Friday, 30 December 2011

My mission: 3 months to go

When I began my Girl Eats Oxford project in April 2011, the idea of eating in and reviewing one Oxford establishment per week seemed doable. Daunting, but also doable. In many ways, my first naive thought was right: it's certainly possible to dine out once every 7 days, but finding the time to review is sometimes tougher. This isn't the real challenge, though. The problem is that by the end of March I'll only have scratched the surface of Oxford's restaurant scene.

This came as something of a surprise. As the city is frequently labelled a 'culinary desert', I had an ill-considered idea that it would be possible to review the majority of the restaurants worth visiting in 12 months. How wrong I was. Nine months in, I've eaten at around 40 different establishments - with much better results than you'd expect of a gastronomic wasteland. So far, so good. But the list of recommendations still to visit numbers over 40.

Will I continue my project for another year? I thought I'd let you decide: if you're keen to keep reading, please leave a comment below or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook. Whatever happens, I've decided to celebrate the end of the year with a dinner at the top-scoring restaurant of the project. So far, the only perfect 10 has been awarded to The Ball Green Door supper club, but with the chef currently away and its future uncertain, there's everything to play for. Please keep your suggestions coming, as comments, emails, Tweets or Facebook posts. And if you'd like to join me for dinner at the end of March, please email me your details.

The Ball Green Door may have scooped the top score so far, but I've discovered plenty of other favourites. For the most part, my top picks from my six-month anniversary still apply: Santorini, Al Shami and the Magic Cafe remain some of my most enjoyable experiences. Since September, I've also had excellent experiences at Oxfork, La Cucina and No1 Folly Bridge.

Who knows what else I'll discover in the final 3 months of my mission? For January, I'll be focusing on budget eats, with the results revealed on BBC Radio Oxford on 10 February. Following reader suggestions, I'll also be trying out more cafes, date-friendly restaurants and family-friendly spots. As ever, if you have any suggestions for me, let me know!

Thanks for reading and happy new year.

Monday, 26 December 2011


Although Cowley Road is far from lacking in Indian restaurants, Malikas was the first to tempt me through its doors. Formerly Jaipur, the revamped restaurant opened in August. As far as I can tell, the management team is the same: the name may have changed and the interior and menu been overhauled, but Jaipur fans needn't fear too much change.

On arrival, L and I were struck by both the smart appearance (modern leather chairs, linen tablecloths and tasteful low-lighting) and the polite friendliness of the waiters. On a pre-Christmas Monday night, Malikas was half-full yet calm: not so quiet we felt the need to whisper awkwardly, as sometimes happens on the first night of the working week, but pleasantly relaxed. Put simply, the ambience was spot on.

The menu at Malikas is extensive without being overwhelming, with vegetarians well catered-for. Starters range from £3 to £5, with classics including a lamb sheek kebab and a range of samosas, and more interesting options such as dahi wada (lentil cakes with spicy yoghurt and tamarind sauce). The chef's special section starts at £6.50 and offers meat and fish dishes including murgh nawabi, a whole chicken breast stuffed with medium-spiced mincemeat). The rest of the menu reads much as you'd expect it to: a selection of biryanis, kormas, bhunas and more, plus fish and vegetarian sections and side dishes.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Oxford Blue

Having a man attempt to attach a carpet to the wall behind your head isn't exactly a typical Sunday lunch experience. But then again, not much about the experience of dining at a new establishment is typical. Based on this little incident at the Oxford Blue, I'm quite happy about that.

The former sports pub just off the Iffley Road has been taken over by the team formerly behind Bottega in Jericho and transformed into a chic but cosy spot for a drink and a bite to eat. With white walls and a few interesting decorative touches, it's inviting but still remains within the 'pub' realm. The wine savvy of the management team is evident on the menu, though: each dish is paired with a wine chosen from their list. With tipples including Spanish whites and Portuguese and Hungarian reds, it's an interesting selection – picking up exactly where Bottega left off. Prices are fair given the quality and wide range, but a touch steep for the area, with house wine £4 a glass (i.e. 50p more than in the lovely Rusty nearby).

The menu sticks to more familiar territory, with chef Mark Bradbury (formerly of Smiths of Smithfield and Branca, among other restaurants) cooking up modern British dishes with a gastro twist: the 'Bannister burger' (£10.95), Korean barbecue lamb with kale and baked smoked haddock with cream, spinach, cheese and a poached egg (both £14) feature among the 6 main courses. Mains are reasonably priced, but the starter selection is on the expensive side, with dishes from £5–7.50. Sides aren't included, adding to the bill by a further £2.75. The menu itself features an interesting reverse side, full of facts 'Oxford blue'-related facts: a nice touch.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Christmas at No1 Folly Bridge

Turkey, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, parsnips, stuffing, gravy, looseing a notch on your belt. For most Brits, the phrase 'Christmas dinner' conjures up all these images. Christmas is definitely a time when diets are relaxed and indulgence rules. In the build-up to the main festivities, it's likely you'll eat more than one Christmas meal with work colleagues or friends. And with the majority of Oxford restaurants offering festive set menus, you're spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing where to tuck into your turkey. But what if you're looking for something less traditional? If you can only face the full turkey and trimmings once over the festive period but still want to keep things festive, try No1 Folly Bridge.

With a prime riverside location, this new brasserie no doubt comes into its own during the warmer months, when the terrace opens up. However, it's also a lovely spot for dinner at any time of year, with its white walls, light wood furniture and candlelit alcoves. The main menu changes with the seasons, offering well-priced French-influenced meat and fish dishes (such as swordfish steak, £12.75) along with a selection of stone-baked pizzas. The Christmas menu offers even better value, though: 3 courses for just £19.95. With 4 options for each course, we weren't limited on choice, but at such a good price, would the dishes deliver?

A, N and I greedily sampled one of everything on No1 Folly Bridge's Christmas menu, starting with baked goat's cheese salad, a salmon and prawn tartlet, parsnip and celeriac soup and a ham hock and game terrine. I admit I wouldn't usually opt for soup as a starter, but a taste of this creamy, subtle yet rich tasting parsnip and celeriac number had me rethinking my ideas. Notoriously fussy N also loved it, but preferred the terrine: both my carnivorous companions said that it was a real meat lover's dish, densely packed with good quality meat, and offset well by a cranberry relish.

Badly photographed salmon and prawn tartlet

Thursday, 1 December 2011

On location: The Vaults, Birmingham

Being a food blogger is great fun and all, but there's no denying it's punishing to the pocket. Being a food critic for a publication doesn't just lend kudos to a review, it's also decidedly more wallet-friendly. So when I saw that daily email Emerald Street were looking for food critics to celebrate the 100th issue of their sister publication Stylist, I sent my 90 word sample review in slightly less quickly than you could say 'free dinner'. But only slightly.

Luckily for me and my wallet, Emerald Street chose me as one of their five reviewers, and a few weeks ago I visited The Vaults in Birmingham for an evening of 'VIP treatment'. I roped in my trusty friend N and we hopped on the train, ready to make the most of our three hours in the Midlands.

Located in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, The Vaults is – as its name suggests – a subterranean space. Rather than a creepy crypt, it's half restaurant, half cocktail bar. Its low lighting, exposed brick walls and sleek black tables give a slick, understated feel – not my usual style, but given that the restaurant was already buzzing with diners at 7pm on a Wednesday, The Vaults clearly has plenty of local appeal. Perusing the menu, we were offered our choice of (pricey) cocktails: my raspberry martini impressed, but N wasn't asked whether she preferred a gin or a vodka martini despite both being on offer. The menu itself was also a little confusing: the table d'hote menu bore prices for either 2 or 3 courses (£16.50 or £17.50 mid-week), with supplements for more elaborate dishes. Diners with an appetite more modest than their budget may feel over-faced, but fortunately for us, we'd arrived hungry.

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