Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Magic Cafe

In many meat eaters’ minds, the word ‘vegetarian’ used to conjure up images of lettuce leaves and hunger, or bland platefuls of unsatisfying lentils and brown rice. When canvassing my male friends’ opinions on meat-free meals prior to my latest radio show, I was surprised to receive an open-minded, positive response: turns out it was me living in the past and taking a sexist stance on meaty meals, not them. Whether for economic or health reasons, more and more omnivores are choosing to forgo flesh on a regular basis, opting to base a higher number of their meals around vegetables. Even famous carnivore Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has recently experimented with eating an almost exclusively vegetarian diet with unexpectedly positive results: seasonal vegetables can be the stars of a dish rather than the supporting act.

With all this in mind, I finally visited the Magic Café for lunch. A bit of an East Oxford institution, the Magic Café serves breakfast, lunch, tea and cakes to an eclectic crowd including plenty of families no doubt enticed by its laid-back atmosphere and low prices. Surprisingly in a city like Oxford, there are only two exclusively vegetarian eating establishments to choose from, the Magic Café and the Gardeners’ Arms, both feeding residents’ meat-free needs for years. With a full menu of vegetarian and vegan breakfasts from £2.50 and daily lunch offerings from £3, the Magic Café currently only caters to hunger pangs during daylight hours, although this looks set to change with their first evening opening on 7 October.

Selection of salads

Visiting on a weekday lunchtime, offerings included a mixed vegetable vegan soup (£3), a pie of the day (Russian koulbiaka, £3.50), a selection of salads and a chickpea and apricot tagine (£5.70). S opted for a full plate of salad (£4), heaped with waldorf, Greek, cous cous and leaf varieties. Fresh, lively and filling, it was much tastier than a soggy supermarket sandwich for only a few pence more.


L’s koulbiaka met her high expectations: as a former resident of Russia, she was familiar with the traditional version of the dish, made with salmon rather than mozzarella. Also containing rice, egg, mushrooms and peas encased in pastry, it was a flavoursome and filling lunch. Served with herb-flecked cous cous, homemade houmous and pitta bread, my hearty tagine was a lovely autumnal dish: rich, packed with vegetables and with just a hint of apricot adding a subtle extra dimension of flavour. Combined with the extra accompaniments, it certainly kept me full for the rest of the day.

With its boho interior and unfussy but delicious vegetarian food, the Magic Café is definitely one of the old guard of vegetarian restaurants. No flash fixtures, no wacky creations on their menu: just a tried and tested formula which keeps customers happy (and with its plentiful portions, full). And with evening openings hopefully set to become a regular occurrence, a new chapter in their history may be just about to begin.

Verdict: 8

For more ideas on where to eat vegetarian food in Oxfordshire, you can listen to my appearance on Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford on 23 September here until 30 September.

The Magic Café is at 110 Magdalen Road. To book for Dodo’s Vegetarian Restaurant at the Magic Café on Friday 7 October (vegan and vegetarian options available), call 01865 794604.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Atomic Pizza has landed

It's not every day you get to dine with the Simpson family. On Tuesday 20 September, I and 129 other lucky golden ticket holders got to chow down with Marge, Homer and the kids (plus Gordon the gopher and Han Solo, among others) at the opening party of Atomic Pizza.

Given that the retro-themed joy that is Atomic Burger often has queues of eager would-be diners outside its door, it's little wonder that the team behind this Cowley Road institution decided to transform their former pizzeria (Fratellis) with the atomic touch. Located at number 247, it's just a shade too far down East Oxford's busiest street to attract much passing trade, and many restaurants might struggle in such a position. Somehow, I think Atomic Pizza will do just fine, if the enthusiasm at the launch party was anything to go by.

With a bigger canvas to play with, the owners have given their penchant for TV-themed nostalgia free rein: the Simpsons greet you by the door, Buffy pops up in a corner trying to make an emergency call from Dr Who's tardis, while Spiderman surveys the scene in the main dining room. With a lighter colour scheme, fun touches adorning over the walls and a black and white check floor, the feel is classic American diner.

And what about the food? I must admit, when I first checked out the menu I wasn't sure that some of the more inventive creations would work: after all, what tastes good on a burger might not make such a fantastic pizza topping. Rather than a traditional Italian feel, the starters hit an American note: nachos, buffalo wings and 'tater tots' as well as garlic bread and calamari rings. Die-hard Atomic fans will be glad to know that burgers also make an appearance on the menu, along with other non-pizza mains including a Philly cheese steak sandwich.

At the launch party, it was all about the stonebaked stuff, though. We positioned ourselves near the kitchen for maximum pizza potential. The first pizza out was a Tony Stark: steak, bacon, pepperoni and chicken on a mozzarella and tomato base. The verdict on this meat feast? Very tasty, B assured me. Also popular was the He-Man (barbecue pulled pork). I can vouch for the vegetarian offerings: the Popeye (spinach, goat's cheese, sun-dried tomato, red onion and olive) and the Dr Manhattan (blue cheese, artichoke, rocket and parmesan) were big hits with my tastebuds. I was somewhat sceptical about both the Hell Boy (refried beans, red onion, hot sauce and jalapenos) and the veggie Cheech and Chong (veggie chilli, nachos and jalapenos), but both were far less strange than I expected, with an interesting and memorable flavour. I can see crisps on a pizza being a big hit with the more youthful customers, but I think I'll stick with the Dr Manhattan.

If you're familiar with Atomic Burger, you'll have heard of the Godzilla Challenge: 60 minutes to consume an obscene amount of obscenely spicy food. As expected, the challenge has extended to Atomic Pizza, and we were 'fortunate' enough to be among the first to try this hellishly hot creation. With their secret recipe Godzilla sauce and plenty of jalapenos, it looked inocuous enough, but after 2 bites my lips and the roof of my mouth would have happily welcomed a visit from the fire brigade. Some might like it hot, but I think my limit's a Hell Boy.

With a choice of bases (thin, thick or calzone style - I preferred the lovely, light and crisp thin base) and enough toppings to keep even the most adventurous diners happy, there's something for everyone on the menu. Vegetarians are well catered for, and gluten free pizza bases are also available. With the same fun atmosphere as Atomic Burger and a varied, competitively priced menu (all pizzas are under £10), I think the Atomic team are on to another winner. I can't wait to pop back for another Dr Manhattan with the Simpsons.

Atomic Pizza is at 247 Cowley Road. Tel: 01865 248200.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Nosebag

If you want to grab something to eat on the go in central Oxford, your options are almost limitless. Gourmet sandwich chains, supermarkets and independent coffee shops all cater to our hurried needs. But what if you're looking for a quick sit-down lunch or even (gasp) a rapid bite to eat in the evening? There are times when we just don't want the rigmarole of restaurant dining: being seated by a waiter, perusing the menu, ordering, waiting. At The Nosebag, there's none of that: just hearty, home-cooked food served up quickly without any fuss.

As that description suggests, there aren't any frills and fripperies involved in dining at The Nosebag. An inviting if old-fashioned wood-pannelled cafe on St Michael's Street, it's located above the Makan La Malaysian restaurant and run by the same owners. Offering a wide selection of reasonably-priced salads, baked potatoes and soups, The Nosebag also has lunch and evening menus of more substantial fare. Options are chalked-up above the salad bar and orders are placed and paid for at the counter.

A Friday evening may not be the most typical time to visit, but there were a few other customers enjoying main courses, soups or just cups of tea during the evening. With 5 meat and 5 vegetarian dishes on offer as well as the lighter options, both carnivores and herbivores are well catered for. After some debate (quite a novel experience for me, having 5 choices), I plumped for the green vegetable and taleggio risotto with rocket, while M chose the massaman curry (both £9.40).

After a short wait, two laden plates appeared in front of us: the rumours of stomach-defeating portions seemed to be true. For less hungry customers, one meal between two would suffice.

Green vegetable and taleggio risotto

The advertised 'green vegetables' in my risotto were asparagus, courgette and peas, but there was no rocket to be seen. The rice was unusual, thick and soft, quite unlike normal risotto rice. I have to say there wasn't really much flavour until I prodded at the chunks of cheese to melt them into the rice: without the addition of some tasty dairy, the risotto was rather bland. Add in the taleggio however, and it was goregously creamy. Ah, the powers of cheese.

Massaman curry
M's massaman curry definitely wasn't lacking in flavour: featuring sweet potato, cauliflower and chickpeas, it was well-seasoned, hearty and full of cardamom. So full, in fact, that a bit of pod-dodging was required. A minor gripe though: it was tasty and filling.

Apparently The Nosebag's cakes are delicious (and also served in gigantic portions), but for the sake of my waistline I abstained, although a mere £1.90 for their famed pear crumble cake was certainly tempting.

If you're looking for unfussy, quick and filling food in the town centre at any time of day, The Nosebag is well worth considering. It may not have the fanciest setting or the most elaborate of menus, but it will have something to satisfy most appetites and budgets. The main courses are perhaps a little on the steep side, but I suppose that's what comes of having such a prime location.

Verdict: 6/10

I'll be discussing more vegetarian-friendly places to eat on BBC Radio Oxford on 23 September from 1pm.

The Nosebag is at 6-8 St Michael's Street, OX1 2DU. Tel: 01865 721033.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Harvest festival: Alex James presents cheese and cheesy tunes

A weekend of tasty food and live music in the open air, so close to home I don't have to rough it in a tent? What's not to love? When I heard that Harvest were bringing the festival formula they've successfully employed at Jimmy's Farm in Suffolk for a couple of years to Oxfordshire, I was keen to snap up a ticket. Set on ex-Blur-bassist-turned-cheese-'empresario' Alex James's land in Kingham, Harvest promised a weekend of household names of both the culinary and musical varieties, along with enough good grub to satisfy even the most discerning palates. And camping was strictly optional.

After much debate, Sarah of The Peas Kneas and I decided we preferred Sunday's line-up: not because of the usual festival criterion of who's playing live, but for who was cooking live. Yes, we chose Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Mark Hix and Rachel Allen over The Kooks (and sadly Ottolenghi: what was I thinking?) and parted with £45 for a day ticket. A day out on Mr James's 200-acre farm certainly doesn't come cheap.

On arrival, we were surprised at the festival's size: I'm not dissing the size of AJ's estate (nor the sprawl of his be-chimneyed country pile either, for that matter), but we'd both expected rather more in the way of stalls to peruse. The family area and big top wasn't of much interest to two childless twentysomethings (although the helter skelter did appeal), but we were hoping to sample plenty of local produce. Surprisingly, there was actually far more in the way of take-home treats and culinary tools on offer at the Oxford Foodies festival in August. Our appetites were well-provided for by the likes of London tapas bar Salt Yard, pop-up restaurateurs the Salad Club, a marquee of Mark Hix creations and a 'Chef's Table' tent offering dishes dreamed up by the chefs topping the bill. These culinary maestros graced a smaller stage equipped with a kitchen, while the musical entertainment took place on the main stage.

The food

Gooey not glam
Entering into the spirit of things, the first morsel to pass our lips was a delicious Cotswold rarebit from cheesemakers Paxton & Whitfield: made with local bread, cheese and cider, it was a gooey, (slightly) greasy and flavoursome treat for the modest price of £2.50. At £3 for some Alex James Presents cheese 'blankets' on white Warburtons toast, it was an easy choice to make. Although Alex's three artisan cheeses received some acclaim (and Farleigh Wallop won best goats cheese in 2008), the muso seems to be aiming at the convenience end of the market these days, with a new range on Asda shelves now.

 Although the rarebit put up a good fight, the real foodie highlight was our cookery class with Daylesford Farm. With a choice of 4 dishes to recreate under the expert tuition of Raymond Blanc-trained head chef Vladimir, we opted for pistou soup: a light, summery broth filled with seasonal vegetables grown at Daylesford, garnished with a garlicky French pistou (like the Italian pesto but minus the parmesan and pine nuts). We joined ten other would-be chefs for the hour-long workshop in a portakabin kitted out with 6 state-of-the-art work-stations, and before long my arm was aching from pulverising the fragrant basil with the heaviest pestle known to man. 'The first tool ever invented', enthused Vladimir. I was feeling distinctly less enthusiastic, but the knife skills we learned won me over. As the chunk currently missing from my left thumb will testify, I'm not the most skilled of choppers, but I can now slice an onion, julienne a carrot and chiffonade some basil with the best of them. I may finish ten minutes behind them, but all my digits are intact.

An uncharacteristically domestic moment

Vegetables all chopped, we set about frying them on a high heat and then made the broth. Our bubbling pans yielded takeaway bowls of September delight: carrots, onion, romanesco and, to my woe, fennel and celery, some tiny cherry tomatoes thrown into the mix at the last minute. The pistou added punch, and the accompanying cheddar on sourdough toast added a naughty but nice element to such a healthy dish. We took the fruits of our labours out into the sunshine to enjoy, feeling justifiably proud of our tasty creations.

With Daylesford chef Vladimir

Pistou soup: the finished article

Although satsfied by our soups (and yet more cheese on toast), during the course of the day we managed to much our way through a Dutch triple chocolate pancake (S), summer vegetable tacos from Wahaca (me) and cake from local bookshop Jaffe and Neale, all washed down with cup after cup of tea given the cold wind whipping over Mr James's land.

Vegetable tacos

 Although our hunger was appeased and we enjoyed some good food, I would have liked to see more local and independent stallholders, rather than a dominance of London-based restaurants. Oh, and some more budget-friendly options wouldn't go amiss either, given the ticket price. Take note for next year, Harvest.

The chefs

Cooking up a storm on stage and whipping the crowd into a similar frenzy requires some skill. Talking an audience through the food preparation process doesn't sound riveting in theory, but the popularity of TV chefs testifies to the fact that they manage to make it watchable. Seeing chefs live on stage at Harvest made me realise that personality is key to engaging with a festival crowd: most of them can't see what's being prepared close enough to find it enthralling, even on the big screen projection, and unless you're one of the lucky folks with a prime stage-side position, you won't be tasting any of it either.

TV chef Valentine Warner's menu of venison and something or other featuring whelks and razor clams was so inaccessible as to be dull; we wandered off half-way through. Mark Hix and Alex James suffered a similar fate: they appeared to be having microphone trouble, as they were barely audible. Surprise of the day was Rachel Allen: although I own one of her books, I've never seen any of her shows, so pitched up with minimal expectations. Relaxed and chatty (no doubt helped by the booze she confessed to have consumed during the day), Rachel was warm and engaging as she cooked her way through a soda foccacia with olives and red onions (so tempting that S is attempting to recreate it tonight), mackerel with panzanella and a strawberry and white chocolate tiramisu. Down to earth and skilled at describing the cooking process with a touch of humour, Rachel was a joy to watch - and the only chef whose slot we sat the whole way through.

On-stage cheffing

To my surprise, 'headline act' Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall came across as slightly arrogant and on a mission to plug his new vegetarian cookery book. In what seemed like an elaborate marketing ploy, he's been cutting out meat and aiming to discover the joys of a vegetable-based diet for the past few months. Plenty of people do this, but most don't take Hugh's sanctimonious approach and hector others; nor do they act so smugly self-satisfied about it. Before we exited to watch The Feeling, he prepared a hearty bean soup and a blood orange and cabbage salad with a tahini dressing.

And as for the big cheese himself, when we came face to face Alex James turned out not to be a man of many words. He happily posed for a photo with S: fortunately she refrained from telling him that his cheese blankets didn't taste any different from other supermarket offerings. And most supermarkets don't make salad cream flavour cheese, either. Rock and roll, AJ.

Alex James presents... his new friend Sarah

The music

Sunday was a bit lacking in big names, and most of the local bands we could hear sounded a bit screechy for our liking. We chose to sit down in the sun with a cider just as Will and the People sat down, and we were very glad we did: playing perfect feel-good festival music, we were soon grooving to their ska-influenced Lion in the Morning Sun and singing along to Salamander. Their groupies certainly shifted a fair few CDs that afternoon. The Futureheads seemingly cancelled, as Sara Cox was pulled out of nowhere to DJ, followed by Jo Whiley. The Feeling got everyone up and dancing, but we were too cold and tired out by all that country air to stick around for headline act KT Tunstall.

The Feeling

 All in all, Harvest was a fun day out, but didn't have enough on offer to justify the price tag - particularly where music was concerned. Perhaps we picked the wrong day, but even so, I think there's room for improvement for next year. Add in a few more big name acts and keep a constant presence on the main stage, find some more chefs with Rachel Allen's warmth, mix in a few more local producers selling their wares and drop the ticket price, and I may consider returning to my mate AJ's abode.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Moving Teashop at East Oxford Farmers' Market

Perched on a child-sized chair in the arts and crafts room, sipping from a dainty cup of tea, I felt like a schoolgirl playing house. East Oxford Primary School might not be your usual Saturday morning brunch venue, but after my visit to The Moving Teashop at East Oxford Farmers' and Community Market, it might soon become a regular fixture in my calendar.

Every Saturday morning since 2006, the market has been selling produce sourced from within 30 miles of Oxford, in addition to books, clothing and crafts. With a rotation of stalls, shoppers can pick up daily essentials from fresh bread to fruit and vegetables to meat. On my first visit, the stalls filling the school hall included takeaway sushi, fruit and veg, locally-reared veal, homemade cakes and artisan breads and tarts. More local than I realised possible, Tiddly Pommes apple juice is made from fruit grown in East Oxford. With the varieties on offer changing with the seasons, owner Rupert offers tastings of the different blends. Completely unlike the sugary, synthetic supermarket stuff, these juices were complex and delicious, and despite not usually being an apple juice fan, I took home a £3 bottle of the East Oxford 'Discovery' blend, made from fruit grown in a garden in Iffley. There's something incredibly appealing about buying produce from your own postcode area, especially when it tastes far better than anything the chains have to offer.

For those looking to satisfy their hunger immediately as well as for ingredients to prepare at home, there's a weekly cafe located in the school's arts and crafts room. Different groups take charge of the kitchen area each week, but one of the most frequent hosts of this corner of the market is The Moving Teashop. Run by two sisters, one a Leiths-trained chef and the other a baking and tea aficionado, The Moving Teashop serves up tempting brunch dishes washed down with cups of their own blend of tea (a mixture of English breakfast and Earl Grey), sipped from vintage china teacups.

On our visit, options included Boycott Farm ham and potato hash with a fried egg (£5) and mushrooms with cream, lemon and garlic on sourdough toast (£4). I opted for herb and spinach pancakes with lime butter, sweetcorn salad and roasted tomato sauce (£4.50), while C chose a slice of the butternut squash, pine nut and feta tart with salad (£3.50). Cups of tea (£1 including free refills) in hand, we took a seat at a child-height communal table. Couples, families and ladies who brunch did likewise, leafing through copies of the Saturday papers as they tucked into their food. Despite the presence of the papers and the retro floral tablecloths, C and I couldn't shake the feeling we were back at school. Surrounded by arts and crafts projects, it was like taking a step back to our childhoods.

School dinners certainly never tasted this good. My pancakes were light, fluffy and full of flavour. They aren't something I'd usually allow into my mental 'healthy' category, but these spinach-packed pancakes tasted nutritious rather than artery-clogging. The lime butter was unusual and tasty, adding an extra dimension, while the roasted tomato sauce and sweetcorn salad were ideal complements.

Herb and spinach pancakes
Squash and feta tart

C's tart was another success: a classic combination of autumn flavours, the pine nuts added extra crunch. Also on offer were a selection of delicious-looking cakes, including a traditional Victoria sponge with homemade raspberry and strawberry jam but we'd had our fill for the day: sweet treats will have to wait for next time.

With a variety of seasonal, tasty brunch options prepared before your eyes and the chance to drink tea from vintage china, The Moving Teashop is a winner in my eyes. The unusual venue only adds to the attraction, as does the fact that you're supporting a local venture and eating local produce rather than frequenting a restaurant chain. Other regular cafes include the Pop Up Cafe run by Kim and Ingrid and the market cafe run by Martha and John, which uses vegetables grown on their allotment, so I'll have to return to see what they have to offer. If you live in Oxford, the market is well worth a visit - and if you go with an appetite, so much the better.

Verdict: 9/10

East Oxford Farmers' Market is at East Oxford Primary School, behind Cowley Road Tesco, and runs from 10am to 1pm each Saturday. Click here for details of their stalls. The Moving Teashop will return on 1st October.

Sunday, 4 September 2011


The two glasses of champagne on the table should have been a giveaway, but it was actually the suit that did it. When my friend D called to say he was back in Oxford and asked me to meet him at Quod on bank holiday Monday, I was pleasantly surprised. When I arrived to find him smartly clad and elated, I knew something was afoot. And I was right: his four years of hard work had paid off and my very clever friend had just been awarded his doctorate. Wonderful news absorbed and champagne in hand, surely nothing could spoil my lunch.

Self-promoted as 'the busiest brasserie and bar in Oxford', Quod is a bit of a High Street institution: all gloss and chrome, it's true that it's usually bustling with tourists and locals alike, drawn by its atmosphere and sleek good looks as well as its menu. I must admit that since a brush with a main course portion of ravioli featuring a mere nine parcels of pasta (£1 per spinach-stuffed sheet) many years ago, I haven't been Quod's biggest fan. But on a day like this, I was willing to give them a chance.

As it was a bank holiday, the £11.95 two course menu wasn't on offer, so we perused the selection of modern British/European brasserie fare, from seasonal dishes such as fennel, cucumber and dill salad (£5.50) and roast chicken breast with courgette and saffron risotto (£13.95) to burgers, pasta and some interesting-sounding pizzas (including courgette, broad bean and spinach with lemon and pecorino). Avoiding the £11.95 artichoke ravioli, I opted for a starter of gazpacho (£5.95), while D went for the steak tartare (£7.95).

Steak tartare

The idea of raw meat may be completely alien to me, but D's quite the fan of uncooked flesh, and as a chap with high standards I was happy to believe his assessment of the beautifully-presented dish as an eight out of ten. Topped with a quail's egg still sitting in a half shell, the patty of beef came with tomatoes and cucumbers already blended into the mixture: apparently this isn't usual and D prefers to mix in the vegetables himself, but the quality and taste of the well-seasoned meat made up for it.


I should have known better than to order gazpacho. After sampling heaven in a bottle thanks to Pedro's mum, chilled blended vegetables will never taste as good again. I can only assume Quod's blender was on the blink though, as I received a dish of cold chunky vegetables with two cubes of ice nestling on top of them. I have been presented with 'rustic'-style gazpacho in the UK before, but the ice cubes in a £5.95 portion served in a restaurant of this ilk was just plain lazy. Unfortunately, the tomato, cucumber and pepper mush didn't improve on tasting; it was under-seasoned and far too chewy. My jaw didn't get such a workout with Pedro's mum's gazpacho, that's all I'm saying.

Seafood risotto

My main course of risotto of the day (an interesting idea, especially if most of them are vegetarian, thus sidestepping the wild mushroom trap) improved matters somewhat. Seafood-based, I wasn't quite sure of the exact ingredients given the volume at which the waitress whispered its existence to us, but I detected prawns, clams and possibly mullet. Just creamy enough, the rice was perfectly cooked and the flavour of the fish was subtle rather than overpowering. I chose the smaller portion, which was just enough following a starter.

Spaghetti bolognaise

'School dinner', I said when D's plate of spaghetti bolognaise (another special, chosen in honour of his impending move to Italy) slid onto the table. 'If the steak tartare got an eight for presentation, this is a two', he agreed. A bowlful of pasta topped with what seemed to be a mere ladleful of sauce, this dish was a letdown: although the taste was OK, the pasta-to-sauce ratio was completely imbalanced.

I was right that nothing could spoil my lunch, although the gazpacho certainly tried. Underwhelmed once again by Quod, I was too overwhelmed by D's good news to care. I can't say I'll be rushing back: although the risotto was tasty and enjoyable, a sense of trading on their reputation prevailed. And when you're serving iced gazpacho, it's time to question whether that reputation can be maintained.

Verdict: 6/10

Quod is at 92-94 High Street, Oxford OX1 4BJ. Tel: 01865 202505.
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