Saturday, 26 November 2011


Any Oxford resident who likes their grub will have heard of Oxfork by now. Unless you're a Twitterphobe with selective deafness when it comes to word of mouth, you'll no doubt know that the former pop-up restaurant converted 39 Magdalen Road into a café over summer, firmly cementing this corner of East Oxford as the city's new go-to gastro destination.

Tellingly, the hype behind the venture wasn't generated by those behind Oxfork, but largely by those excited by the prospect of a cosy but chic café serving well-prepared seasonal dishes sourced from local suppliers. Trendy East Oxford types may like to shop and eat local, but if they can do so in a quirkily-decorated, relaxed venue, so much the better.

Visiting on its opening weekend, it was clear that the hype had worked: by the time I turned up on Saturday lunchtime, the demand-supply balance was looking a bit precarious. The cheery staff were rolling with it admirably though; one of the chefs even delivered our order and apologized for the delay. Oxfork's brunches and lunches were clearly in demand.

Although I love the idea of brunch, as a vegetarian who used to pretend to be allergic to eggs as a child, such was my hatred of them, the options available often leave me a little cold. Thankfully for me, although Oxfork's menu is an egg-lover's delight (benedict, royale, scrambled, poached, in a sandwich...), there are a number of other choices for the less enamoured: a vegetarian breakfast, a variety of treats on toast and porridge. And as brunchtime runs into lunchtime (no noon cut off point here), I was also able to pick from the daily lunch menu. From the short selection of dishes chalked on the board, I opted for the potato and thyme soup with wild mushrooms (£4), while S went for eggs florentine (£7.50). Perusing the menu, I was struck by the price of the egg dishes: £7.50 seems pretty steep, especially when you consider that the Oxfork breakfast (sausage, bacon, fried egg, beans, slow-roast tomato, mushrooms and sourdough bread) is the same price. Still, there's no denying the quality of the ingredients: all the eggs used are free-range, sourced from a farm near Witney.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Burford Garden Company

The beginning of winter may not seem the most logical time to visit a garden centre. But then again, Liz Hurley's garden centre of choice* isn't your average retailer of hardy perennials, connifers and compost. Burford Garden Company is a purveyor of the very finest plants and other paraphernalia to the Cotswold set. There's much more than gardening goods here; works of art, glamorous gifts, homewares, Christmas decorations and delicatessen delicacies are also on offer. Tucked away next to the rows of kitchen gadgets, premium olive oils and perfectly-packaged boxes of biscuits is my reason for visiting Burford: the café.

With its high glass ceiling and industrial steel touches, the Burford Café is reminiscent of a greenhouse. There's no roughing it among gro-bags of tomatoes, though: smoothly-sanded wooden tables dot the space, which is adorned with works by local artists. A live piano player tinkles away in the background. As you would expect, the classy touch extends to their edible offerings: on my visit, the daily-changing hot lunch options included venison and red wine pie (£10) and a red onion tarte tatin with Cotswold brie (£7.50). Also on offer are a choice of meat and vegetarian soups, served with homemade sourdough bread (£5), salads and sandwiches. Children are well catered for with cute little lunch packs – and a separate café all of their own, the brightly-decorated Little Burford Café, full of fun features for kids. Produce is local, seasonal and Fairtrade as far as possible, prepared under the expert supervision of former Daylesford Organic chef Diarmuid Rogan. Sweet treats promise to be tasty, too: the man in charge of your sugar rush trained at Oxford's Maison Blanc.

Salad plate

Mushroom and tarragon soup

M and I chose to share a hearty-looking salad plate (£6 for your choice from 4 vegetarian salads and a leaf salad, served with bread) and a mushroom and tarragon soup. Salads are serve yourself; the perfect excuse to pile our plate high with bulgur wheat with vegetables and herbs; cucumber, poppy seed and chilli; butternut squah, caramelized onion, goat's cheese and green bean, and marinated courgette and chickpea. All four complemented each other well, their robust, autumnal flavours healthy and fresh but still satisfying. The soup was creamy but with just enough 'body' to make it filling, the hint of tarragon lifting the mushroom taste. Burford's homemade sourdough bread was another winner: perfectly chewy yet light.

Friday, 11 November 2011

La Cucina

Nowhere in Oxford divides opinion like La Cucina. Having heard everything from raves to rubbishing (with a bit of indifference in between), I decided it was time to check out one of the city's most talked about Italian restaurants.

After two of my foodie friends revealed they'd both been impressed by La Cucina, my expectations were pretty high. And the pressure was on: after meeting fellow writers Katy and Krista on the Travel Belles trip to Italy in September, I decided an Italian restaurant was the ideal venue for our recent Oxford get-together. If Oxford's offerings couldn't compare to the feast we had over several days in Vogogna, my neck would be on the line.

Stepping inside, I was reassured to see that the restaurant was already reasonably busy despite it being early on a Wednesday evening. The interior is smart with a few rustic touches: varnished wooden tables with a few decorative items such as copper pans brightening up the dining area, which extends beyond the bar into a larger room.  We were greeted and seated by a friendly waitress, who talked us through the numerous specials.

The main menu reads like a list of Italian home-cooking at its best. First up are plenty of tempting-sounding starters (such as funghi con scamorza; baked field mushrooms topped with smoked cheese and herby breadcrumbs, £5.95) and salads available in either starter or main course portions (£2.50 supplement). Pastas and pizzas (cooked in the wood-fired oven) are both reasonably priced: just £6.95 for the cheapest pasta dish and £5.95 for a margherita. It didn't sound like there would be any compromise on the ingredients, though, with options including pappardelle with a rich duck and red wine sauce and pizza topped with asparagus and a free-range egg all stimulating our appetites. In addition to these wheat-based mains, there are a number of risottos on offer, as well as a selection of meat and fish dishes. More unusually for Oxford, pizze bianche (white pizzas) also feature on La Cucina's menu. They may lack the usual tomato topping, but promise to pack a punch with toppings including goat's cheese, sundried tomatoes, spinach and red onion.

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