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


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.
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