cafe

In many meat eaters’ minds, the word ‘vegetarian’ used to conjure up images of lettuce leaves and hunger, or bland platefuls of unsatisfying lentils and brown rice. When canvassing my male friends’ opinions on meat-free meals prior to my latest radio show, I was surprised to receive an open-minded, positive response: turns out it was me living in the past and taking a sexist stance on meaty meals, not them. Whether for economic or health reasons, more and more omnivores are choosing to forgo flesh on a regular basis, opting to base a higher number of their meals around vegetables. Even famous carnivore Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has recently experimented with eating an almost exclusively vegetarian diet with unexpectedly positive results: seasonal vegetables can be the stars of a dish rather than the supporting act.

With all this in mind, I finally visited the Magic Café for lunch. A bit of an East Oxford institution, the Magic Café serves breakfast, lunch, tea and cakes to an eclectic crowd including plenty of families no doubt enticed by its laid-back atmosphere and low prices. Surprisingly in a city like Oxford, there are only two exclusively vegetarian eating establishments to choose from, the Magic Café and the Gardeners’ Arms, both feeding residents’ meat-free needs for years. With a full menu of vegetarian and vegan breakfasts from £2.50 and daily lunch offerings from £3, the Magic Café currently only caters to hunger pangs during daylight hours, although this looks set to change with their first evening opening on 7 October.

Selection of salads

Visiting on a weekday lunchtime, offerings included a mixed vegetable vegan soup (£3), a pie of the day (Russian koulbiaka, £3.50), a selection of salads and a chickpea and apricot tagine (£5.70). S opted for a full plate of salad (£4), heaped with waldorf, Greek, cous cous and leaf varieties. Fresh, lively and filling, it was much tastier than a soggy supermarket sandwich for only a few pence more.

Koulbiaka

L’s koulbiaka met her high expectations: as a former resident of Russia, she was familiar with the traditional version of the dish, made with salmon rather than mozzarella. Also containing rice, egg, mushrooms and peas encased in pastry, it was a flavoursome and filling lunch. Served with herb-flecked cous cous, homemade houmous and pitta bread, my hearty tagine was a lovely autumnal dish: rich, packed with vegetables and with just a hint of apricot adding a subtle extra dimension of flavour. Combined with the extra accompaniments, it certainly kept me full for the rest of the day.


With its boho interior and unfussy but delicious vegetarian food, the Magic Café is definitely one of the old guard of vegetarian restaurants. No flash fixtures, no wacky creations on their menu: just a tried and tested formula which keeps customers happy (and with its plentiful portions, full). And with evening openings hopefully set to become a regular occurrence, a new chapter in their history may be just about to begin.

Verdict: 8

For more ideas on where to eat vegetarian food in Oxfordshire, you can listen to my appearance on Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford on 23 September here until 30 September.


The Magic Café is at 110 Magdalen Road. To book for Dodo’s Vegetarian Restaurant at the Magic Café on Friday 7 October (vegan and vegetarian options available), call 01865 794604.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Atomic Pizza has landed

It's not every day you get to dine with the Simpson family. On Tuesday 20 September, I and 129 other lucky golden ticket holders got to chow down with Marge, Homer and the kids (plus Gordon the gopher and Han Solo, among others) at the opening party of Atomic Pizza.


Given that the retro-themed joy that is Atomic Burger often has queues of eager would-be diners outside its door, it's little wonder that the team behind this Cowley Road institution decided to transform their former pizzeria (Fratellis) with the atomic touch. Located at number 247, it's just a shade too far down East Oxford's busiest street to attract much passing trade, and many restaurants might struggle in such a position. Somehow, I think Atomic Pizza will do just fine, if the enthusiasm at the launch party was anything to go by.


With a bigger canvas to play with, the owners have given their penchant for TV-themed nostalgia free rein: the Simpsons greet you by the door, Buffy pops up in a corner trying to make an emergency call from Dr Who's tardis, while Spiderman surveys the scene in the main dining room. With a lighter colour scheme, fun touches adorning over the walls and a black and white check floor, the feel is classic American diner.

And what about the food? I must admit, when I first checked out the menu I wasn't sure that some of the more inventive creations would work: after all, what tastes good on a burger might not make such a fantastic pizza topping. Rather than a traditional Italian feel, the starters hit an American note: nachos, buffalo wings and 'tater tots' as well as garlic bread and calamari rings. Die-hard Atomic fans will be glad to know that burgers also make an appearance on the menu, along with other non-pizza mains including a Philly cheese steak sandwich.

At the launch party, it was all about the stonebaked stuff, though. We positioned ourselves near the kitchen for maximum pizza potential. The first pizza out was a Tony Stark: steak, bacon, pepperoni and chicken on a mozzarella and tomato base. The verdict on this meat feast? Very tasty, B assured me. Also popular was the He-Man (barbecue pulled pork). I can vouch for the vegetarian offerings: the Popeye (spinach, goat's cheese, sun-dried tomato, red onion and olive) and the Dr Manhattan (blue cheese, artichoke, rocket and parmesan) were big hits with my tastebuds. I was somewhat sceptical about both the Hell Boy (refried beans, red onion, hot sauce and jalapenos) and the veggie Cheech and Chong (veggie chilli, nachos and jalapenos), but both were far less strange than I expected, with an interesting and memorable flavour. I can see crisps on a pizza being a big hit with the more youthful customers, but I think I'll stick with the Dr Manhattan.



If you're familiar with Atomic Burger, you'll have heard of the Godzilla Challenge: 60 minutes to consume an obscene amount of obscenely spicy food. As expected, the challenge has extended to Atomic Pizza, and we were 'fortunate' enough to be among the first to try this hellishly hot creation. With their secret recipe Godzilla sauce and plenty of jalapenos, it looked inocuous enough, but after 2 bites my lips and the roof of my mouth would have happily welcomed a visit from the fire brigade. Some might like it hot, but I think my limit's a Hell Boy.

With a choice of bases (thin, thick or calzone style - I preferred the lovely, light and crisp thin base) and enough toppings to keep even the most adventurous diners happy, there's something for everyone on the menu. Vegetarians are well catered for, and gluten free pizza bases are also available. With the same fun atmosphere as Atomic Burger and a varied, competitively priced menu (all pizzas are under £10), I think the Atomic team are on to another winner. I can't wait to pop back for another Dr Manhattan with the Simpsons.

Atomic Pizza is at 247 Cowley Road. Tel: 01865 248200.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Nosebag

If you want to grab something to eat on the go in central Oxford, your options are almost limitless. Gourmet sandwich chains, supermarkets and independent coffee shops all cater to our hurried needs. But what if you're looking for a quick sit-down lunch or even (gasp) a rapid bite to eat in the evening? There are times when we just don't want the rigmarole of restaurant dining: being seated by a waiter, perusing the menu, ordering, waiting. At The Nosebag, there's none of that: just hearty, home-cooked food served up quickly without any fuss.

As that description suggests, there aren't any frills and fripperies involved in dining at The Nosebag. An inviting if old-fashioned wood-pannelled cafe on St Michael's Street, it's located above the Makan La Malaysian restaurant and run by the same owners. Offering a wide selection of reasonably-priced salads, baked potatoes and soups, The Nosebag also has lunch and evening menus of more substantial fare. Options are chalked-up above the salad bar and orders are placed and paid for at the counter.


A Friday evening may not be the most typical time to visit, but there were a few other customers enjoying main courses, soups or just cups of tea during the evening. With 5 meat and 5 vegetarian dishes on offer as well as the lighter options, both carnivores and herbivores are well catered for. After some debate (quite a novel experience for me, having 5 choices), I plumped for the green vegetable and taleggio risotto with rocket, while M chose the massaman curry (both £9.40).

After a short wait, two laden plates appeared in front of us: the rumours of stomach-defeating portions seemed to be true. For less hungry customers, one meal between two would suffice.

Green vegetable and taleggio risotto

The advertised 'green vegetables' in my risotto were asparagus, courgette and peas, but there was no rocket to be seen. The rice was unusual, thick and soft, quite unlike normal risotto rice. I have to say there wasn't really much flavour until I prodded at the chunks of cheese to melt them into the rice: without the addition of some tasty dairy, the risotto was rather bland. Add in the taleggio however, and it was goregously creamy. Ah, the powers of cheese.

Massaman curry
M's massaman curry definitely wasn't lacking in flavour: featuring sweet potato, cauliflower and chickpeas, it was well-seasoned, hearty and full of cardamom. So full, in fact, that a bit of pod-dodging was required. A minor gripe though: it was tasty and filling.

Apparently The Nosebag's cakes are delicious (and also served in gigantic portions), but for the sake of my waistline I abstained, although a mere £1.90 for their famed pear crumble cake was certainly tempting.

If you're looking for unfussy, quick and filling food in the town centre at any time of day, The Nosebag is well worth considering. It may not have the fanciest setting or the most elaborate of menus, but it will have something to satisfy most appetites and budgets. The main courses are perhaps a little on the steep side, but I suppose that's what comes of having such a prime location.

Verdict: 6/10

I'll be discussing more vegetarian-friendly places to eat on BBC Radio Oxford on 23 September from 1pm.

The Nosebag is at 6-8 St Michael's Street, OX1 2DU. Tel: 01865 721033.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Harvest festival: Alex James presents cheese and cheesy tunes

A weekend of tasty food and live music in the open air, so close to home I don't have to rough it in a tent? What's not to love? When I heard that Harvest were bringing the festival formula they've successfully employed at Jimmy's Farm in Suffolk for a couple of years to Oxfordshire, I was keen to snap up a ticket. Set on ex-Blur-bassist-turned-cheese-'empresario' Alex James's land in Kingham, Harvest promised a weekend of household names of both the culinary and musical varieties, along with enough good grub to satisfy even the most discerning palates. And camping was strictly optional.

After much debate, Sarah of The Peas Kneas and I decided we preferred Sunday's line-up: not because of the usual festival criterion of who's playing live, but for who was cooking live. Yes, we chose Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Mark Hix and Rachel Allen over The Kooks (and sadly Ottolenghi: what was I thinking?) and parted with £45 for a day ticket. A day out on Mr James's 200-acre farm certainly doesn't come cheap.



On arrival, we were surprised at the festival's size: I'm not dissing the size of AJ's estate (nor the sprawl of his be-chimneyed country pile either, for that matter), but we'd both expected rather more in the way of stalls to peruse. The family area and big top wasn't of much interest to two childless twentysomethings (although the helter skelter did appeal), but we were hoping to sample plenty of local produce. Surprisingly, there was actually far more in the way of take-home treats and culinary tools on offer at the Oxford Foodies festival in August. Our appetites were well-provided for by the likes of London tapas bar Salt Yard, pop-up restaurateurs the Salad Club, a marquee of Mark Hix creations and a 'Chef's Table' tent offering dishes dreamed up by the chefs topping the bill. These culinary maestros graced a smaller stage equipped with a kitchen, while the musical entertainment took place on the main stage.

The food

Gooey not glam
Entering into the spirit of things, the first morsel to pass our lips was a delicious Cotswold rarebit from cheesemakers Paxton & Whitfield: made with local bread, cheese and cider, it was a gooey, (slightly) greasy and flavoursome treat for the modest price of £2.50. At £3 for some Alex James Presents cheese 'blankets' on white Warburtons toast, it was an easy choice to make. Although Alex's three artisan cheeses received some acclaim (and Farleigh Wallop won best goats cheese in 2008), the muso seems to be aiming at the convenience end of the market these days, with a new range on Asda shelves now.

 Although the rarebit put up a good fight, the real foodie highlight was our cookery class with Daylesford Farm. With a choice of 4 dishes to recreate under the expert tuition of Raymond Blanc-trained head chef Vladimir, we opted for pistou soup: a light, summery broth filled with seasonal vegetables grown at Daylesford, garnished with a garlicky French pistou (like the Italian pesto but minus the parmesan and pine nuts). We joined ten other would-be chefs for the hour-long workshop in a portakabin kitted out with 6 state-of-the-art work-stations, and before long my arm was aching from pulverising the fragrant basil with the heaviest pestle known to man. 'The first tool ever invented', enthused Vladimir. I was feeling distinctly less enthusiastic, but the knife skills we learned won me over. As the chunk currently missing from my left thumb will testify, I'm not the most skilled of choppers, but I can now slice an onion, julienne a carrot and chiffonade some basil with the best of them. I may finish ten minutes behind them, but all my digits are intact.

An uncharacteristically domestic moment

Vegetables all chopped, we set about frying them on a high heat and then made the broth. Our bubbling pans yielded takeaway bowls of September delight: carrots, onion, romanesco and, to my woe, fennel and celery, some tiny cherry tomatoes thrown into the mix at the last minute. The pistou added punch, and the accompanying cheddar on sourdough toast added a naughty but nice element to such a healthy dish. We took the fruits of our labours out into the sunshine to enjoy, feeling justifiably proud of our tasty creations.

With Daylesford chef Vladimir


Pistou soup: the finished article

Although satsfied by our soups (and yet more cheese on toast), during the course of the day we managed to much our way through a Dutch triple chocolate pancake (S), summer vegetable tacos from Wahaca (me) and cake from local bookshop Jaffe and Neale, all washed down with cup after cup of tea given the cold wind whipping over Mr James's land.

Vegetable tacos

 Although our hunger was appeased and we enjoyed some good food, I would have liked to see more local and independent stallholders, rather than a dominance of London-based restaurants. Oh, and some more budget-friendly options wouldn't go amiss either, given the ticket price. Take note for next year, Harvest.

The chefs

Cooking up a storm on stage and whipping the crowd into a similar frenzy requires some skill. Talking an audience through the food preparation process doesn't sound riveting in theory, but the popularity of TV chefs testifies to the fact that they manage to make it watchable. Seeing chefs live on stage at Harvest made me realise that personality is key to engaging with a festival crowd: most of them can't see what's being prepared close enough to find it enthralling, even on the big screen projection, and unless you're one of the lucky folks with a prime stage-side position, you won't be tasting any of it either.

TV chef Valentine Warner's menu of venison and something or other featuring whelks and razor clams was so inaccessible as to be dull; we wandered off half-way through. Mark Hix and Alex James suffered a similar fate: they appeared to be having microphone trouble, as they were barely audible. Surprise of the day was Rachel Allen: although I own one of her books, I've never seen any of her shows, so pitched up with minimal expectations. Relaxed and chatty (no doubt helped by the booze she confessed to have consumed during the day), Rachel was warm and engaging as she cooked her way through a soda foccacia with olives and red onions (so tempting that S is attempting to recreate it tonight), mackerel with panzanella and a strawberry and white chocolate tiramisu. Down to earth and skilled at describing the cooking process with a touch of humour, Rachel was a joy to watch - and the only chef whose slot we sat the whole way through.

On-stage cheffing

To my surprise, 'headline act' Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall came across as slightly arrogant and on a mission to plug his new vegetarian cookery book. In what seemed like an elaborate marketing ploy, he's been cutting out meat and aiming to discover the joys of a vegetable-based diet for the past few months. Plenty of people do this, but most don't take Hugh's sanctimonious approach and hector others; nor do they act so smugly self-satisfied about it. Before we exited to watch The Feeling, he prepared a hearty bean soup and a blood orange and cabbage salad with a tahini dressing.

And as for the big cheese himself, when we came face to face Alex James turned out not to be a man of many words. He happily posed for a photo with S: fortunately she refrained from telling him that his cheese blankets didn't taste any different from other supermarket offerings. And most supermarkets don't make salad cream flavour cheese, either. Rock and roll, AJ.

Alex James presents... his new friend Sarah


The music

Sunday was a bit lacking in big names, and most of the local bands we could hear sounded a bit screechy for our liking. We chose to sit down in the sun with a cider just as Will and the People sat down, and we were very glad we did: playing perfect feel-good festival music, we were soon grooving to their ska-influenced Lion in the Morning Sun and singing along to Salamander. Their groupies certainly shifted a fair few CDs that afternoon. The Futureheads seemingly cancelled, as Sara Cox was pulled out of nowhere to DJ, followed by Jo Whiley. The Feeling got everyone up and dancing, but we were too cold and tired out by all that country air to stick around for headline act KT Tunstall.

The Feeling


 All in all, Harvest was a fun day out, but didn't have enough on offer to justify the price tag - particularly where music was concerned. Perhaps we picked the wrong day, but even so, I think there's room for improvement for next year. Add in a few more big name acts and keep a constant presence on the main stage, find some more chefs with Rachel Allen's warmth, mix in a few more local producers selling their wares and drop the ticket price, and I may consider returning to my mate AJ's abode.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Moving Teashop at East Oxford Farmers' Market

Perched on a child-sized chair in the arts and crafts room, sipping from a dainty cup of tea, I felt like a schoolgirl playing house. East Oxford Primary School might not be your usual Saturday morning brunch venue, but after my visit to The Moving Teashop at East Oxford Farmers' and Community Market, it might soon become a regular fixture in my calendar.

Every Saturday morning since 2006, the market has been selling produce sourced from within 30 miles of Oxford, in addition to books, clothing and crafts. With a rotation of stalls, shoppers can pick up daily essentials from fresh bread to fruit and vegetables to meat. On my first visit, the stalls filling the school hall included takeaway sushi, fruit and veg, locally-reared veal, homemade cakes and artisan breads and tarts. More local than I realised possible, Tiddly Pommes apple juice is made from fruit grown in East Oxford. With the varieties on offer changing with the seasons, owner Rupert offers tastings of the different blends. Completely unlike the sugary, synthetic supermarket stuff, these juices were complex and delicious, and despite not usually being an apple juice fan, I took home a £3 bottle of the East Oxford 'Discovery' blend, made from fruit grown in a garden in Iffley. There's something incredibly appealing about buying produce from your own postcode area, especially when it tastes far better than anything the chains have to offer.

For those looking to satisfy their hunger immediately as well as for ingredients to prepare at home, there's a weekly cafe located in the school's arts and crafts room. Different groups take charge of the kitchen area each week, but one of the most frequent hosts of this corner of the market is The Moving Teashop. Run by two sisters, one a Leiths-trained chef and the other a baking and tea aficionado, The Moving Teashop serves up tempting brunch dishes washed down with cups of their own blend of tea (a mixture of English breakfast and Earl Grey), sipped from vintage china teacups.

On our visit, options included Boycott Farm ham and potato hash with a fried egg (£5) and mushrooms with cream, lemon and garlic on sourdough toast (£4). I opted for herb and spinach pancakes with lime butter, sweetcorn salad and roasted tomato sauce (£4.50), while C chose a slice of the butternut squash, pine nut and feta tart with salad (£3.50). Cups of tea (£1 including free refills) in hand, we took a seat at a child-height communal table. Couples, families and ladies who brunch did likewise, leafing through copies of the Saturday papers as they tucked into their food. Despite the presence of the papers and the retro floral tablecloths, C and I couldn't shake the feeling we were back at school. Surrounded by arts and crafts projects, it was like taking a step back to our childhoods.



School dinners certainly never tasted this good. My pancakes were light, fluffy and full of flavour. They aren't something I'd usually allow into my mental 'healthy' category, but these spinach-packed pancakes tasted nutritious rather than artery-clogging. The lime butter was unusual and tasty, adding an extra dimension, while the roasted tomato sauce and sweetcorn salad were ideal complements.

Herb and spinach pancakes
Squash and feta tart

C's tart was another success: a classic combination of autumn flavours, the pine nuts added extra crunch. Also on offer were a selection of delicious-looking cakes, including a traditional Victoria sponge with homemade raspberry and strawberry jam but we'd had our fill for the day: sweet treats will have to wait for next time.

With a variety of seasonal, tasty brunch options prepared before your eyes and the chance to drink tea from vintage china, The Moving Teashop is a winner in my eyes. The unusual venue only adds to the attraction, as does the fact that you're supporting a local venture and eating local produce rather than frequenting a restaurant chain. Other regular cafes include the Pop Up Cafe run by Kim and Ingrid and the market cafe run by Martha and John, which uses vegetables grown on their allotment, so I'll have to return to see what they have to offer. If you live in Oxford, the market is well worth a visit - and if you go with an appetite, so much the better.

Verdict: 9/10

East Oxford Farmers' Market is at East Oxford Primary School, behind Cowley Road Tesco, and runs from 10am to 1pm each Saturday. Click here for details of their stalls. The Moving Teashop will return on 1st October.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

Quod

The two glasses of champagne on the table should have been a giveaway, but it was actually the suit that did it. When my friend D called to say he was back in Oxford and asked me to meet him at Quod on bank holiday Monday, I was pleasantly surprised. When I arrived to find him smartly clad and elated, I knew something was afoot. And I was right: his four years of hard work had paid off and my very clever friend had just been awarded his doctorate. Wonderful news absorbed and champagne in hand, surely nothing could spoil my lunch.

Self-promoted as 'the busiest brasserie and bar in Oxford', Quod is a bit of a High Street institution: all gloss and chrome, it's true that it's usually bustling with tourists and locals alike, drawn by its atmosphere and sleek good looks as well as its menu. I must admit that since a brush with a main course portion of ravioli featuring a mere nine parcels of pasta (£1 per spinach-stuffed sheet) many years ago, I haven't been Quod's biggest fan. But on a day like this, I was willing to give them a chance.

As it was a bank holiday, the £11.95 two course menu wasn't on offer, so we perused the selection of modern British/European brasserie fare, from seasonal dishes such as fennel, cucumber and dill salad (£5.50) and roast chicken breast with courgette and saffron risotto (£13.95) to burgers, pasta and some interesting-sounding pizzas (including courgette, broad bean and spinach with lemon and pecorino). Avoiding the £11.95 artichoke ravioli, I opted for a starter of gazpacho (£5.95), while D went for the steak tartare (£7.95).

Steak tartare

The idea of raw meat may be completely alien to me, but D's quite the fan of uncooked flesh, and as a chap with high standards I was happy to believe his assessment of the beautifully-presented dish as an eight out of ten. Topped with a quail's egg still sitting in a half shell, the patty of beef came with tomatoes and cucumbers already blended into the mixture: apparently this isn't usual and D prefers to mix in the vegetables himself, but the quality and taste of the well-seasoned meat made up for it.

Gazpacho

I should have known better than to order gazpacho. After sampling heaven in a bottle thanks to Pedro's mum, chilled blended vegetables will never taste as good again. I can only assume Quod's blender was on the blink though, as I received a dish of cold chunky vegetables with two cubes of ice nestling on top of them. I have been presented with 'rustic'-style gazpacho in the UK before, but the ice cubes in a £5.95 portion served in a restaurant of this ilk was just plain lazy. Unfortunately, the tomato, cucumber and pepper mush didn't improve on tasting; it was under-seasoned and far too chewy. My jaw didn't get such a workout with Pedro's mum's gazpacho, that's all I'm saying.

Seafood risotto


My main course of risotto of the day (an interesting idea, especially if most of them are vegetarian, thus sidestepping the wild mushroom trap) improved matters somewhat. Seafood-based, I wasn't quite sure of the exact ingredients given the volume at which the waitress whispered its existence to us, but I detected prawns, clams and possibly mullet. Just creamy enough, the rice was perfectly cooked and the flavour of the fish was subtle rather than overpowering. I chose the smaller portion, which was just enough following a starter.

Spaghetti bolognaise

'School dinner', I said when D's plate of spaghetti bolognaise (another special, chosen in honour of his impending move to Italy) slid onto the table. 'If the steak tartare got an eight for presentation, this is a two', he agreed. A bowlful of pasta topped with what seemed to be a mere ladleful of sauce, this dish was a letdown: although the taste was OK, the pasta-to-sauce ratio was completely imbalanced.

I was right that nothing could spoil my lunch, although the gazpacho certainly tried. Underwhelmed once again by Quod, I was too overwhelmed by D's good news to care. I can't say I'll be rushing back: although the risotto was tasty and enjoyable, a sense of trading on their reputation prevailed. And when you're serving iced gazpacho, it's time to question whether that reputation can be maintained.

Verdict: 6/10

Quod is at 92-94 High Street, Oxford OX1 4BJ. Tel: 01865 202505.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Punter

When an Oxford pub's buzzing at 7pm on a Wednesday, it's a sign you're on to a good thing. And when it's a pub in a tucked-away location unlikely to attract passing trade, you better get yourself in there.

Formerly known as The Waterman's Arms due to its riverside setting, The Punter sits on the corner of South Street on Osney Island. Reopened with its new name and new look in 2010, The Punter has been reeling in both island residents and those in the know for months, enticing them with its pretty location, relaxed atmosphere and appetising menu.

Stepping inside, my first impression was of a bustling yet laid-back watering hole. The traditional interior has been enhanced with a neat blue and white colour scheme and eclectic decor; beams and church pews nodding towards country pub, a lived-in feel preventing it from seeming contrived.  Settling ourselves in at a large wooden table, we perused the menu over a decent glass of house white (£14 a bottle - wines here aren't cheap). If the decor has hints of country, The Punter's menu is much more smart pub-about town. Changing daily, offerings range from pub classics given a gastro twist (such as wild boar and apple sausages with mash, £11) to Italian and Spanish influenced dishes (including the sea bass fillet with panzanella salad, £12). With starters priced up to £6.50 and mains reaching a maximum £14, dining at The Punter is reasonably-priced, but when the three £7 dinner options are considered, it becomes positively good value. On our visit, the dishes on offer were at the simpler end of the spectrum yet still tempting: salmon fillet with new potatoes and green beans, chicken curry with spicy aubergine and gnocchi with mushrooms and spinach.

Feeling hungry, B and I opted for starters. Almost all of them sounded substantial, and I'd usually expect to see dishes such as red mullet with saffron risotto and salsa verde under the main course heading of a menu. My crayfish paella with alioli (£5.50) was well-presented and full of flavour; limiting the seafood content to crayfish alone worked surprisingly well and the hint of saffron combined beautifully with the garlicky, lemon-infused alioli. The rice was a little underdone though: a few more minutes cooking time wouldn't have gone amiss and would have reduced the slight excess of stock.

Crayfish paella

B's goat's cheese, tomato, red onion and caper bruschetta (£5) certainly wasn't short of topping: there was no skimping on the goat's cheese, which worked well with the tasty sundried tomatoes and sticky balsamic vinegar.

Goat's cheese and tomato bruschetta

When the main courses arrived, we noted that L's £7 chicken curry was served in almost as generous a portion as the other mains. Served with rice and yoghurt, she found it flavoursome (spicy but not too hot, the aubergine tasting slightly sweet) but perhaps a little lacking in sauce.

Chicken curry

S's grilled sea bass with panzanella (an Italian salad of bread, tomato, red onion and cucumber) was simple summer food done well, the salad adding a fresh taste to the dish. Osney Island resident S went as far as to say it was the best dish she'd tried at The Punter so far.

Sea bass with panzanella

B's lamb leg steak was well cooked; tender and slightly pink in the middle. It was given an eastern twist with harissa seasoning and accompaniments of imam bayildi (Turkish-style aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes), cous cous and tzatziki (£14). The aubergine complemented the lamb well, but the cous cous was slightly dry, although the addition of almonds and capers made up for it. Nothing could save the tzatziki though: it was a fairly flavourless contribution to the plate.

Lamb leg steak with imam bayildi

My whole plaice with lentils and salsa verde (£14) was huge: well-cooked and light, the fish slid off the bone easily. The lentils and salsa verde were simple but effective additions, but again there was a slight excess of liquid.

Plaice with lentils

Spurred on by the successful mains, we ordered desserts: a British cheese board (£6), a brownie with vanilla ice cream and a vanilla and chocolate semi freddo (both £5). The cheese board was poorly presented and served with Jacob's crackers, but the cheese went down well. The brownie was a bit chewy and undercooked and the less said about the semi freddo the better: a mixture of cream, chocolate and some sort of almond biscuit base, it wasn't quite what I'd had in mind.


Cheese board

Brownie

Semi freddo

Although the desserts were disappointing and there are definitely some quirks in the kitchen that need to be smoothed out, the overall verdict was positive. The menu has definite potential: the simply-cooked, seasonal dishes stood out from the slightly over-ambitious ones. For me, it was the atmosphere that really made the evening, though: laid-back and inviting, The Punter's a perfect pub for a relaxed evening with friends. And apparently the cast of Lewis think so too: they were all down there the following evening. Well, if it's good enough for Kevin Whateley, it's good enough for me too.

Verdict: 7/10

You can listen to me discussing The Punter and other pubs and gastro pubs on Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford here until 2 September.

The Punter is at 7 South Street, Osney Island OX2 0BE. Tel: 01865 248832.
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