Friday, 27 May 2011

Everest Nepalese

Residential Howard Street isn't exactly somewhere you'd usually consider when deciding where to eat out in Oxford. Just a few years ago, Cowley Road was as good as it got in the OX4 postcode, but with tempting new additions such as the Rusty Bicycle, the Magdalen Arms and the Indian Room popping up on the map, excellent dining options are definitely spreading east. This residential street has been put on the map by Nepalese restaurant Everest, which occupies half of the converted Donnington Arms pub.

The dining area isn't the biggest of spaces, with around twelve tables of varying sizes. It's a testament to Everest's popularity that by 7.30 on a Tuesday evening, almost half of them were occupied. The decor is smart but simple, with comfortable leather chairs and a touch of tasteful artwork. The focus is definitely on the food, though: the smart menu features mainly Nepalese dishes (as you'd expect), with a few Indian numbers thrown in no doubt to please the palates of the curry-conditioned population. Similar to Indian cuisine in its extensive uses of spices, Nepalese food is similarly varied, with dishes as diverse as dumplings, noodle dishes and bean and potato masala on Everest's menu.

The  menu begins with a page of starters, priced between £2.95 and £5.95, including the dumplings in question (momos), which I've heard excellent things about. There's a page of vegetarian dishes, tandoori options, chef's specialities (including the interesting-sounding manu farsi; lamb and red pumpkin cooked with ginger, red pepper and garlic), as well as a number of classic Indian dishes and biryanis. I skipped straight to the vegetarian specialities: mostly Nepalese, many  can be ordered either as a main course (£6.95) or as a side (£3.95).

Annapurna vegetables and kadai chicken

I opted for annapurna vegetables (potatoes, okra, cauliflower, mushrooms, courgettes, aubergine, broccoli and green beans, £6.95), with plain rice and a garlic naan. The vegetables were perfectly cooked, with just the right amount of bite, and the depth of flavour was impressive. They were light-tasting and moreish: portion sizes are generous but not over-facing, justifying the price tag for the vegetarian dishes at least. My dinner companion S opted for a kadai chicken (with onion, capiscum, green chillies and gren peppers, £7.95) from the Indian classics section, which was flavoursome but rather too greasy for her liking: once she'd transferred it over to her plate, the serving dish was left with an unappetising reservoir of oil at the bottom. That said, the taste prevailed and she ate the lot. The naan was generously smothered in garlic and fortunately escaped the grease trap of the kadai chicken.

With a wide variety of tempting-sounding dishes on offer, Everest is a good value introduction to Nepalese cooking. If you're looking for something a bit different than the usual options of pub/Italian/Indian/Chinese, give Everest a go: with such a range of dishes on offer, you're sure to discover something new. Given the greasiness of the Indian dish compared to the Nepalese, it's probably best to stick to what Everest is all about.

Verdict: 8 for the Nepalese, 6 for the Indian

Everest Nepalese is at 147-151 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3AZ. Booking recommended at weekends. Take away available (collection or free delivery for orders over £15 in a 5 mile radius). Tel: 01865 251555.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Red Star

If you're looking for cheap, easy and quick eats, noodles are where it's at. Owing to the numerous chains that have sprung up in recent years, the communal tables of the noodle bar are now a familiar part of the UK landscape. On Cowley Road, independent Red Star offers diners a taste of Asia on a very tight budget: a winning formula in an area packed with students.

With soup noodles and rice and noodle dishes starting at just £5 and more elaborate options such as bento boxes weighing in at around £8, Red Star is in no danger of breaking anyone's budget. Its comprehensive menu features classics from all over Asia such as chow mein, thai curries and yaki soba, with some less-common options appearing among the chalked-up specials. On a previous visit, the 'healthy choice' of spicy ma po tofu with steamed rice (£5) from this selection went down a treat. On my latest visit, though, it was all about the noodles.

Taking our place on the wooden bench, A and I noticed a young chap huffing and puffing over a bowl of presumably rather spicy soup. As we waited for our dishes to arrive, we watched him turn redder and redder in the face until he smacked his empty bowl down on the table in the manner of someone who's just won a long and embittered battle. Clutching his stomach, he announced his success to the waitress: he had just completed the 'chilli challenge' of eating said soup in thirty minutes. Given that he then repaired to the bathroom for almost thirty minutes, I don't think that's a gauntlet I'll be accepting anytime soon.

Around ten minutes after ordering, our safer choices of yasai yaki soba (£5) and beef ho fun (£5.50) arrived. Portions are generous, and I was particularly impressed with the high egg and vegetable content of my  noodles (beansprouts, courgette, onion, green & red peppers and sweetcorn) for the modest price. There was a definite soy taste, and a hint of ginger which could have been slightly more pronounced to add a little depth to the flavour. A declared his ho fun 'pleasantly greasy', and I had to concur: the stir-fried noodles are a little on the oily side, but not in a bad way. 'Light' isn't the word I'd use, but you definitely don't feel the need to atone for any dietary sins after eating.

Red Star's a definite winner in the price-quality ratio: a varied menu of tasty dishes and quick, efficient service make it worth a try if you're looking for a budget bite in the Cowley Road area. Oh, and chopstick-challenged types like myself will be happy to hear that forks are provided on request.

Verdict: 6

Red Star is at 187 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1UT.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Wine tasting at Chiltern Valley Winery

The idea of drinking English wine has never really appealed to me. There's got to be a reason the English countryside isn't covered in vines, I thought. And if we're not really a grape-producing country, the wine's going to taste pretty ropey, surely? After all, if English wine was good and marketable, surely there would be more of it around? After just five minutes at Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery near Hambleden, my dodgy reasoning was proven unfounded and I was ready to taste some English vino.

According to our knowledgeable but unpretentious former sommelier tour guide, grapes don't need a hot climate to grow in. When the owner of Chiltern Valley Winery, David Ealand, purchased Old Luxters Farm in the early 1980s, a survey of the land revealed that the soil was ideal for growing grapes or rhubarb. Crumble may be delicious, but it's not as profitable as the hard stuff, so David made the sensible choice and went into wine production. Three decades later, Chiltern Valley produce 120,000 bottles a year, have won over 600 awards around the world and even have a Royal Warrant - apparently Prince Philip enjoys a glass of their Old Windsor Ale with a pie. In addition to making white, red, sparkling, blush and rose wines, they also produce bottle-conditioned real ales and a range of liqueurs.

Tours of Chiltern Valley begin with a potted history of the company, which is still a family run operation, before moving on to a visit to the micro-brewery, wine press and bottling and labelling room. The entire production process happens on site, and 90% of the company's sales are made through the shop at Old Luxters - the only other stockists are Windsor Farm Shop and Fortnum & Mason.

Suitably informed about the beer- and wine-making processes, we headed into the shop for the real reason for everyone's visit: the tasting. Our guide had definitely whipped up plenty of enthusiasm for Chiltern Valley's wines, but would they live up to our now rather high expectations? We started with a dry white wine (£8.95): and dry it was. It was crisp and delicious. I have no idea about its floral bouquet or any of that malarkey (and nor were we fed any such information, although several of our fellow tourists were doing a lot of swirling and sniffing), I just know it tasted better than anything I've had in any of Oxford's pubs recently and that I bought a bottle at the end of the tour. The blush and rose were less impressive; one a little bitter and the other too sweet, but the medium dry white was another hit and the special cuvee very drinkable. The sparkling wine (£19.95) was the star: produced in the same method as champagne, it could certainly have taken on its French counterpart. The dessert wine, Autumn Glory, was similarly delicious. I passed on the two ales, but my tasting partner J informed me that they were excellent, so I'll take her word for it. Damson vodka (£17.50) was a surprise hit, as was the wild strawberry liqueur (£18.50). As soon as our guide mentioned pouring it over vanilla ice cream, J & I had to resist a strong urge to whip out our credit cards there and then. We finished strong: an Irish cream liqueur that made Baileys taste synthetic and pathetic. Chiltern Valley's Irish cream is almost indecently creamy, with a caramel taste that comes from the specially blended whiskey they use.

If you're looking for a day out with a difference and can find a designated driver willing to limit themselves to dainty sips (thanks J!), Chiltern Valley Winery is well worth a visit. Tours are interesting and informative, and the quality of the wines we sampled made me wish that English wines were far more widely available. I might just have to start drinking local.

Tours are £12.50 per person and must be booked in advance. The shop is open daily.

Sunday, 15 May 2011


I am a clumsy person. When it comes to hand to eye coordination, a one year old could probably teach me a thing or two. So eating with chopsticks was never going to come naturally to me. Caught up by the delicious-sounding dishes on Japanese restaurant Edamame's menu, I conveniently forgot to consider the difficulty of eating certain types of food with two wooden sticks, and managed to get myself in a bit of a mess. A tasty mess, but a mess nonetheless.

Apart from one experience of sushi several years ago which left me a little hungry, I hadn't tried any Japanese dishes before visiting Edamame. A one-room restaurant situated on Holywell Street, it offers 'Japanese home cooking', with sushi only available on Thursdays. Given Edamame's petite proportions and its popularity, it's a good idea to arrive early: 6pm may have seemed a tad keen, but when we left an hour later would-be diners were queuing out of the door. Earlybirds G and I had no such trouble, we were seated straight away on a little communal table. With its low ceilings and duck-egg blue walls, Edamame feels a little like someone's living room: relaxed and intimate.

The evening menu (available on Fridays and Saturdays) offers a choice of meat, fish and vegetable dishes (available either cooked in fish stock or vegetarian), as well as salads and side dishes. We ordered a portion of Edamame beans (podded green soy beans, £3) and some morokyu (cucumber sticks served with miso and Japanese plum pastes to dip, £3) to munch on while we waited for our mains. So far, so easy: no chopstick action was involved to polish either of these off. The cucumber sticks were well complemented by the nutty miso and sweet plum pastes, whetting our appetites for the main event. As I watched the couple sitting opposite us tucking in with their perfectly manipulated chopsticks, I started to question my choice of dish. Surely beansprouts and chopsticks were a match made in hell?

When my yasai tofu itame (vegetable stir fry of beansprouts, mange tout, baby corn, carrots and tofu cooked in fish stock, £6) and rice (£2) turned up, I bravely (but cackhandedly) got stuck in. Nobody else I could see had asked for a fork, so I was going to get this dish down my neck somehow. I can't say I exactly experienced chopstick enlightenment or ate particularly elegantly ('you have tofu on your lip', G informed me at one point), but it tasted so good that I ploughed on regardless: and half an hour later, I was done. I often find that stir fries can be oily, but this little number tasted light and fresh, slightly smoky and given substance by the tofu (a slippery customer when it comes to chopstick capture, by the way). The sticky rice was a good accompaniment, leaving me happily but not uncomfortably full. G's choice of Saturday's special, yaki niku beef (stir fry of thinly-sliced beef steak marinated in garlic, spices and sesame, £7.50) was so tasty it didn't hang around on his plate for long.

With fresh-tasting, high quality food on offer in a convivial environment, Edamame is well worth a try. I'd even put myself through a second chopstick trauma to sample more of the very reasonably-priced menu. Who knows, maybe it gets easier with practice?

Verdict: 9/10

Edamame is at 15 Holywell Street, OX1 3SA. No reservations. Check website for opening times and arrive early.

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