Friday, 16 November 2012

St Aldates Tavern

A narrow-fronted pub tucked inconspicuously away next to the Post Office, St Aldates Tavern had barely caught my eye during my ten years in Oxford. Passing by, I'd occasionally observe a few patrons chatting outside over a cigarette and a pint, but I was never once tempted to step through its doors. Not even during that phase when it served Thai food (somewhat incongrously, given its British boozer exterior). It just never looked like anything special. These days are gone, however. Now under new management, St Aldates Tavern is no longer an average spot for a city-centre pint: it's been given a makeover and a decent menu. Nowadays, it's an ideal venue for an after-work bite to eat, a catch-up with friends over a glass of wine, or erm... a city-centre pint.

Don't get me wrong, St Aldates Tavern hasn't gone all gastro. There are no high-backed leather chairs, faux-distressed tables and arty wallcoverings here. The interior is tasteful and minimal: it's definitely still a pub, but its wooden tables, neutral colour scheme and tasteful fixtures and fittings hint at a slightly higher end market than its previous incarnation. Walking in on a Friday evening, it was almost standing-room only: luckily, we managed to grab a little table at the back, behind the bar. Winding our way through the pub, C and I noticed tables of hungry customers tucking into sharing boards and platefuls of hearty-looking food. Never having seen the menu (unfortunately their website wasn't yet up and running), I was pleased to notice that the dishes being demolished looked more appetising than standard pub grub.

It certainly promised to be appetising, with the announcement at the head of the menu that all food is homemade from fresh ingredients every day – and on the premises, no less. The all-day menu (food is served from 12–9.30pm) is unpretentious but appealing: classics such as sausage and mash (£7) and beer-battered fish and chips (£7.50) sit along side a few 'St Aldates Specials' (such as crevettes with braised fennel and aioli, £8.50, and rump steak with hand-cut chips, £9.50). There are also a couple of dishes to share; ideal accompaniments for a post-work glass of wine: there's a baked camembert with freshly-baked bread (£8.50) and a charcuterie board featuring smoked duck breast, chicken liver parfait and ham hock terrine (£14). Prices are surprisingly reasonable given the pub's central location: but does the low price mean comparable quality, or petite portion sizes?

Oh hi, camembert

No, as it turned out. C and I devoured our whole baked camembert (I blame the appetite we'd worked up over a glass of red) pretty damn quickly: it was just too tasty. The centre was perfectly melted throughout, and the warm fresh bread ideal for scooping up the cheesy goodness. C pronounced it the best baked camembert she'd ever eaten, and I'd have to agree. Now I know that sticking a cheese in the oven doesn't sound like the most challenging of feats, but getting the right consistency is something of an art form. And it's one that the chef at St Aldates Tavern has clearly mastered. Add to that the touch of honey crowning the camembert, and welcome to cheese bliss.

Witness the fitness

My main course of roast pepper and butterbean stew (£7.50, one of 3 vegetarian options) had a hard act to follow, but it put in a sterling performance. In addition to peppers, the stew also featured a selection of other veg, including courgettes plus plenty of herbs, making it tastier than anticipated. I admit I hesitated before ordering, as I find that vegetable stews can often be disappointingly watery in consistency, but the St Aldates version was robust and tasty.

Vegetable and butterbean stew


C opted for the 8oz beef burger served with hand-cut chips (£8.50), which came topped with red onion and cheese. It was cooked medium (just right, apparently), with a well-seasoned, herby flavour. The bun was toasted, the salad topping worked well: all in all, an excellent burger, apparently. Both our mains were on a par with a gastropub offering, at a more modest price.

Beef burger

If your appetite is more restrained than ours, St Aldates Tavern also serves bar snacks (from £3). Although about half of the customers were dining, it's very much a pub: there are 8 beers on tap, priced from £3.70 a pint. There's also a decent wine list, with small glasses from £2.20 – but be warned, large glasses don't come in so cheap, with the house white £4.85 for 250ml and the most expensive wines over the £8 mark. Bottles are better value, so all the more excuse to settle in for the evening and order some dinner while you're at it.

With a strong menu of well-cooked – and well-priced – food, a wide choice of drinks at an average city centre rate, a comfortable setting and friendly service, St Aldates Tavern is worth a visit. After ten years, it's now well and truly on my radar.

Verdict: 8.5

St Aldates Tavern is at 108 St Aldates, OX1 1BU. Tel: 01865 241185.

Apologies for the silence: fortnightly reviews to be resumed!

Friday, 31 August 2012

Las Iguanas foodie night

Italian? Make mine a pizza. Indian? Yep, I know my order by heart. Chinese? That's a rice versus noodles decision. Latin American? Hmm... what does that mean, then?

While most Brits have now embraced a variety of world cuisines,food from some countries has been slower to reach our shores. Delicacies from Central and South America definitely remain under-represented. London has a smattering of independent restaurants from this corner of the globe (plus the Mexican chain Wahaca) and Brazilian rodizio places are gradually popping up nationwide, but it's probably fair to say that Las Iguanas is the best-known Latin American eatery in the UK. Established in Bristol in 1991, there are now 28 branches across Britain, including one on Park End Street in Oxford. The kitchen draws inspiration from numerous countries across Central and South America, largely Mexico and Brazil, although dishes from other nations (and a few geographically hazy but tasty sounding numbers) also pepper their menu. You certainly won't want for choice at Las Iguanas: all tastes are catered for, including fussy vegetarians like myself who wouldn't touch a rodizio restaurant with an asparaus spear.

One Tuesday night every month in the Oxford branch of Las Iguanas, that Latin American geography I mentioned gets a little more soecific. A three-course set menu from one of the countries that make up the continent is also on offer to diners. In August, Brazil took the culinary spotlight. The welcome caipirinha (the country's signature cocktail, or 'drink of the people' as the menu would have you believe) seemed to speed our decision-making: with three options for each course (one meat, one fish, one veg) there's just enough choice. M and I opted for the salt cod bolinhos (fritters) and the cheese empanadas (pastries) to start, rejecting the least Brazilian-sounding option of spinach and chicken dip served with tortilla chips. Aren't they a product of Central America's behemoth instead? Ah well, it's all a big Latin American love-in at Las Iguanas, so a bit of cross-border food trading can be excused.

Empanadas
Bolinhos

Starters were served promptly by our friendly waiter. The presentation and portion sizes were both above average: M and I already had the feeling we'd be rolling home bolinho-shaped after our meal. Of the two, we preferred the empanadas: although their slightly crisp texture suggested the traditional method of deep frying had been at work, they didn't taste artery-clogging. The cheese inside was pleasantly gooey, and the spicy cranberry salsa was an unexpectedly tasty complement. The salt cod fritters were, as M pointed out, 'a bit salty', but worked well with the accompanying aioli and rocket garnish.

Feijoada
The difficult-to-photograph bobo



Next up was Brazil's traditional feijoada for M and an intriguingly named seafood bobo for me (chicken, steak or butternut squash crepes being eschewed this time). Feijoada is a meaty stew made up of braised beef, chorizo and black beans with a garlic and red wine sauce, served with rice and plantain. It was reportedly tasty: the beans were particularly flavoursome and held their texture rather than turning to mush. The chorizo was good too, the beef perhaps not top quality but fine for a stew. It was good to see plantain featuring in both of our dishes: it's not something we're often served in the UK, and a different taste makes a welcome change from the usual medley of vegetables on our menus. My seafood bobo was elaborately presented in a clay pot, with a candle to keep it warm. A good selection of fish (prawns, mussels and cod) were cooked in a spicy tomato, cassva and coconut milk sauce, and also served with rice and plantain. To bring yet more flavour to this carnival in a bowl, I was also given a spicy salsa and some toasted coconut farofa. The salsa I soon discarded as unecessary, but the coconut added more depth and an interesting texture to the dish. Despite sounding like some kind of bogeyman, the bobo was fresh-tasting and recommendable. Again, portions of both dishes were generous without being over-facing: you definitely feel you're getting value for money with the set menu.

Chocolate pot

Cheesecake


Given the speed with which our desserts appeared, I had a feeling they weren't going to be something a Brazilian grandma had laboured over for the occasion. I find that pudding is often a chain restaurant's downfall, as they're so easy to buy in and refrigerate. Sadly this proved the case here, with both of our desserts tasting ever so slightly of fridge. We regretted rejecting the most Brazilian-sounding dessert, the quindim de yaya (apparently this means 'girlish charm' - why on earth did we turn it down?). If the promise of feminine charm didn't lure us in to order this baked custard flan, the word 'homemade' should have. Instead, we opted for the chocolate pot and the dulce de leche and macadamia cheesecake. The Argentinian caramel that is dulce de leche (ah, there's that inter-country food swapping again) is lip-lickingly divine. It's also my joint favourite ice cream flavour ever. So naturally I went for that. But it didn't taste so much of sweet, gooey caramel as I'd hoped. In fact I detected a hint of garlic (or maybe the taste of the bobo just lingered longer than expected). M's chocolate pot wasn't quite what we expected, but was pleasant nonetheless. A misplaced comma in the menu (layers of dark chocolate, sponge) misled us: there was more sponge in evidence than dark chocolate, and the coffee Kahlua taste was definitely dominant.

For £21.50 for 3 courses and a drink, the themed set menus offer great value if you fancy trying something a bit different. And let's face it, whose Tuesday evenings couldn't do with a bit of Latin American flavour? Upcoming nights include Venezuela (4 Sep), Cuba (2nd Oct) and Mexico (6 Nov). If you don't fancy going the whole enchilada and committing to three courses, give the regular menu a try. There's plenty on there (including enchiladas) to suit everyone, and if you're feeling adventurous there's bound to be something new to try. No matter what night you visit, there's always a bit of atmosphere in Las Iguanas too. As someone who dreads a silent restaurant complete with waiters hovering expectantly, the lively music and flag-filled decor are a welcome touch. There's also a bar at the front of the restaurant with a nightly happy hour if you fancy a mojito or caipirinha. The continent's drinks may be more familiar to us than its food for now, but you could easily be converted.

Verdict: 7

Las Iguanas is at 40 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1JD. Tel: 01865 263150 or book online.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Gousto recipe delivery service

Unless you're fanatically skilled at meal planning and religiously re-stock your kitchen on a weekly basis, you'll no doubt have come home from work and opened the fridge to find some festering carrots, milk and butter from which to create your evening meal. We all lead increasingly busy lives, so sometimes food shopping falls by the wayside. And even if you do have a variety of ingredients to hand, devising ways to combine them into a tasty dinner can prove a time-consuming challenge. But what if you could choose a selection of tasty-sounding recipes for the week ahead and have the ingredients delivered to your door in just the quantities you need, with preparation instructions? Well now, residents of Oxford, you can: thanks to Gousto.

When I was invited to trial Gousto, I was reassured by the fact that their recipes are divided by difficulty rating - and a number of them looked so simple that not even I could mess them up. I'm definitely not a whiz in the kitchen, but I'm not an awful cook either: I just find I don't have time to prepare elaborate meals during the week. I selected two recipes from Gousto's website, a smoked trout summer salad and spicy tofu with coconut rice and waited for my delivery. Gousto is a subscription service: users choose to receive between 2 and 4 recipes per week, available for 2, 4 or 6 people (you better hope your household has an even number). Each week, you log on and select from a regularly updated collection of recipes, and ingredients are delivered to you on Thursday in a cool bag. Although I was concerned about the waste that would come with so many packaged ingredients, Gousto package items together where possible, and is as environmentally friendly where possible (for example, they use Wool Cool to keep produce fresh). In order to keep things as fuss-free and simple as possible, they provide every ingredient you need apart from salt and olive oil. That way, you'll never again have to come face to face with that mouldering half packet of mint you bought two weeks ago for that tabbouleh recipe.

Recipe 1: Glazed trout fillet with summer salad

Not something I would ever have thought to make, this seasonal recipe lured me in with it's one-star difficulty rating and 30 minute preparation time. The double-sided recipe card is photographic, guiding you through the ingredients you need and giving an overview of the dish, plus information on equipment needed and portion size before moving on to a step-by-step breakdown of how to make the recipe.

Eight steps to dinner

Instruction number one was certainly pitched at my level: 'Fill a medium sized pot with water and bring to boil, ideally using a lid'. Confidence boosted by managing to boil water, I worked my way through the 8 steps, chopping, marinating and mixing my way to an evening meal.






The steps were well broken-down and easy to follow: boiling the potatoes, making the dill, honey and mustard glaze for the trout, marinating the fish and making the rest of the salad (apple, beetroot, radish and cucumber). As a clumsy individual, I'm not much of a precision chopper, and managed to make a bit of a lash-up of the apple, but that aside, I managed pretty well. Apart from cooking the potatoes, no timings were given, but due to the simplicity of the recipe and the step-by-step approach, it didn't seem necessary. Instructions were succinct but thorough without being patronising, which I liked.

So this goes in here, yeah?

I totally know what I'm doing.


A couple of the ingredients were unlabelled, which almost proved disastrous when I reached for the coconut milk for recipe 2 instead of the sour cream, but the photographic depiction and a good old sense of smell sorted that issue out. And as for the end result? Impressive. The salad looked great but tasted even better, with a fresh combination of flavours. The glaze was delicious, and the contrast between the apple and beetroot was just right. Good work, Gousto.

The finished product! We'll make a chef of me yet...


Recipe 2: Black pepper spicy tofu on coconut rice

Spurred on by my success with the salad, I moved up to difficulty rating 2 (of a possible 3). Spicy tofu on coconut rice didn't sound too challenging, but there were more ingredients to deal with: onion, chilli, mange tout, ginger, garlic, rice vinegar and soy sauce.

Look,  I can chop an onion, OK?


I just can't chop mange tout length-wise


I began by chopping the onion, but 'cutting the mange tout in half length-wise' defeated me. Too fiddly by half: I chucked them in whole. I tried to stay on brief for the rest of the recipe, although I admit I had assistance with the rice (but only because my attention was focused on the vegetables, you understand). I found the lack of timings more of an issue with this recipe: some stages had timings, but the cooking of the rice didn't ('turn down the heat to let it simmer and stir regularly').



Frying the vegetables appeared to be timed to perfection, but unfortunately the 2 minutes allowed for 150ml of water to reduce just wasn't enough, and we ended up with rather a lot of excess liquid. The recipe was easy enough to follow and tasted good, but it wasn't as memorable as the trout salad. As for the slight sogginess, I'm not sure whether the quantity of water added needed to be reduced or the time allowed increased, but the recipe seemed to need a little tweaking. I admit I added extra black pepper to the end result, as it wasn't as flavoursome as the previous day's dish.




Overall, I think Gousto offer a great service. If you don't have time to plan your meals and shop accordingly, Gousto takes the stress out of dining at home, and is an easy way to ensure a varied and healthy diet. Recipes are developed by a team of chefs and updated each week, so you shouldn't get bored. Although it's clearly aimed at couples, families and house-shares, if you're cooking for one, you could easily take the second portion to work the next day for lunch. With prices starting from £4 per meal, the price is impressively reasonable given the quality of the ingredients (which is sourced from organic farms in the UK wherever possible). Despite their commitment to the environment, I do think that providing a new cool bag each week seems a little wasteful, as it seems like something that would be easy to reuse. I'm also a bit unsure about Thursday as a delivery day: although the ingredients for most dishes keep a minimum of 4 days, it seems to me that Monday would be a much more convenient day for most subscribers. Also, a maximum of 4 meals a week can be ordered currently: 5 seems to make more sense to me in order to cover the working week, but apparently the service will increase if the demand is there.

If you're looking to shake up your culinary repertoire and make your life a bit easier, give Gousto a try. There's no minimum commitment and you can place your order on hold at any time. For more information, check out their website.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Win tickets to Foodies Festival




From 2527 August, Foodies Festival returns to South Park for the third year running. A three-day extravaganza of cookery demonstrations, food & wine matching masterclasses, new product showcases and endless opportunities to indulge, it's the ideal bank holiday destination for food lovers.

Visiting last year, I was impressed by the number of different vendors offering produce from around the world, from traditional English cheeses, to spicy Asian sauces, to sweet American treats. The cookery demonstration by the Italian-English couple behind La Cucina Caldesi provided some culinary inspiration and helped me to work up an appetite; thankfully there were plenty of choices when it came to satisfying my hunger. This year promises more top-notch demonstrations: names to grace the Chefs' Theatre include Michelin-starred Gary Jones of Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, Michael North of the Nut Tree and food journalist Xanthe Clay. Oxford's own Maxwell Mason of The Big Bang will also take the stage, as will MasterChef finalist Andrew Kojima. If you want to do more than merely marvel at the pros, you can get involved in the masterclasses, which include bakery sessions with Outsider Tart and perfect pie-making with the Posh Pork Pie Company. This year, all the family have the chance to pick up new skills while having some fun: there's a full programme of kids' events in the Children's Cookery Theatre.

Unfortunately, I'm going to be away over the bank holiday weekend, but if you fancy some Foodies Festival action, you can find out more and purchase tickets here (priced from £10 for one day; three-day tickets cost £18). Foodies Festival have kindly offered me five pairs of tickets to the Oxford event to give away to readers. If you'd like to win some, please email me your name and postal address to girleatsoxford at gmail dot com by midnight on Wednesday 15 August. Names will be drawn at random and tickets will be posted to you. Good luck!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Byron

If a friend had suggested going out for a burger a decade ago, you'd have automatically thought of parting with a few pounds at those golden arches. Nowadays, the simple hamburger isn't just a fast food phenomenon: it's gone a bit gastro. Pubs pride themselves on serving the 'best burger', with high-quality, locally-sourced mince seasoned with just the right mixture of herbs; chains such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen have challenged the dominance of the humble beef patty with creative combinations of both meat and vegetarian ingredients. Sometimes though, simplicity wins.

British chain Byron was established by Tom Byng in London in 2007 with the aim of serving simple hamburgers done well, in the tradition of great American diners. Not that there's anything kitsch about this burger joint, though the decor is more along the lines of stripped-back industrial chic than 50s retro. Until recently, Byron's branches could only be found in the capital, but in July, their Oxford outpost opened on George Street: just two doors down from recently-renovated GBK. A burger battle was about to commence, surely?

Well no, as it turns out. Stepping through the doors of Byron one weekday evening, the atmosphere couldn't have been more different from that of its near neighbour. Rather than a brightly-lit space full of families polishing off a towering stack of meat plus topping, Byron is as simple and fuss-free as its menu. The varied clientele show that burgers appeal to all ages, while the cool and quirky design differentiate it from other Oxford restaurants: as N said, it's 'very London'. Clearly appealing to a different demographic than GBK, there should be space enough in this town for the both of them.

But the proof of the burger is in the eating. How would Byron's 'proper hamburgers' fare when put to my Belgian burger connoisseur's taste test? The restaurant manager explained the concept behind the menu: it's structured around the Classic burger (£6.75), a 6oz hamburger cooked medium (unless otherwise requested), topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayonnaise and served in a bun. The beef they use comes from small farms in Scotland and is freshly ground every day. The menu features only 5 other items: Cheese (a choice of 5, £7.75), Byron (with dry cure bacon, mature cheddar and Byron sauce, £9.25), Skinny (no bun, with salad, £7.50), Chicken (chicken breast with tomato mayonnaise and spinach, £8.75) and Veggie. Which isn't a burger at all, but a portabello mushroom with roasted red pepper, goat's cheese, spinach and aioli (£7.75). Apparently the idea was to give vegetarians something like a burger so they don't feel 'left out'. As one of their number, I say give us a burger! If you go for a burger you erm, want a burger. But still, I decided to withold judgment until I'd sampled one for myself.

While we waited for our Byron (N's choice on the manager's recommendation) and Veggie to arrive, we munched on some 'proper olives' (£2.75) and tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole (£3.50). Both were excellent: good quality olives, and delicious homemade dips. I normally flinch at the English pricetag on olives, but shared between a few of you, these are worth it. When it comes to drinks, Byron's prices reflect its London origins, with soft drinks weighing in at £2.30+ and milkshakes for £3.95. In-keeping with the 'simple' ethos, the wine list is divided into 'good', 'better', 'great' and 'best' categories. I opted for a large glass of 'good' red (a Spanish Tempranillo, £5.25)and very good it was, much nicer than the house red at my local while N chose the 'great' Malbec (£6.95), which she loved but I wasn't sure warranted the price tag.



After a short wait, the burgers and our sides of skin-on chips and courgette fries (£3.25 each) plus a house side salad (£3.50) arrived. Prices may be in an entirely different bracket to Maccy D's, but the portion sizes and presentation take Byron's burgers out of the fast food category entirely. N's burger was definitely sizeable enough to keep her quiet for a good few minutes; once she surfaced from meaty mouthfuls she reported that it was the definition of medium, juicy and delicious. The salad was fresh, the bacon and cheddar were both 'perfect' as she put it, 'the whole experience was enjoyable'.

The veggie versus...

The Byron

My veggie 'burger' was also generously sized yet less tricky to eat than some I've been faced with: it didn't collapse or crumble everywhere. The mushroom, red pepper and goat's cheese all worked well together, providing plenty of flavour and texture. Everything was fresh and tasty, but ultimately I couldn't help but feel that it was more of a fancy sandwich than a burger. It was definitely less substantial than N's meat version, but with the addition of starters and sides I was more than satisfied. The lightly-battered courgette fries were clearly made to order and it showed: they were delicious and moreish. The skin-on chips were the only dud note of the evening in their haste to feed us, the chefs hadn't let them cook quite long enough.

Sides

Heaven

Dessert more than made up for this slight fault, though. I didn't think an Oreo and Brownie Sundae sounded like much to get excited about: after all, it was just ice cream mixed with chunks of cookies and brownie with some chocolate sauce thrown in for good measure. I was wrong. It was pure indulgence in a dish; so good I almost wanted to lick the remnants from the glass. Clearly inspired by the Olympics, N declared that the person who invented it deserved a gold medal. I'm inclined to agree. Silver would have to go to the cheesecake: a worthy contender, although outperformed by the sundae on the night.



Providing simple, fresh food at a decent price, Byron is bound to succeed in Oxford. Although once you've added sides and drinks to your main a meal doesn't come too cheap, it's worth it if burgers are your thing. With excellent service, a relaxed atmosphere and a setting that's a little out of the ordinary for Oxford, it's worth a visit. As for me, I'll be back once there's a veggie burger on the menu...

Verdict: 8

Byron is at 33-35 George Street, OX1 2AY. Tel: 01865 792155.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Ashmolean Roof Top

If you want to marvel at some Egyptian mummies, check out some Chinese ceramics or study some still-life paintings, you'd go to the Ashmolean. If you want to enjoy a post-work drink with a difference, accompanied with a tapas-style bite to eat, turns out you'd go to the Ashmolean too.

A prestigious museum isn't the first place that springs to mind when you think fine dining, but in-the-know Oxford residents have been enjoying the Ashmolean's top-floor restaurant since the museum's extensive re-fit finished in 2009. With lavish lunches and afternoon teas on offer during gallery opening hours, the Ashmolean Dining Room transforms on Thursday and Friday nights. Step through the concealed doorway on St Giles and take the lift skywards: an evening on the roof terrace awaits.

The restaurant itself is full of light, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows maximising the view of the historical Randolph Hotel and beyond to Oxford's famous spires. One of these windows is a sliding door, opening onto the terrace. Thanks to our wonderful British weather, this terrace is sadly under-exploited for much of the year, but once summer rolls around (hurry up, would you?), this space is the place to be. There's an extensive area of decking with tables and chairs for informal dining, plus a patch of real grass with deck chairs that's perfect for lounging after a hard day's work.

In addition to a well-chosen wine list, a selection of wines and beers, the Roof Top menu also offers three appropriately-named cocktails: the Randolph, the Oxford Fool Sling and the Rooftop Daiquiri £6 each). N, D, M and I tested the range between us, with the vodka and cointreau Randolph and the rum-based daiquiri winning particular praise. The watermelon flavour of the Randolph makes it the perfect summer drink. Sadly the weather on our visit didn't quite fall into the 'perfect summer' category, but we didn't let a spot of rain stop us from ploughing through the entire food menu.

With dishes designed to be shared, the Roof Top's is ideal for a sociable post-work bite (or what I like to all a pre-dinner dinner). Or, if you order everything on offer as we did, you'll have more than enough for an evening meal. The select menu features a range of 'small plates', priced £4 each or 3 for £11. There are also sharing boards featuring either meat or cheese or a combination of the two for £14.50 a pop. These nibbles are definitely pricier than a bag of crisps down your local pub, but they're also a damn sight tastier – and more filling.

Meat and cheese boards

Friday, 6 July 2012

Riverford Supper Club at Oxfork

Since the closure of The Ball Green Door, I'd been hoping for another supper club to pop up on the Oxford scene. So when news of Riverford's summer supper club at Oxfork dropped into my inbox, I was quick to sign up. The second seasonal collaboration between organic produce purveyors Riverford (best known for their fruit and veg box deliveries) and East Oxford café Oxfork promised to be a fruitful one. With both businesses keen to promote local produce and eating with the seasons, the idea of holding a supper club where Oxfork chefs whipped up a meat-free menu with Riverford goodies sounded like a winner to me.

With priority for tickets given to Riverford customers, would-be diners had to part with £25 to secure a seat at the supper club. Held on a Wednesday evening in June, the event consisted of nibbles from Riverford's new range washed down with a glass of prosecco, followed by a three-course meal. I had expected to find our fellow diners mingling and chatting on arrival, but instead everyone was seated. To be honest, apart from sharing a table for 4 with 2 other diners (the layout of Oxfork doesn't really lend itself to group dining), little about the evening was reminiscent of a supper club in the more usual sense. Perhaps 'pop-up restaurant' would be a more appropriate tag, given that the venue isn't the chef's home, but as Oxfork is a permanent fixture, that doesn't seem quite the right label either.

Semantics aside, it looked like we were in for a good evening: who doesn't like being greeted by a glass of fizz? Every seat was full; there was a lively hum running through the restaurant. N and I took our seats and sampled a selection of the pre-dinner nibbles on offer from Riverford's 'picnic' range: olives, a couple of dips accompanied with crudités, plus two pies – a homity pie and another unspecified assortment of pastry-encased veg. The homity pie in particular was tasty, with a slightly spicy flavour. As we picked at our entrées, a member of the Oxfork team and Oxford's Riverford representative Jake talked us through the way the evening would unfold: three courses, with organic beers and wines available to purchase by the glass or bottle, followed by coffee and hopefully questions with the chef.

Broad bean and cheese bruschetta


Saturday, 23 June 2012

Dosa Park

It's 7pm, you've got £5 in your pocket and an empty stomach. Looks like a sandwich is the most likely option, unless you want to go down the greasy burger/chips route. Or you could take that fiver to a kebab shop. Not just any kebab shop: Dosa Park. Because as I discovered, not all kebab joints are created equal. In fact, some aren't really kebab shops at all.

You've probably passed by Dosa Park on your way to and from Oxford train station and not spared it a second glance. Unless you found yourself in the aforementioned famished in possession of a fiver situation. Then you might have wandered in and realised they serve far more than just various combinations of meat + chips: they also serve South Indian food. The clue's in the name, really – a dosa is a savoury rice pancake popular in the south of India, as well as in South East Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. In the UK, we're much more familiar with curries from the north of India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, so dosa can be hard to come by. Oxford now has three purveyors of this light, crispy stomach filler: Chutneys, Trichy Dosa and Dosa Park. The latter may look like any other greasy kebab shop, but its cheap cooking gives much pricier Indian restaurants a run for their money.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Gee's

A lounge suit, a scholar's gown or even black tie is a common sight on the streets of Oxford. Even on a Tuesday evening. With the staff and students of the city's ancient university accounting for a significant percentage of Oxford's population, you soon get used to its quirks – smart dress mid-week being one of them. After all, this traditional institution has plenty of balls, formal dinners and graduation ceremonies in its calendar. The latter are particularly proud occasions, when beaming families dressed in their finest flock to the Sheldonian Theatre in support of a be-gowned graduand. Ceremony over, it's time to celebrate. But where in Oxford is worthy of such an occasion?

A Victorian conservatory nestled discreetly among university buildings and chic shopfronts on Banbury Road, that's where. Part of the Mogford group of restaurants, Gee's is many Oxford residents' go-to address when it comes to occasion dining. There are regulars too, of course, but I'd wager that a high proportion of diners only visit erm, occasionally. It's a favourite for families celebrating their offspring's intelligence post-graduation, and a popular option for Sunday lunch when well-heeled parents swing by Oxford for a term-time visit. But what does Gee's have to offer those without an event to toast?

Friday, 25 May 2012

Aziz

Mention curry in Oxford and it's not long before Aziz crops up in conversation. Something of an institution, this Cowley Road restaurant divides opinion: from raves to rubbishing, I've heard it all. Maybe the wildly varying accounts are what kept me away until now. After all, Oxford has no shortage of decent Indian restaurants.

But in preparation for my 25 May radio show on the topic of Indian restaurants, I decided to branch out from my curry houses of choice and try out Aziz. Turning up with two friends at 6.30 on a Tuesday, I was surprised to be asked whether I'd booked. I know it's a popular spot, but given that only a handful of tables were full at that point, it seemed a little unnecessary. More surprises were in store, as we were seated by an ageing waiter in a full suit, complete with dickie bow and the rather modern accessory of a bluetooth headpiece. Not exactly something you see every day. The menu was much more familiar territory: a manageable selection of starters (priced from £4.15–6.75) followed by a range of special meat, poultry, fish and vegetarian dishes, plus the usual curry classics. There's nothing radically different about the menu, but it covers all bases and caters to all palates. Some of the specials sounded interesting, such as kodu gosht (lamb with pumpkin, £9.75) and eitcha bagaun (medium-spiced prawn with aubergine curry, £9.75). Dishes are priced from £7.75 for a vegetarian main to £12.95 for some king prawn dishes: although prices don't climb too high, I would expect to see some cheaper vegetarian options.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Breakfast at Hope House, Woodstock

Apparently it's the most important meal of the day, although you wouldn't think so given the lack of reverence breakfast usually receives. A hurried slice of toast washed down with a mouthful of tea; coffee and a croissant while commuting; a bowl of cereal bolted down in front of a computer screen. As someone who can't function effectively/behave like a polite human being on an empty stomach, it will come as no surprise that food is top of my morning priorities. As present and past housemates could tell you with varying degrees of amusement or envy, I always find time to sit down and eat a proper breakfast before leaving for work. So when I heard that swish hotel Hope House in Woodstock was worth an overnight stay for its breakfast alone, I was intrigued.

Hope House


The ancestral home of the Money family (with a surname like that, it's no wonder they have an ancestral home), Hope House was transformed into an upmarket boutique B & B back in 2009. Built around the same as local landmark Blenheim Palace (and possibly designed by the same architect), with just 3 suites Hope House is an exclusive address in the heart of Woodstock. As it's a Grade II listed building, the refurbishment retained Hope House's period features, but the guest rooms boast plenty of contemporary touches. There are all the high-end trappings you'd expect of anywhere described as 'boutique': flat-screen TVs, iPod docks, roll-top baths and funky chaise longues.

Staying at Hope House is certainly a luxurious experience, but there's none of the faceless impersonality you sometimes encounter at high-end hotels. Given the exclusivity of the place and its warm welcome, there's a feeling of being guest in someone's (admittedly very swanky) home. Everything is focused on guest comfort and convenience: foodies will be keen to note that suites come equipped with a well-stocked fridge with drinks and snacks at 'pub prices', and the now rather rare tea and coffee making facilities. We're not talking about a travel kettle, a couple of sachets of Nescafé and a forlorn Tetley tea bag here though: there's a coffee press, choice of premium grounds and a selection of Teapigs infusions (including breakfast tea for the traditionalists, or course). With such a thirst-quenching spread in the bedroom, N and I could only imagine what the breakfast table was going to look like the following morning.

Hungry?

Friday, 27 April 2012

Sunday lunch at The Cape of Good Hope

Conveniently located as a compromise venue for meet-ups between residents of OX4 and the rest of the city, The Cape of Good Hope is somewhere I'd choose to quench an alcohol thirst. With a decent wine selection and a range of ales, beers and ciders on tap, it doesn't disappoint. I've also been known to order one of their fish finger sandwiches a few drinks in. But I'd never really thought of going there specifically to eat.

A few weekends ago, a series of unfortunate incidents involving country walks and blisters meant that M, S and I missed the window for Sunday lunch out in the Chilterns. Caught out at that awkward time of 5pm with nothing consumed since breakfast but cake, we returned to the city. Our first port of call, The Black Boy, didn't start serving food again until 6. I was in danger of gnawing at my own arm, so we proceeded to The Cape. And it didn't let us down: Sunday roasts are served all day. Their normal menu changes daily, and features pimped-up pub classics with some locally-sourced ingredients, such as Gloucester Old Spot sausages with crushed pea mash and red wine gravy. On Sundays, they dish up a selection of traditional starters (including potted smoked mackerel and a cured meat platter), roasts and a few mains, among them fish & chips, a West Country beef burger and a fig, goat's cheese, pecan and squash tart.

Nut roast


Friday, 20 April 2012

La Galleria

In the oh-so-English town of Woodstock, you'll find a little corner of Sardinia. Tucked in between the Cotswold stone shop-fronts and ivy-covered pubs stands La Galleria: a restaurant with a menu full of traditional Italian cooking; the perfect antidote to all those pizza and pasta chains.

Peeking in through the window on a Saturday evening, it may have looked a little like a living room circa 1990 (modern and minimalist La Galleria is not), but it was a living room packed with guests. Opened by Sardinian Lucio in the 1990s (perhaps explaining the decor), the restaurant is popular with both locals and visitors to Woodstock. Taking our seat at the last available table, we took in our surroundings: intimate and smart yet relaxed. The size of La Galleria helps to create a convivial atmosphere, with conversations starting up between diners at different tables as the evening progressed.

Nibbling on hunks of warm bread and sipping a far-too-drinkable glass of Sardinian Sauvignon Blanc, N and I perused our dining options. The menu begins with a selection of classic appetizers, from £5.95 for a soup to £9.50 for the calamari fritti, served with an intriguing-sounding tomato, garlic and avocado salsa. In true Italian style, the pasta and risotto selections are available both as smaller portions (£8.95) for those who want to continue their meal with some meat or fish, and in main course portions (£2 extra). All tastes are covered by the pastas, with a number of vegetarian options, as well as a nod to the owner's roots with the Sardinian malloredos pasta served with spicy sausage, broccoli, tomato and pecorino. I was pleased to note that risotto is made from scratch, but this unfortunately means that at least 2 diners must order it to make the preparation worthwhile. Next up are a selection of fish and meat options, with the latter particularly well represented: carnivores will have trouble choosing between dishes such as pollo alla salvia (boneless chicken cooked in white wine and wrapped in bacon and sage, £13.50) and spiedini di manzo kashis (baked slices of beef tenderloin skewered with onions, mushroom and peppers in a garlic sauce, £16.95).

Crab linguine

Friday, 13 April 2012

Year one: Top picks

Of the 40 or so restaurants, cafes and pubs I've visited over the past year, a few stand out. Whether it be for the quality of the food, the setting or the service, I've definitely developed a few favourites.

While many of my top picks after six months hold firm (particularly for vegetarian dining), the second half of my mission opened my eyes to some new contenders.

Best meal: One of my most memorable experiences was at supper club The Ball Green Door, the only place to scoop a perfect 10 score. Everything was spot on; from the welcome to the post-dinner coffee with hand-made chocolates, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The food was excellent, and even more impressive for being home-made rather than produced in a full-scale restaurant kitchen. Unfortunately for the people of Oxford, The Ball Green Door is currently on hiatus, so my runners up are The Rickety Press and Brasserie Blanc.

Best occasion dining: With a smart setting, excellent service and great food, Brasserie Blanc is another star in this category. The value its set menus offers means that it's fairly friendly on the pocket, too. The Ashmolean Dining Room certainly has an incomparable venue, but I wish its menu would change a little more often and that specials were on offer. For a one-off treat with the glamour factor, it's still got what it takes though.

Best pub: It's still got to be The Rickety Press for me!

Best cafe: So popular it's a challenge to get a table on weekend mornings, Oxfork is the city's most talked-about cafe with good reason. The food's a cut above usual offerings: a full English here is no greasy spoon affair, but a locally-sourced, lovingly-prepared treat. The quirky setting helps, but I find friendly but erratic the best way to describe the service. Skip brunch if you want a more relaxing experience and come here for coffee and homemade cake instead. I'm also a big fan of the cute pop-up cafes at East Oxford Farmers' Market, including The Moving Teashop.

Best budget: Red Star wins for me hands down. If I ever want something cheap, filling and quick, this is where I go. No frills, but then you don't pay for them either.

Best service: Looking back over the past year, La Cucina stands out for me. Our waitress was helpful and polite yet friendly without being informal: perfect. She made sure to talk us through the specials, and was happy to explain a couple of menu items to our group.

So, there you have my latest batch of top picks. Let's see what year two brings...

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Hackett's

Multipurpose is all well and good, but how often does it actually work? From the face wipe that promises to cleanse, tone and moisturise in one sweep to the restaurant, bar and café catering to all types of customer, I find that many of these multi-taskers are significantly more skilled in one area than others. When it comes to dining, a venue that offers a casual experience during the day and ups the gastro and glamour stakes come sunset sounds like a recipe for success – but can all the required ingredients combine to create something memorable?

Hackett's in Witney describes itself as a 'coffee bar and bistro'. So far, so French: casual cafés across the channel often serve both coffee and more substantial meals under one roof. They might not always set the culinary world alight, but they're reliable. So, is Hackett's following the French recipe for success then? Based on whispers I'd heard about the quality of their food, not exactly: their 'bistro' element seemed to extend into stay rant territory. With increasing expectations of my visit, a colleague informed me that Hackett's was 'also lovely for a cocktail'. Yet another 'purpose', I thought.

I arrived on a Thursday evening unsure what to expect. A café serving good food? A restaurant with a bar? It turns out Hackett's is a bit of both. A light, airy space with high ceilings and a mezzanine level, Hackett's is located in central Witney. Open all day, it serves both food and drink – I was impressed to note both diners and drinkers in evidence on my visit, some of the latter just having a coffee and a chat. So far, so multipurpose. With a combination of relaxed armchairs and restaurant-style tables, patrons select the option they prefer: there didn't seem to be distinct areas for cafe customers and diners, although one cosy corner looked perfect for sipping a latte and leafing through a magazine.

While both casual fare (including sandwiches) and main meals are on offer at lunch, the main menu is all about well-cooked modern British and European dishes. The menu changes monthly and is comprehensive without being over-facing: with 5 starters, 3 sharing 'slates' (fish, charcuterie or cheese, all £8.95) and 8 mains, you should find something to tempt you. Vegetarian options were a little limited though: just 2 starters (a caramelised goat's cheese and beetroot salad and the risotto of the day) and one main (open wild mushroom, ricotta and butternut squash cannelloni) were on offer. Fortunately I was happy with the choices, and opted for the salad (£5.95) and the cannelloni, while my dinner companion M chose seared king scallops with a garden pea 'risotto', black pudding and crackling (£6.95) followed by seared duck breast served with smoked bacon in a wild mushroom madeira sauce (£13).

Sunday, 1 April 2012

One year

Today marks one year since the official start of my Girl Eats Oxford project. Since then, I've reviewed 42 eateries in around the city; eaten very well; seen more of my friends; gained a few pounds weight-wise and lost a few money-wise. I've also learned a lot about what exactly makes a restaurant experience 'good'.

I make no secret of the fact that I'm no 'food critic'. I'm an ordinary girl who likes dining out a possibly extraordinary amount. Like most other restaurant customers, I enjoy well-priced, well-presented dishes at a decent price. And if the atmosphere's friendly and inviting and the service good, so much the better. Sounds simple enough, but it always doesn't seem to be the easiest formula to recreate.

Fortunately, I've had mostly positive experiences of dining in Oxford. When I began this blog, I imagined that I could eat at most of the restaurants I was recommended in 12 months. One year on, I feel as though I could easily continue this project for several years: there are still so many cafes, pubs and restaurants to explore. So, I've decided to continue my mission for as long as I remain in the city. After all, there's still plenty to eat - and report back. 

Reviewing restaurants makes you look at dining out differently. Every detail matters: from being greeted and seated to paying up, visiting a restaurant is an experience. While the food's usually the main event (antics with carpets notwithstanding), it's not just about what's on the menu. The material the table cloth's made of? I noticed it. The Christmas decorations still on display in February? I made a note of them. The lack of salt and pepper on the table didn't get past me either. But don't worry, I also saw the specials board and the selection of spirits behind the bar. Oh, and the waiter's smile.

Based on all these hawk-eyed observations, here are a few lessons I've learned over the past year.

1) Service matters
Sounds obvious, doesn't it. Treat customers well and they'll not only return, they'll probably recommend the restaurant to their friends too. So it's worth putting a little effort in to make a good impression. Indifferent service I can cope with; having to ask for a menu five minutes after being seated or waiting for half an hour for the table to be cleared when a restaurant isn't even busy, less so. I find I'm much more likely to return somewhere with decent food and friendly service than somewhere with excellent food where I've received below-par treatment. Timely service and a smile goes a really long way.
2) Salt belongs in a cellar
Those tea-light holders brimming with sea salt sure look cute, but remember what your mum told you about the nuts on a pub bar. Yep, your fingers aren't the first to touch those crystals.
3) Comprehension is key
If customers can't understand half the dishes on a menu, they feel intimidated. Enquiring after the odd ingredient or fancily-named sauce is fine, but trying to decipher a series of dishes that may as well have been inscribed in a foreign tongue isn't. Pretension has no place on a menu either: if you mean chips, say so. Everyone knows what you mean by 'chipped potato' anyway. You're fooling nobody.
4) Background noise
An empty restaurant is about as inviting as dinner with a dictator. Atmosphere isn't easy to create and there's no real substitute for the hum of a restaurant buzzing with diners, but some well-chosen music helps. Or even just some music. Nobody wants to feel like they're eating in a library.
5) Decor shouldn't stop at the dining room door
Customers also judge that other room they visit. I can't say I've been tempted to write separate reviews for the little girls' rooms (this site has it covered anyway), but everyone notices a bad bathroom. A lick of paint, some basic cleanliness and paper are the minimum; decent paper towels rather than a greying cotton one and a supply of fragrant handwash that doesn't bear a supermarket own brand label elevate a bathroom's status significantly. How to raise the bathroom bar even higher? Just add hand cream.

'And what about the restaurants themselves?', I hear you cry. 'Which is your favourite?'
That, dear reader, will have to wait until next week when I list my top picks from the last year.


I've also learned a lot about blogging in the past year. If any ladies reading are keen to find out more about how to use blogs to promote yourself or your business, come down to Fe-line Women's Word of Mouth: How to be a shameless self-promoter event at the Phoenix Picturehouse Bar on 10 April at 8pm, where I'll be sharing the wisdom of my experience alongside Jo, Fe-line's organizer and marketing professional.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Grand Cafe

There's something about the first flush of spring in Oxford that makes me feel incredibly English. I'm not sure whether it was the daffodils down by the river or that first annual glimpse of pasty white legs showcased in shorts, but this particular Sunday had me craving a cream tea. Visiting the UK from her usual home in Spain, my friend K was only too happy to share my oh-so-English craving, so we made our way to the Grand Café on High Street.

Apparently the site of the first coffee house in England (as claimed by Samuel Pepys), these days the Grand Café is all gilt and mirrors. Classic in style it may be, but it's certainly no historical relic: it's quietly buzzing at all hours of the day. Its petite proportions could be overshadowed by its imposing neighbour the Examination Schools, but the colonnaded front and swish interior of the Grand Café hold their own. Open daily for brunch, light lunches, afternoon tea and cocktails, it's certainly a multipurpose venue, but there's something about its slightly overblown interior that just suggests indulgence to me.

Served from 2-5pm, afternoon tea is one of the Grand Café's mainstays, if the scone-laden tabletops around us were anything to go by. The Grand High Tea (£16.50) reads like the perfect reason to ignore government guidelines for calorie consumption: sandwiches of the smoked salmon & cream cheese and egg mayonnaise varieties, scones served with jam and clotted cream, handmade chocolate truffles, a glass of champagne and of course, tea (or coffee for the less traditional). Just a couple of hours after our picnic lunch, neither of us could quite find room for this decadent delight, so we both ordered the more modest-sounding cream tea (£7.50) of scones and err, tea.

Hungry?

Friday, 16 March 2012

Mamma Mia

In hindsight, taking a group of people currently resident in Florence to an Italian restaurant in Oxford probably wasn't my most inspired idea. We Brits may have taken Italian cuisine to our hearts and annexed its deliciousness, treasuring it almost as much as a Sunday roast, but that doesn't necessarily mean that our offerings will compare with Tuscan fare. In this tale, they certainly don't.

The evening didn't start well. That's a lie: it started far too well. One happy hour cocktail in the Duke of Cambridge led to another and soon my protesting stomach was warning me that it was already 7.30pm. Our original desitination, Branca, was packed, so we tried our luck at Walton Street's other Italian, Mamma Mia. The second branch of the popular Summertown pizzeria, this welcoming spot has been open a couple of years. It's smart and inviting, with cheery decor and friendly staff.

If you're in the mood for pasta or pizza, Mamma Mia is the place to be. If you're not feeling the 'Italian foodsuffs beginning with p' vibe, you'd do well to give it a miss. Although the antipasti are traditionally Italian, in the rustic 'what nonna used to make' vein, the rest of the menu is limited to wheaty treats and salad. The antipasti are worth more than a glance: simple, rustic-sounding starters including baked goat's cheese with fresh tomatoes on ciabatta come in at around £4.95. If you want a double dose of wheat (or have a small appetite), you can also opt for a starter-size pasta portion. The rest of the menu is reasonably priced, with a decent selection of pasta and pizza options from the standard (margherita, £6.75 and spaghetti puttanesca, £8.55) to the more interesting (goat's cheese, spinach and red onion pizza, £8.55, or rigatoni with smoked salmon in a cream and dill sauce, £8.95). If you fancy a bit more of grandma's traditional cooking though, you won't find it on Mamma Mia's menu.


The Italian contingent (who were actually Brazilian, English and French, but let's not complicate an already tricky situation) didn't have much appetite after their lunchtime fish and chip feast, so they opted for antipasti or to share plates of pizza. Y's baked goat's cheese on toast went down a treat, while N and D enjoyed their baked mozzarella wrapped in aubergine and parma ham (£5.95), praising its creamy texture and combination of flavours.

Whitebait & baked mozzarella

The whitebait (£4.95) was described as 'decent', but their Mediterranean pizza (topped with smoked chicken, chorizo, red onion and capers, £8.95) didn't receive many compliments. The base was a little underdone, the crust far from crispy (as the Florence-dwellers have come to expect) - this surprised me, as I remembered the pizza at Mamma Mia's South Parade branch being excellent. The Brazilians were similarly underwhelmed with their pizza.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Black Boy

It's taken almost a year, but here's my first review for the OX3 postcode. Shameful or telling? Well, Headington's not local for me and nor is it in the way of much passing trade, unlike the bar and boutique hubs of Jericho and Cowley. Tucked away from the main road, Old Headington is even less accessible. So when a restaurant located there is repeatedly recommended, it seems like you're on to a winner.

The Black Boy certainly has some champion credentials, not least a glowing review from The Observer's Jay Rayner and an appearance on the 50 best gastro pubs in the country list. Frequently billed as a gastro pub, I found the reality more akin to a restaurant: the leather-backed chairs and elaborately patterned wallpaper didn't really scream 'pub dining room' to me. Whatever bracket The Black Boy falls into, it's an inviting spot: welcoming, well-decorated and intimate without being cramped.

M and I visited on a Tuesday evening to spend a Living Social voucher valid for 2 courses and 2 glasses of wine. We chose from a set menu that was less limited than I had feared: 3 starters and 4 mains were on offer, with a meat, fish and vegetarian option for each course. I opted for a Greek salad followed by fish pie, while M chose a smoked haddock and salmon fish cake to start and bangers and mash for her main. The house wine was decent and cheap at just £3 a glass, while the rest of the wine list was varied and well-priced. The main menu is British with international influences, with starters including potted English trout and shrimp served with toasted homemade bread (£6.95) and Clonakilty black pudding with a soft poached egg and pancetta (£7.50). Starters are a little on the pricey side (mostly around the £7 mark), with mains such as roasted cod loin with spring onion and potato rosti, mussels and a cream and saffron sauce more reasonable around £12.95. There are also plenty of specials to choose from: 3 starters and 4 mains on the day we visited. At lunch time, sandwiches are also available, but don't expect a chunk of cheese wedged between hunks of bread: at £6.50 plus, these are deluxe doorstops.

Greek salad

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Running out of time

It's one month today until the official end of my year of eating my way around Oxford. When I began my project at the start of April 2011, I wasn't sure how it would all work out - whether anyone would actually read my rambling, whether I'd be able to keep up. Thankfully the answers to both those wonderings were 'yes', and although I'm a little bit heavier and my wallet a little bit lighter than one year ago, I've really enjoyed having the excuse to dine out with frivolous frequency, see my friends more often and write about my discoveries. My monthly slot on BBC Radio Oxford was the icing on the cake, and one of the many reasons why I've decided to continue the project beyond its initial one year scope.

Regular readers might have noticed that my reviews have been a little less frequent this year. Well, restaurant reviewing isn't the only hobby I took up in 2011: more surprisingly (to myself anyway), I've also started running. And on 1 April, a year since Girl Eats Oxford began, I'll be running the Reading Half Marathon in aid of Sue Ryder Care. If anyone ever tries to tell you that training for a half marathon isn't time-consuming, you have my permission to laugh in their faces: all that pounding the pavements really cuts into the time I could be spending gallivanting around Oxford's eateries.

I'll be back on track with my weekly reviews soon, and you can tune in to BBC Radio Oxford on Friday 9 March to hear my recommendations for Italian restaurants in Oxfordshire. In the meantime, please bear with me as I prioritise running over refuelling. If you'd like to be so kind as to sponsor me, that would of course be much appreciated both by me and Sue Ryder Care, who work incredibly hard to provide support to those with life-changing illnesses, as well as hospice care. My employers have kindly offered to match what I raise through sponsorship, so even a little will go a long way.

Thanks for your continued readership and recommendations!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

On location: Istanbul

Meat-heavy meze and kebabs: I had to admit, although the sights of Istanbul captured my imagination, the sustenance didn't really have the same effect. I was certainly looking forward to touring Topkapi Palace, getting snap happy in the Hagia Sophia and taking a ferry across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia, but the prospect of finding enough pescetarian-friendly fodder for 3 days was decidedly daunting.




The guidebooks did little to allay my fears; the Guardian fared better: thanks to its helpful 'top 10' guides, I discovered the Istanbul Eats bloggers and their tips for dining in the city. Vegetarian food barely got a mention, but fish restaurants seemed plentiful, and I learned that intrepid diners can fill up on a sandwich stuffed with the grilled catch of the day down by Galata Bridge, which is packed full of fishermen from dawn until dusk. Thankfully, Turkey's most cosmopolitan city seems to be cottoning on to serving meat-free fare, partly in order to cash in on the tourist trade. I was also pleased to note the availability of vegetarian options in the city's meyhanes (traditional restaurants specialising in meze).

The Blue Mosque


Rumeli
 
A rare find in the tourist haven of Sultanahmet (where the palace, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are all located), Rumeli is a restaurant free of tiresome touts. It doesn't need any: it's simple menu of well-prepared Turkish and international dishes speaks for itself. The setting is cosy and intimate, with exposed brick walls and an open fire offering some welcome respite from the February chill. My vegetable kebab (17 TL) turned out to be a plate of various grilled vegetables and rice, while A's shish kebab (26 TL) at least featured a stick to hold it together, conforming to our expectations of a kebab. Both were delicious and reasonably-priced for the area, although the meat was significantly more than the vegetarian dish. We we also served a complimentary basket of bread and some olives.

Vegetable kebab


Rumeli is at Ticarethane Sokak 8, Sultanahmet. Open daily.

Topkapi Palace


Sefa
A lokanta is where spending-savvy Turks choose to lunch. With a counter filled with constantly replenished hot dishes, customers at these budget restauants choose by sight from the meat, fish and vegetable dishes on offer, which are then served to them at their table. Frills are minimal at Sefa, although this Sultanahmet spot was a cut above some we saw. We were reassured by the fact that we were the only tourists dining as we tucked into our plates of admittedly rather lethargic-looking lunch. Appearances were deceptive: all my vegetarian dishes were simple but flavoursome, with the garlicky mushrooms and spinach served with yoghurt particularly good. A well-priced way to fill up at lunch time (50 TL for 2 including drinks).

Sefa is at Nuruosmaniye Caddesi 17, Sultanahmet.

Apple tea


Fürreya Galata Balikcisi

Under the gaze of the Galata Tower in gritty but trendy Beyoglu, Fürreya Galata Balikcisi is a pocket-sized dream- providing you like fish, that is. The petite restaurant is modern and welcoming, with a short, well-priced menu of fresh fish and salads. We opted for the fish wraps (9TL) and a Mediterranean salad (9TL); both were light and tasty. The fish was flaky and perfectly-cooked, encased in flatbread and was well-complemented by some caramelised onions.

Fürreya Galata Balikcisi is at Serdar-i Ekram Sokak 2, Beyoglu.

View from Beyoglu


Krependeki Imroz

Apparently an evening in one of the meyhanes (meze restaurants) on Nevizade Sokak is a quintessential Istanbul experience. Squeezing through the hubbub of this Beyoglu backstreet early on a Sunday evening, I could see that these establishments aren't short on atmosphere: almost all were packed. We grabbed a table at Krependeki Imroz and were soon greeted by a grinning waiter brandishing a tray of bite-sized portions, covered in clingfilm. Our confusion gave way to comprehension: we were supposed to choose from this 3D menu. Unfortunately, most of the items on the tray weren't sufficiently discernible, so we asked for a print menu instead. We opted for 6 fish and vegetarian meze between 2: the calamari, vine leaves and borek were all hits, the fava bean mush less so. It may have been traditional, but its texture wasn't exactly appealing to our uninitiated palates. Portions were quite generous, making it a good value dinner.

Fava beans: no, ta


Krependeki Imroz is at Nevizade Sokak 16, Beyoglu.

Street food


If you're eating on the run or trying to save your lira, street food is where its at. Almost every corner has some sort of edible offering; kebab stalls huddle around any kind of transport hub and carts selling corn on the cob and Turkish pretzels speckle the streets. It was well worth parting with a couple of lira for some corn, which I elegantly devoured while waiting for a tram; one lira for a sesame-covered pretzel-meets-bread roll was also money well spent. Hungover and hungry in Uskudar on the Asian side of the city, a kebab stall saw us right: A's doner kebab was better than a greasy English offering, and my rice with chickpeas was just the carb hit I needed. We didn't get the chance to test out any of the grilled fish on offer by the water's edge, but it certainly smelled good. A makeshift barbecue in a backstreet may not sound like the best place to sample the catch of the day, but judging by the number of locals tucking in, it might well be.


You can read more about my Istanbul experiences here on my travel blog Tales of a Brit Abroad.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Recipe: Borek

I mentioned in my review of Bodrum that their borek weren't as good as the tasty pastries created by my friend Sarah McMillan. Luckily for you, she's happy to share the recipe. Believe me, if they turn out like hers you won't be disappointed...


Sarah's a marketing manager from 9-5, and a make-up artist and keen cook outside of working hours. She recently started the food blog Food=Love, where she regularly shares her easy-to-emulate recipes.

Borek

I've  visited Turkey a number of times and I love Turkish food: it's just so fresh and tasty.

One of my favourite appetizers has to be Sigara Boregi or Borek, which are cigar-shaped filo pastries filled with feta cheese.



To make borek, you need:

3 sheets filo pastry

Filling:
1 block of feta cheese, crumbled
small bunch parsley, finely chopped
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Pinch of oregano (optional)

1/2 saucepan of sunflower oil for frying
1 small bowl of water

How to make borek:

Mix all of the filling ingredients in a bowl.

Place the three sheets of filo on top of each other vertically and cut in half from top to bottom. Then cut from one of the top corners to a bottom corner diagonally across to make 12 triangles of filo pastry. Cover the pastry with a damp tea towel until ready to use or else it will dry up and become difficult to roll.
Put one heaped teaspoonful of filling along the long side edge of each triangle of pastry. Then fold the two end corners in and roll up the triangle. Wet the open end with a little water from your bowl and press it closed. Be careful not to overfill or they will explode when frying!
Repeat until you've rolled all the sheets into cigar shapes.

Heat up the sunflower oil on the hob in a pan on a high heat. A good way to check if the oil is hot enough is to put a small piece of filo into the oil. If it starts to sizzle, then it's ready.
Turn the heat down to medium. Fry about 3 borek at a time (depending on the size of your pan) and fry the borek until they are a light golden colour. When they are done, use a slotted metal spoon to remove them and place them on a paper towel to soak up any extra oil.

Serve warm with houmous and salad as a light snack or alone as an appetizer.


Photo: Flickr/brododaktula
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...