Saturday, 30 July 2011

Edamame: sushi night

When someone suggests eating a chunk of raw fish, you either smile or squirm. Until my visit to Edamame's sushi night, I was definitely in the latter camp. Although I'm a pescetarian whose range extends beyond cod and who isn't averse to grappling with a king prawn on occasion, the thought of tucking into uncooked salmon, tuna or even squid didn't exactly fill me with joy. But in the interest of research, I paid a second visit to Japanese restaurant Edamame on Thursday to sample their raw offerings.

Prior to this experience, the only types of sushi I could identify were sashimi (chunks of raw fish) and norimaki, commonly known as California rolls (tiny pieces of fish wrapped in rice and held together by an outside layer of dried seaweed). There was far more on offer than this, though: I let my sushi pro dining companions K, L and S talk me through the menu, and before long we had an array of beautifully-presented plates of nigiri (small  blocks of slightly sweetened sushi rice topped with salmon and tuna - we passed on the octopus and squid this time), gunkan (sushi rice rolled into little 'boats' wrapped in seaweed and topped with salmon and tuna with leeks, salmon eggs or avocado), temaki (also known as hand rolls: sushi rice rolled into small cones and filled with tuna and cucumber with mayonnaise, shredded cucumber or pickled daikon radish) and a special of spicy tuna rolls.



Spicy tuna rolls




Being more than a little inept with chopsticks, sushi posed another elegant eating difficulty, but the fact that it seemed acceptable to deposit whole pieces of maki in your mouth at once definitely helped. I started at the less scary end of the scale with a piece of tuna maki, but dipping it in the provided soy sauce, wasabi or ginger was a step too far for my clumsy mitts. Fortunately, it had just enough flavour by itself, which was more than I could say for my next choice, a piece of tuna ngiri. The salmon variety was topped with a small chunk of orange, infusing it with a delicious citrus taste and receiving particular praise from S, who had never seen it served this way in her former home city, sushi-loving London.

Sipping on my cup of rich-tasting miso soup, I pondered my next move. Suitably impressed with the taste of raw fish so far, I chose a spicy tuna roll and wasn't disappointed: there was no dipping or dunking required to produce a delicious depth of flavour, perfect for cack-handed individuals like myself. A Californian temaki (filled with tuna mayonnaise) seemed an easy bet, as the alternative name 'hand roll' implies that it's fine to get your paws involved. However, its dried seaweed wrapping was a little tougher than I anticipated: tasty, but not pretty. The avocado gunkan was a fish-free interlude (plenty of vegetarian sushi is available at Edamame) before my grand finale: a piece of salmon sashimi. Probably the most emblematic and the most intimidating style of sushi for novices to get to grips with, I understood the scariness of sashimi, but was pleased to discover it tasted rich with a smooth texture as opposed to slimy, as I feared. The quality of the fish is clearly high at Edamame, winning praise from my sushi pro friends.

So, sushi isn't so scary after all. In fact, it's pretty tasty. Light and fresh, sushi is ideal for a summer supper, especially accompanied with some miso soup and edamame beans. I can't say I'm a definite convert, but next time someone suggests sushi, I'll agree rather than making my excuses. And who knows, I may even pluck up the courage to try some squid next time.

You can listen to me talking about my experience of sushi and about other places to eat fish in Oxford on Jo Thoenes' show on BBC Radio Oxford on 29 July here.

Edamame is at 15 Holywell Street, OX1 3SA. Sushi night is every Thursday from 5 to 8.30pm. No reservations are accepted, and it's deservedly popular, so arriving early is advised.

Lovely photos copyright Sarah Haynes of The Pea's Kneas.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Stepping off St Clements, the revolving glass door deposits you on the deck of Fishers. When underwater creatures are on the menu, it's tempting to stray too far down the seafaring theme route, but Oxford's only independent fish restaurant has managed to avoid going overboard (couldn't resist) and opted for a subtle take on the theme. Striped tablecloths and a few strategically wall-mounted life rings give a nod to all things nautical, but the only area where the sea dominates is the menu.

The culinary offerings at Fishers change daily, making sure that what's on the menu is seasonal. In addition to very reasonably priced lunch and early dining offers, diners have a choice of 11 starters and 13 mains, encompassing all manners of pesceterian delights. Hot and cold shellfish platters are also available for seafood lovers with a decent dining budget (a hot platter for 2 is £42). For those concerned about the origins of their meal, Fishers supports sustainable fishing, and there was plenty of UK fish on offer on the night I visited. And although the food focus is firmly on creatures of the deep (as you would expect), there's always a vegetarian option and a meaty main course for those accompanying fish fans.

Eating a la carte hits the wallet significantly harder than the offers: but then I expected it to, as fish isn't exactly our country's cheapest commodity. Fish starters ranged from £5.50 for deep fried calamari to £8.50 for 6 Irish rock oysters, served with gherkins, white wine and shallot vinegar. Also on offer were a vegetarian soup, a tiger prawn, fennel and olive salad, grilled sardines and smoked haddock and mustard tart, among other options. Not feeling particularly flush, I skipped ahead to the mains.

Main courses at Fishers are largely a classic British affair, with a few more adventurous options such as the tasty-sounding bouillabaisse with pesto crouton, parmesan and rouille (£11.95) thrown into the mix. Tempted as I was by traditional haddock fish and chips in beer batter with mushy peas and gherkins (£11.50 - they sure seem to like their gherkins at Fishers), I branched out and opted for chargrilled swordfish steak with samphire grass and a tomato, caper and garlic dressing (£15.50). I could have told you what J would choose before we even saw the menu: as the person who taught me how to eat France's favourite mollusc properly on a holiday to Normandy, J is something of a mussel connoisseur. Sure enough, she ordered a kilo of River Fowey mussels in a white wine, garlic and shallot sauce. The majority of Fishers' dishes come with either chips or new potatoes, with side salads and seasonal vegetables available from £2.50.

While we waited, we polished off the basket of homemade bread provided free of charge. We didn't have long to chat over our glasses of wine: Tuesdays aren't exactly any restaurant's busiest night. Both our dishes were well-presented, with the silver pot the mussels were served in receiving particular praise from J.

Chargrilled swordfish with samphire grass

Kilo of mussels

I wasn't asked how I wanted the swordfish cooked, but at first bite it tasted medium: slightly pink on the inside, but not scarily so. The marinade was light and fresh, although the described 'dressing' was decidedly chunky - and all the better for it, as it added more substance to the dish. The samphire grass (a sea vegetable, in case you were wondering, as I was) was an excellent complement, adding to the dish's summery feel. As I neared the middle of my substantially-sized steak, it took a turn for the rare, which wasn't to my taste. On the plus side, the new potatoes were rich and buttery, and on the whole it was a simple and tasty take on swordfish.

J's mussels went down a treat: she rated them as high quality, with only one closed mussel in the kilo. They were plump and well cooked, the sauce adding flavour without overpowering the dish. Although she rated the taste of the chips, she did point out that they were the wrong style for mussels, which are usually served with skinny french fries rather than chunky chips.

With a wide variety of good quality fish dishes on offer, Fishers has rightfully secured its corner of the market. The choice and emphasis on seasonal and sustainably-fished dishes is commendable, but comes at a price. I'd like to return one weekend when there's hopefully a little more atmosphere - and when I've got a bit more cash to splash so that I can sample some of their starters too.

Rating 7/10

Fishers is at 36/37 St Clements, Oxford OX1 4AB. Tel: 01865 243003.

For more places to eat fish in Oxfordshire, please listen in to Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford at 1pm on Friday 29 July, when I'll be discussing this topic.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Girl eats Oxford hits the airwaves

It turns out I have a face for radio. Well, a voice at least. From 29th July until the end of the year, I'll be appearing on Jo Thoenes' afternoon show on BBC Radio Oxford one Friday lunchtime each month to discuss dining out in Oxfordshire. On each show, we'll be focusing on a particular theme, and aiming to explore options suitable for all budgets, as well as ways to recreate some of the dishes at home.

We're hoping to involve plenty of local restaurants - and local residents. If you'd like to suggest a theme or a place for me to eat, please get in touch with BBC Radio Oxford by phone on 08459 311444 or by text on 81333 (start your message with 'Oxford'). You can also contact me via the blog, or on Twitter @girleatsoxford. We'll be looking for people living in Oxfordshire who'd like to talk on air about their favourite restaurants related to each theme, so I'll keep you informed of upcoming topics and please get in touch if you'd like to comment. Your recommendations and participation are more important than ever to make this as interactive as possible, so please do keep your much-appreciated suggestions coming.

The theme for 29 July will be fish, so if you have any thoughts, comments or favourite fish restaurants and fish and chip shops, please drop me a line. And be sure to tune in to 95.2 FM from 1pm on 29 July. You can listen online here.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Rickety Press

Pubs just used to be pubs. Places you'd go in for a drink or two, maybe some unfussy British grub if you were hungry. How things have changed. Popping out for a pie and a pint is a complicated business nowadays. Do you favour a classic old man pub, a tarted up pub with fancy decor, or a pub so gastro it may as well be termed a restaurant? On most nights, you'll find me somewhere in the middle of this complex camp: I like a pub to be a place you can just dive into for a drink rather than somewhere you feel you have to dine to be welcome - and if you do wish to tuck in, you shouldn't have to book in. Some tasteful decor and friendly staff never go amiss, either. Fussy? Nah, not me.

The second Oxford offering from the team behind the successfully transformed Rusty Bicycle, the former Radcliffe Arms in Jericho has emerged from its scampi-and-sports ashes as The Rickety Press. With a smart yet relaxed interior featuring plenty of tastefully arranged books, navy and cream walls and a light-filled conservatory with fresh flowers on wooden tables, The Rickety Press falls on the gastro side of things, but is still very much a pub. So far, so up my street. Opened in May, there isn't yet a wine list, but staff happily talked us through the wines on offer, and the choice of real ales and cider was enough to satisfy all of our party. Thirst quenched, it was time for some sustenance.

Making our way into the conservatory, four menus were quickly rustled up. With a seasonal, daily changing menu featuring the best of British produce, The Rickety Press has its finger very much on the gastro pulse. On our visit, there were 5 starters and 6 mains on offer - just enough choice, but no difficult decision-making. In a nod to summer, I opted for gazpacho (£5) followed by the vegetarian main option, a less seasonal-sounding squash, feta, spinach and pine nut pithivier (pastry) with cauliflower puree (£11).

Starters arrived promptly and were dispatched with speedily: G's ham hock and pea salad with tarragon dressing, topped with a perfectly-cooked poached egg (£5) was a hit, with the oozing egg and the light-tasting dressing receiving particular praise. B (who I must point out has rather exacting standards) opted for the confit duck salad with mango and pomegranate (£6), a beautifully-presented summery starter. Receiving an almost record-setting 8.5 out of 10 from B, the smokiness of the duck contrasted excellently with the sweetness of the fruit, and the spring onions and herbs added to the fresh taste combination. My gazpacho (served with fresh bread) was also fresh tasting and light, with a slightly spicy aftertaste, but I have to say that it paled in comparison with the gazpacho I sampled in Seville last month. Made by a friend's mum and served from a plastic bottle, its presentation was decidedly less elegant than the Rickety Press version, but its flavour was spot on. The pub kitchen isn't fortunate enough to benefit from the help of Pedro's mother, but their interpretation was tasty nonetheless, if a bit thicker than the classic Spanish soup.

Ham hock salad

Confit duck salad


If the ham hock salad was well-received, G's main course of baked lemon sole fillets with new potatoes, brown shrimps and watercress (£13) was the culinary equivalent of Pippa Middleton: a surprise hit. As he pointed out, it's not exactly easy to make a stand-out dish out of fish, but The Rickety Press pulled it off - I should know, I couldn't resist having a nibble after G slipped into sole-induced rapture. Lightly breaded with a slightly crispy topping, the flaky fish was perfectly cooked and almost melted in the mouth, its buttery sauce adding a creamy touch without being at all heavy.

Lemon sole fillets - 10/10

Having passed on a starter, N tucked into the Rickety burger (£11), topped with cheddar and onion relish and served in a homemade seeded bun. It also came with sides of string chips and a dressed rocket and radish salad. N's not exactly an unfussy lady either, but she rated the burger an impressive 9: cooked medium as requested, the meat was excellent quality, well-complemented by the rich taste of the cheese and the homemade relish - just sweet enough but not overpowering. The string chips weren't remotely stringy; they were crisp, golden and a bit too popular with the rest of the table.

Rickety burger & string chips

B's chicken, leek and mushroom pie (£11) tasted 'properly homemade, like something your mum would make' (a generic mum rather than mine specifically, her forte is potatoes), with good quality chunks of chicken 'rather than old scraggly bits' (although she later found a small amount of gristle, she would like me to point out). The sprouting broccoli looked more green than purple, but was tasty nonetheless, and the mash also received high praise - no lumps here.

Chicken, leek and mushroom pie

My pithivier may not have looked like the most exciting dish of the bunch, but the dome of homemade puff pastry was filled with a beautiful combination of summery flavours. The classic pairing of creamy feta and spinach worked perfectly with the appetite-satisfying butternut squash.

Squash, feta & pine nut pithivier

In the name of research, N and I managed to find space for a chocolate fondant served with homemade vanilla ice cream (£5). Our admirable effort was rewarded: it was delicious, a puddle of dark melted chocolate oozing out of the spongy centre. I'm not ashamed to admit I almost fought N for the last bite.

With a laid-back, friendly atmosphere, young and helpful staff and a strong, well-priced menu, The Rickety Press deserves to be a success. The restaurant quality food was some of the best I've had in a while, but there's none of the pretension that sometimes accompanies the gastro tag. This is definitely still a pub. Let's hope it stays that way.

Rating: 9

The Rickety Press is at 67 Cranham Street, Jericho, OX2 6DS. Tel: 01865 424581.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Santorini (Kalamata)

 Update: As of 2012, Santorini has changed its name to Kalamata. Under the same management. See below for updated review.

If you're looking for the taste of summer on a plate, Santorini's your restaurant. Step off Cowley Road into its pillared confines and you might as well be on holiday. Although moussaka and meaty main dishes keep Greek food on the British radar during winter, its emphasis on ingredients such as feta cheese, peppers, rice, spinach and tomato mean that it really comes into its own during the excuse for an English summer that is June, July and August.

Shared food also seems much more tempting in the summer somehow, no doubt reminding me of sociable evenings in Seville, ordering plate after plate of tapas washed down with tinto de verano. On a warm evening in Santorini, the four of us decided to bypass the (excellent-sounding) mains and ordered 8 mezze, dipping into both the hot and cold sections of the menu. Assuming there was something missing from the listings, we requsted a certain chickpea-based dip from the waiter. 'We don't do houmous. We're Greek,' he announced, to our great puzzlement. In case you're interested, internet research informs me that houmous is actually Middle Eastern in origin, but no matter where it's from, it still goes down a treat as a pre-dinner nibble.

We stopped the minor houmous-related sulk as soon as the mezze arrived, though. Eight substantial portions and a basket of oil and oregano-dressed bread filled the table and had us diving for our cutlery ready to dig in.

The rice-filled vine leaves were perfectly divisible between our party of 4 and came on a bed of salad, topped with a healthy dollop of tzatziki, a refreshingly light yet creamy yoghurt, cucumber and mint dip. The sizeable helpings continued with the gigantes plaki, baked butter beans in a rich tomato, onion and parsley sauce with a touch of chilli, infusing the beans with flavour. Also full of flavour was the spanakotiropita (spinach and feta pie), its pastry thankfully avoiding the sogginess sometimes resulting from the cheese and spinach combination.

Cheese dishes are an excellent choice at Santorini, as the kefalotiri saganaki proved. Deep-fried halloumi-style cheese may not be the most artery-friendly option on the menu, but it was definitely delicious, oozing oil but maintaining that signature chewy taste. Cheese also popped up in the garides saganaki, a tasty confection of prawns and feta baked in a tomato, white wine, garlic and parsley sauce - and once again, the cheese made the dish, adding a perfect contrast to the prawns. The theme continued with gemista piperies, tiny red peppers stuffed with feta and chilli and providing a deceptively miniature morsels. We managed to control the cheese craving for our final options, the roasted aubergine and tomato delight that was melitzanes imam balidi, a garlicky, herby dish slow-cooked to perfection, and patates yahni, oven-roasted potatoes served in a tomato sauce with onion, garlic and olive oil.

Full of fresh tastes, this delicious spread may have filled us up, but I'm hungry for more of what Santorini has to offer. With meze ranging from £3 to £4.75 (and our meal for 4 with 2 glasses of wine and a 10% service charge adding up to just £47), Santorini's just as good value as a holiday restaurant, with friendly service and a homely atmosphere thrown in for good measure. What more could you want?

Rating: 8.5/10

Santorini is at 126 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JE. Tel: 01865 241260.

Update: I visited Kalamata in August 2012 and although the staff haven't changed, the menu has one important difference. Kalamata serves houmous. Interesting that a change of heart accompanies a change of name. I have to say I was far less impressed on my most recent visit: everything appeared too quickly and had a distinct feel of microwave. It's a shame as the food is still incredibly tasty, but inadequately reheated dishes aren't really good enough. We were also presented with bread we hadn't ordered and then charged for it. The waiter did remove the charge when we asked, but it added another sour note and meant that the 10% service charge really wasn't warranted. I'd be interested to know what experiences others have had there recently.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Al Shami

A residential Jericho sidestreet might not be the logical place to situate a Lebanese restaurant, but Al Shami's tucked-away location certainly hasn't done it any harm. Established in 1988, this smart but friendly place is a cut above the city's other Lebanese restaurants looks-wise: there are no gaudy window displays and shisha pipes on show here, just a ligh-filled room of traditional wooden furniture and white table cloths.

The menu begins with an extensive selection of meze (divided into hot and cold sections), with a selection of vegetarian and fish main courses and plenty of meaty numbers under the 'charcoal grill' heading. Although reasonably-priced vegetarian mains such as cracked wheat, lentils and fried onions served with yoghurt (£6.90) sounded interesting, there's nothing like a bit of variety, so we stuck with the meze.

As S had kindly agreed to renounce flesh for the evening, we opted for a dish of houmous and one of mohammara (a violently-coloured blend of crushed nuts red capiscum, olive oil and spices), a fattoush (mixed salad with herbs and toasted Lebanese bread), some fatayer sebanikh (pastries filled with spinach, onions, pine nuts and lemon juice), sanbousek biljibneh (feta-filled pastries) and some falafel. This may sound like more than two relatively small people could stomach, but given the delicious-sounding selection on the menu, it was a fairly restrained order.


Sipping a glass of Lebanese white wine as we waited, a platter of raw vegetables appeared in front of us. I'd call them crudites, but last time I checked, a whole green pepper and half a lettuce didn't fit into this category. An unusual addition to the table maybe, but an easy way to your five a day as long as you don't mind a bit of at-table chopping action.

Within a matter of minutes, the waiter whirled over with a tray of well-presented little dishes of vegetarian delights. All were a decent size for the price (between £2.50 and £3.50 each) - none of the thimble-sized portions so common in UK 'tapas' restaurants. The houmous was smooth and creamy and the mohammara just spicy enough; perfect smeared on chunks of fresh flatbread. An ideal summer dish, the fattoush was fresh and lemony tasting, with the crispy flakes of toasted bread adding substance. The falafel was a touch on the dry side for my taste, but slathered with houmous it was perfect. Both the pastries were surprisingly light and full of flavour - I thought that the fatayer may feel somewhat lacklustre without any cheese content, but the addition of pine nuts and lemon juice was definitely enough.

For just £28.50 for 2 people including 2 glasses of wine and a 10% service charge, our meal made me understand why Al Shami has been drawing customers to this corner of Jericho for over 20 years: it's a class act, without the hefty price tag.

Rating: 9

Al Shami is at 25 Walton Crescent, Oxford OX1 2JG. Tel: 01865 310066.
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