Sunday, 26 June 2011


On a dismal and rainy night in June, when you'd quite like to be sunning yourself in foreign climes or at least polishing off a Pimms in a beer garden, a bit of comfort food is in order. And when it comes to comfort, there's nothing like a big carbohydrate hit, Italian style.

Behind an unassuming front on Cowley Road, Mario's is a basic little restaurant where the focus is squarely on food, not frills. Checked paper table cloths and laminated menus set the scene, but don't be fooled: the pasta and pizza are pure quality.

Starters are surprisingly expensive, from a hefty £3.70 for a dish of olives* to £8.80 for a mixed antipasti plate, so we skipped ahead to the mains. With a wide variety of pizzas from £6.30 upwards, plenty of pasta choices, a few risottos and some meaty specials, Mario's has all the classics covered. Vegetarian dishes are awarded their own menu section, and there are even a few vegan options listed. I took refuge in a huge plate of penne sciue sciue (with aubergine, tomato, mozzarella and basil, £7.80), while C opted for a pizza Shanita (with mozzarella, spicy beef, peppers and onions, £9.30) and D chose a steak from the specials (£9.30). Within ten minutes of our food arriving, there were 3 empty plates on the table.

My pasta dish was simple but delicious, the addition of just the right amount of cheese contributing flavour without weighing it down. C's plateful of pizza was cooked in the wood-fired oven visible at the front of the restaurant, its base perfectly thin and its crust slightly fluffy. D's steak met his exacting, raised-in-Central-America criteria - the meat was excellent quality, tender, and cooked as requested. He even went so far as to pronounce the golden, slightly crispy chips some of the best he's tasted on English shores.

With efficient service and excellent quality home cooking, Mario's is a winner. It's not as cheap as I remember it (and some of the starters could perhaps do with a price reassessment), but for the quality and taste of the dishes on offer, it's more than worth it.

Mario's is at 103 Cowley Road, OX4 1HU. Take away available. Booking recommended at weekends. Tel: 01865 722955.

* Is it that I've just got back from Spain or is that a ridiculous price for olives?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Door 74

Where to go for a relaxed catch up over dinner and wine with a friend you haven't seen in ages? A friend with rather high standards in the food stakes, I must add. Racking my memory and my list of recommendations, I came up with the answer: Door 74.

At number 74 Cowley Road, this cosy, quirkily-decorated little restaurant may look unassuming, but its seasonal menu of mostly British dishes packs a punch. With 6 starters, 7 mains and 5 desserts chalked up on a blackboard, choice isn't vast but it's definitely sufficient, and with dishes including free-range chicken breast served with caponata and four-cheese filo tart on the menu, you're bound to find something to tempt you.

Even though over half the tables were occupied (not bad for a Wednesday evening), the atmosphere was laid-back and relaxed. Service was friendly and attentive, the lone waitress offering us tap water just as my lips were forming the request and providing us with a big chilled bottle to go with our merlot (£14.50).

Sweet spiced carrot fritters

Starters of sweet carrot fritters with a chilli dipping sauce and a roast tomato and fennel soup with toast and basil pistou (£4.95 each) arrived promptly and were beatifully presented; the three fritters were robust and full-flavoured, sitting on a bed of well-dressed mixed leaves. The chilli dipping sauce complemented them well, whetting my appetite for my main course. K's soup didn't hit such a high note: rustic and chunky, its subtle fennel flavour was tasty but let down by the unexpected use of tinned tomatoes rather than the roasted ones advertised.

Roast tomato and fennel soup

Her main course of a 7.4oz organic beef burger served with salad, chips and aioli (£8.95) was more highly rated: cooked medium rare as requested, it was apparently a touch dry but the quality of the meat and the seasoning made up for this; the chunky chips were just the right side of crisp and again, the presentation was spot on. The presence of dill in the aioli was an odd and unwelcome touch, though.

Organic burger

My salmon and haddock fishcakes with buttered spring greens and lemon and caper dressing (£10.95)  satisfied my remaning appetite: no skimpy portions here, these cakes were definitely worth the price tag. The haddock and salmon worked perfectly together and the chef had avoided the 'lumpy potato' trap that so many fishcakes can fall into. The greens and the light, fresh dressing gave the dish a welcome summer feel and prevented it from being too carb-heavy.

Salmon and haddock fishcakes

Happily full of food, wine and conversation, we couldn't resist one of the tempting-sounding desserts and opted to share a slice of dark chocolate and orange cheesecake (£4.50). Rich and sweet at the same time, the orange flavour was somewhat lacking, and although I had no problems polishing it off, I don't think it's the best of the Door 74 desserts - I still harbour fond memories of a chocolate semi-freddo I ate there two years ago.

Dark chocolate and orange cheesecake

At just over £50 for 2 courses each, a dessert and a bottle of wine, Door 74 gets the price-quality ratio just right. I have to admit it wasn't the best meal I've ever had there, but then I had high expectations: their food is consistently good, the service unintrusive but friendly, and the menu always offering classic yet creative combinations with something to suit everyone. For a quality meal in a relaxed atmosphere, you can't go wrong.

Verdict: 7.5

Door 74 is at 74 Cowley Road. Reservations recommended at weekends. Tel: 01865 203374. Open Tue-Sun (brunch only on Sun).

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Magdalen Arms

If you live in Oxford, you'll have heard of the Magdalen Arms. If you're interested in food, you'll no doubt have heard the story of how Florence Fowler and Tony Abaro of London's Anchor & Hope transformed a formerly dingy drinking den into what Guardian critic Matthew Norman labelled 'one of the finest gastropubs in the country'.

High praise indeed. With such grand claims to live up to, punters arrive at the Magdalen Arms with high hopes; expecting to tuck into the best meal they've ever had in the supposed culinary wasteland of Oxford. And with a menu of seasonal and largely locally-sourced dishes that changes twice a day (yes, twice: there are some differences between the lunch and evening menus) from an acclaimed chef and his team, you can understand why. In recent months, however, it seems that a fair number of diners have disagreed with Mr Norman's assessment: for almost every online review waxing lyrical about the guinea fowl, there's another bemoaning the slow and sometimes surly service or the cost of dining there. Which camp was I going to fall into, I wondered?

I must confess that this wasn't my first visit to the Magdalen Arms. After popping in for a drink on a few occasions (house wine is just £3.15), I dined there one evening in January. As a pescetarian, I was disappointed to see that there was only one vegetarian and one fish dish on the menu; a rare sight in the UK these days. The fish was mackerel, which I don't like, so by default I had the vegetarian option, which was pasta. It was pretty tasty pasta, but being of the 'why order something you could make at home' school of thought, I wasn't thrilled at paying £11.80 for the pleasure.

On this visit, there was once again one fish and one vegetarian dish among the eight main courses. And again, the vegetarian was pasta - a pretty lazy meat-free option, if you ask me. The seven starters were slightly more balanced, with asparagus and pea soup (£5) and new season's beetroot and horseradish salad (£5.80) nestling among another appearance from my mate mackerel and meaty treats such as pork and rabbit rillettes served with cornichons and toast  (£5.60). I wasn't inspired and they'd run out of the chicken liver parfait that D & N wanted by our 8.30 booking, so we skipped ahead to the mains.

Half of the mains are individual dishes, half are to share. Ranging in price from £35 for the Hereford steak and ale pie for three to share to £70 for slow cooked local lamb shoulder for four or five to share, these jumbo portions certainly make good business sense, but unless you and your dining companions have similar tastes and significant appetites, you're left with a restricted menu. Not wanting to review the Magdalen Arms based on another pasta dish (tagliatelle with aubergine, capers and parmesan, in case you wondered), I asked if the roast pollock with chorizo, potatoes and aioli could be made without the chorizo: it could. D & N both chose baked Gressingham duck leg with bacon, carrots and turnips, and we ordered a dish of spring greens (£3) to share.

The forty minute wait gave us time to polish off the home-made sourdough bread basket provided on the table: tasty, but salty. We also noted with raised eyebrows that it's not just the vegetables that carry a £3 price tag: while the first portion of bread is free, a second one will set you back the same amount. Bread devoured, we had ample time to cast our eyes over the other diners in the red-walled, 'shabby chic' dining room ('this chair looks like one of my grandmother's', observed D). A mixture of couples, families and groups, our fellow punters seemed to be enjoying the sharing dishes (a definite bonding experience for the couple on a date next to us), but we spotted one customer's plate of braised beef going back to the kitchen almost untouched.

After an apology from our friendly waiter, our dishes arrived. The duck was well-presented and just fell off the bone, so I'm told - N praised it highly, while D was more reserved in his judgement. 'It's almost the perfect dish. The texture's right, the consistency... but it's too salty. It irritates me'. Ah, when a pesky salt cellar stands in the way of perfection.

Baked Gressingham duck leg - excuse shocking camera phone photography

The chefs are clearly fans of sodium chloride, as my pollock also had a definite tang. The portion of fish could have been more generous, but its taste made up for its medium size: meltingly soft, flaky, delicious. The new potatoes were buttery and an excellent complement; the aioli gorgeously garlicky, and some unexpected salad leaves were a nice touch. After our moan about the price of the spring greens, they were served in a generous portion and tasty enough to quiet our complaints.

Roast pollock without chorizo but with new potatoes & aioli

Guided through the desserts (6 and a cheese selection) by our waiter, we plumped for a cherry and almond tart served with homemade vanilla ice cream, chocolate and hazelnut cake with creme fraiche, and a baked vanilla cheesecake with strawberries (£5 each).

Cherry and almond tart

The cherry and almond tart was the star: the bottom layer was rich and slightly sticky, adding moisture to a beautifully flavoured slice of delight. The ice cream was also excellent and would be well worth ordering on its own: far from synthetic, it actually tasted of vanilla.

Baked cheesecake

The other two desserts divided opinions, with N labelling the cheesecake 'thick' and D and I disagreeing - as a baked cheesecake, it's expected to be dense. The chocolate and hazelnut cake was nutty yet flaky, but I felt its rich flavour was slightly (and unexpectedly) overpowered by the creme fraiche. Weak points aside, I'd order them all again. Especially that tart. We almost had a plate-licking situation.

Chocolate and hazelnut cake

The bill came in at £72.70 for two courses each, one side dish and a bottle of wine. It's certainly not a budget-busting bill, but nor is it the usual tab for a Wednesday night, even in a gastro pub. The pricing of the Magdalen Arms' menu makes it treat territory rather than an ordinary meal out. As we paid, we debated its value: although we all agreed that our meals were of a high standard, we agreed that a reduction in cost would make us more likely to return, but understandably good quality local produce doesn't come cheap. It's not quite worth the hype: yes, the food is very good (if on the salty side), the use of local meat and vegetables is commendable, as is the fact that everything is homemade with care. But perhaps Mr Norman ultimately didn't do the Magdalen Arms any favours with his lavish praise: there's now a slight sense of importance about the place. The limited vegetarian and fish options are a personal stumbling block for me: surely 2 fish dishes or the occasional includion of another vegetarian choice isn't too much to ask? And while the daily changing menu is a selling point for some, it makes life more difficult for those with specific dietary requirements as the menus aren't available online. Imagine the potential for disappointment on securing a coveted table only to find that you can't actually eat anything. But if you're a flesh fan, none of this is an issue: you have the run of the menu.

Verdict: a much considered and debated 7.5. Go, but go with an open mind and rein in those expectations.

The Magdalen Arms is at 243 Iffley Road. Closed all day Monday and Tuesday lunchtime. Reservations recommended. Tel: 01865 243159.

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