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.


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

Follow my blog with Bloglovin
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...