Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Royal Oak

Back in my student days, The Royal Oak's menu featured a childhood classic: a fish finger sandwich. Now, I personally like my fingers of fish just the right side of burned and served in a barm cake (that's a bap to anyone not from Lancashire) with a healthy dollop of ketchup. Although the Oak's offerings were never quite charred enough for my curious palate, they were certainly a tasty reminder of my infancy and ideal comfort food, so I have to admit that I was hoping to tuck into one of these bad boys on a recent visit.

But the fish finger days are over, folks. Although its menu always boasted more sophisticated offerings than my meal of choice, the Oak's gone a bit gastro since I left full-time education. With a menu that changes regularly (a good thing in my book, as long as it's kept up to date online - which the Oak's is), the Oak dishes up pimped-up pub grub such as beer battered haddock & chips with minted mushy peas and tartare sauce and slow-cooked lamb shank shepherd's pie with carrots and broccoli (both £8.75). The vegetarian options are a little less 'British classic' however, and I feel that this is what may have prompted my wave of fish finger nostalgia.

On a spring evening, a dish of warm halloumi with toasted cous cous and a bean and avocado salad with chilli and lemon (£8.75) sounded just the ticket, if a bit of a mouthful. However, the portion was pretty small given the price tag, especially considering it equalled thoe cost of many of the meat dishes on the menu. I know halloumi isn't the cheapest cheese, but even so - £7 would have been a much fairer price. The halloumi was certainly the star of the salad: good quality, gorgeously rubbery cheese marinated in an unidentifiable but tasty sauce. Sadly, its supporting cast let the magnificent halloumi down: far from being toasted, the cous cous was slightly soggy, and the avocado put in a 'blink and you'll miss it' appearance.

Warm halloumi salad

I was pretty disappointed, especially when I belatedly noticed that for 25p less I could have gone for the two course prix fixe menu, which is available from Monday to Friday and features such delights as salt and pepper squid with lime mayo and pea and mint risotto. If only I'd have found the card lurking under the main menu before ordering.

The Royal Oak fared much better in the British classics test, however. A's free range Gloucester Old Spot sausages were served on a bed of crushed pea mash and red onion gravy, and for £8.00 packed a much better portion punch than my skinny salad (I know, I know: don't have salad in a pub. Lesson learned). He rated it 'better than expected' (probably after my moaning), with the sausages tasty, the peas a pleasant addition to the mash and the gravy delicious.

So there you have it: the slightly gastro Oak is a winner for carnivores, but not such a hot tip for pescetarians and veggies. Bring back the fish finger sandwich, I say.

Verdict: 5. Should have had the fish and chips.

The Royal Oak is at 42-44 Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6HT. Tel: 01865 310187

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Mission Burrito

Mission Burrito spiced up Oxford's lunch scene considerably when it hit St Michael's Street a few years ago. Bringing a taste of Mexico to the city centre, Mission's offer of burritos and tacos has proven so popular that they've now opened a second branch on King Edward Street.

Taking advantage of a Groupon offer, it was this new branch I visited on a Saturday lunchtime. With more space for diners than the original shop, customers hoping to eat in should perhaps head here instead. The menu is the same at both locations though, with vegetarian, chicken or carnitas (pork) burritos all costing £5.45 and steak numbers weighing in at £5.95. Tacos with the same fillings are also available, as well as burrito bowls for wheat-dodgers.

I opted for a vegetarian burrito: a flour tortilla packed with rice, black beans, sauteed onions and peppers, lettuce and my choice of 4 sauces, ranging from the mild pico de gallo to more firey options. I played it safe with the medium-spiced salsa verde, skipped the sour cream on offer and added some guacamole into the mix (70p extra). M chose a carnitas burrito with all the extras. As the Great British sunshine was putting in a rare appearance, we decided on an al fresco lunch instead of eating in. The friendly staff presented us with two very sizeable packages: Mission's burritos certainly aren't suitable for those looking for a light luncheon.

The combination of rice, beans and sauteed vegetables was a tasty one, although I couldn't help but wish there had been a few different veggies lurking in there to add more variety (perhaps this would be straying away from the path of authenticity, though). The salsa was on the mild side of medium, so if you like it spicy then be brave and try one of the hot sauces. It was definitely a satisfying lunch: the flour tortilla was stuffed with ingredients, but so expertly-assembled that it didn't prove messy to eat - perfect picnic food. M rated the carnitas option highly: she reported that the marinated pork was succulently moist with a good depth of flavour.

If you're looking for a lunchtime change from the usual panini or salad options, give Mission Burrito a go: its generous portions make its meals good value. Just make sure to bring your appetite.

Verdict: 7/10

Mission Burrito is at 8 St Michael's Street and 2 King Edward Street, Oxford.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Atomic Burger

Behind a white picket fence on Cowley Road, there lies a pocket-sized restaurant serving big burgers. Open the gate, step inside and you'll see that this is no ordinary American diner: under a canopy of dangling superheroes, friendly staff weave between the packed tables, delivering quirkily-named platefuls to hungry customers. Welcome to Atomic Burger, a future Oxford institution.

Although the sci-fi themed burger bar only opened around eighteen months ago, it has already made its mark on the city's dining scene, becoming so popular that booking's even advisable on a school night. It's easy to see why: if the fun atmosphere and 80s nostalgia aren't reason enough, the tasty grub should win you round. Recently revamped, the new menu offers 22 different burgers with toppings to suit all tastes, from the plain and simple Forrest Gump (£6.75), to the spicy Johnny Cash (served with refried beans, hot sauce, American cheese and jalapenos, £8.75), to the freestyle - creative types can dream up their own burger toppings. Unlike most restaurants of its ilk, Atomic Burger gives diners the choice of making each burger on the menu beef, chicken or vegetarian; with veggies able to swap any meaty toppings for a flesh-free substitute. The chatty, knowledgeable staff will be happy to talk you through the options and advise doubtful diners. Should you be tempted to stray away from the burger path, hot dogs, ribs, salad and a pulled pork sandwich are also available, with milkshakes and soda floats rounding off the all-American offer.

Veggie Smokey & the Bandit with sci fries

I used to be a definite Forrest Gump girl, but this week I branched out in the name of research, opting for a vegetarian Smokey & the Bandit (cajun rub burger with grated cheddar, BBQ sauce and an onion ring, £8.95) with a side of garlic and chilli sci fries (included). With a smokey, subtle spicy taste and the gooey addition of the melted cheese, it was definitely a much tastier choice than the sometimes insipid vegetarian offerings at most burger bars. The sci fries were an ideal complement, adding an extra kick - spice lovers will be in their element.

Chicken Jake & Elwood with caesar salad

Atomic Burger's portions are generous and the ingredients good quality: my companion L even complimented their 'nice baps'. She tucked into a chicken Jake & Elwood (served with blue cheese, bacon and mushrooms, £8.75) with a mini caesar salad, while after much deliberation A plumped for a beef Fat Tony (with meatballs, pizza sauce and American cheese, £8.95). A short while later, with empty plates and full stomachs, we all admitted we'd probably be incapable of tackling Atomic's Godzilla Challenge, a man versus food gaunlet which requires brave (or foolhardy) participants to devour a triple burger with triple cheese, firey Godzilla sauce and triple chilli fries in one hour. One name on the mirrored wall of fame had accomplished this feat in an astounding 7 minutes.

Brownie Sundae

If you can make room for afters (unlikely after a Godzilla Challenge, but who knows), Atomic offers American-style desserts such as a pie of the week, waffles and our tasty choice of Finger-a-Fudge Brownie Sundae, a chocolate brownie served with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce, cream and a fudge finger. Other sweet treats appear on the new breakfast menu (available daily from 10-12), with offerings such as the Snoopy & Woodstock Pancakes (blueberry or chocolate pancakes served with maple syrup and butter, £5.45) sure to tempt me through the little white gate again before long.

As Atomic Burger says, 'great burgers ain't rocket science'. That may be true, but they're certainly a welcome addition to Oxford. And with the restaurant's popularity only likely to increase with the introduction of the fun sticker book loyalty scheme, long may Atomic's reign over the Cowley Road continue.

Verdict: 9/10

Atomic Burger is at 96 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JE. Tel: 01865 790855. Booking recommended.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


A queue on a Sunday night in Oxford? That's got to be a good sign. Wait a minute: there are no tablecloths and the salt cellar is almost empty. According to my dining companion D, this shows a lack of attention to detail. Ah, but here's the friendly waiter with the menu. They do dosa? Chutneys is looking promising.

Although I've lived in Oxford for years and love Indian food, it had never occurred to me to eat at Chutneys until I received a Twitter recommendation last week. There's just something about it that doesn't look particularly inviting from the outside. Inside, the decor's on the no-frills side of minimalist, but it's bright and clean - and busy (they had 165 covers on Saturday night, according to the waiter).

The menu is much more extensive than at most Indian restaurants: there's a page and a half of starters to plough through before you even hit the main courses. As soon as I spotted the dosa on page 2, the rest of the dishes didn't even stand a chance: I had a holiday romance with this South Indian rice pancake in Malaysia last year, so I was more than a little excited to see a number of vegetarian variations on the menu (£7.95 each). Herbivores have plenty of choice at Chutneys, with almost two pages of meat-free options ranging from the classic (vegetable bhuna) to more exotic specialities such as sarso baigon, aubergines fried with mustard seeds in a medium-spiced curry sauce (£6.50 each). Chefs' specialities feature heavily on the rest of the menu too, and D bypassed the tandoori, seafood and 'Unabashedly Indian' sections in favour of kalimirch chicken (chicken tikka cooked in a medium-spiced sauce with black pepper, onions and garlic, £8.65).

Sobzi dosa

After 40 minutes and deep regret at not ordering any poppadoms, our mains turned up accompanied by a side of saag paneer (£4.50) and a cheese naan (£3.10). My sobzi dosa was stuffed with lightly spiced mixed vegetables and served with both a curry sauce and a mint yoghurt dip. My Malaysian memories weren't rose-tinted, nor did Chutneys didn't let me down: my holiday love was just as tasty back in the UK. D's dish was deceptively large, with plenty of delicately-spiced chicken - no fobbing you off with a couple of chunks drowning in a sea of sauce here. I can't say I was overly impressed with the saag paneer: the flavours didn't seem to blend well, with the onion overpowering the slightly soggy spinach. Sag paneer conoisseur D disagreed with me entirely though, declaring the spinach good quality and the taste just right.

Chutneys may not be much to look at, but let the dosa not the decor do the talking: if you're after a tasty Indian meal with some slightly different choices on the menu, it's definitely worth a try.

Verdict: 7.5/10

Chutneys is at 36 St Michael's Street, Oxford OX1 2EB. Tel: 01865 724241. Booking is recommended at weekends.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Red Lion

In Oxford's pre-Wetherspoons days, The Red Lion was a rough and ready boozer called The Goose with such tempting offers as 4 bottles of Reef for £5. So when I heard it had undergone a facelift so extreme that it would make Liza Minnelli proud and turned into a gastro pub, I had to check it out.

The makeover rumours were true: the faded sofas and grubby floors are long gone, replaced by stylish light wood furnishings and soft lighting. The initial impression is of a slick modern restaurant rather than a pub, and although The Red Lion has kept a lounge bar area, it's clearly aiming primarily at diners rather than drinkers these days. With an extensive and varied menu (and wine list too, for that matter, with reds and whites sub-divided into Mediterranean and World categories), there's far more on offer than the usual pub fare.

While classics such as burgers and fish and chips will keep the traditionalists happy, The Red Lion also offers creative pastas (such as strozzapreti with goat's cheese, tomato and spinach, £10.25) and stonebaked pizzas (including crispy duck, £10.45), as well as an extensive 'spit roast/stove' section which should keep even the most die-hard carnivore happy. Meaty choices range from spit-roast chicken (£12.45) to ribeye steak cooked in smoken paprika butter and served with watercress and chips (£16.45). Beefing up the menu even further are continental-style sharing plates and a selection of modern European starters, such as arancini risotto balls with peas, mint and feta (£5.95). As if all this wasn't enough, there's also a list of chef's recommendations on each table, which we unfortunately only spotted after ordering. The swanky-sounding dishes (3 starters and 3 mains) were a little fancier than those on the menu but around the same price, so it's definitely worth checking them out. On our visit, options included confit duck leg served on caramelised white cabbage with black cherry sauce (£13.95).

I finally opted for the blackened cod fillet served on a bed of egg noodles and pak choi, with mango and chilli salsa (£14.95). The generously-sized fillet was beautifully presented and delicately spiced, with the mango chunks adding an interesting complementary flavour. Filling but fresh-tasting and light, it's an ideal spring dish. The pak choi made a pretty minimal contribution and I did feel the price was a little high, but the quality of the flaky fish almost justified the mark up.

Blackened cod fillet

A's classic burger (£10.95), served up on a rustic wooden board, was served in a wholesome-looking sunflower seed-topped bun with a side dish of fries. Well-cooked and tasty, the addition of a hefty portion of salad may have contributed to A's 5 a day, but it also contributed to lowering the burger's temperature and made for some slightly unwieldy eating.

Classic burger

S chose a stonebaked margherita pizza, good value at £7.95. Topped with plenty of mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil, it was a well-executed version of the quintessential pizza.

Margherita pizza

The dessert menu features a number of modern British classic puddings, such as brownie and ice cream, treacle tart and Eton mess (from £4.75). We opted for a sticky toffee pudding (average, made less of an impression than the creamy vanilla ice cream it was topped with) and an Eton mess (delicious, with slightly sticky homemade meringue that was just the right side of sweet), but as the lunchtime rush had begun, we had to wait over 20 minutes for our desserts to arrive.

Eton Mess

Located near Gloucester Green in central Oxford, The Red Lion is ideally located for a mid-shopping lunch break or a pre-drinks dinner. Opened just over a month ago, it already seems like a popular place, and with a wide-ranging menu of good quality, beautifully-presented modern dishes, I can understand why. It didn't entirely set my palate on fire, but it's definitely a welcome addition to Oxford's dining scene and a much-needed alternative to the multitude of chain Italian restaurants on George Street.

Verdict: 6/10

The Red Lion is at 14 Gloucester Street, Oxford. Tel: 01865 726255.

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