Tuesday, 31 January 2012

New restaurant round-up: January

Although I'm always keen to check out new openings as soon as I can, my long list of recommendations often means that I don't get around to it for longer than I'd like. There's no reason why you shouldn't, though, so I've decided to post details of new openings and refurbishments in and around Oxford every few months. If you visit any of them, be sure to let me know how you get on!

Le Kesh – 180 Cowley Road
Formerly Café Nour, this little place relaunched as Le Kesh towards the end of 2011. Describing itself as a 'Lebanese and Moroccan fusion restaurant and lounge', it certainly sounds intriguing, but I find the neon blue low-lighting visible slightly seedy-looking. As I prefer not to dine in the half-light, it's not high on my list of priorities, but its menu of mostly Lebanese meze and kebabs and tagines looks tasty enough.

Turl Street Kitchen – Turl Street
This site on the corner of Turl and Ship Streets hasn't been successful for most of its former occupants, but given the buzz of Turl Street Kitchen at almost any hour of the day, the building's luck looks set to change. A student- and family-friendly café, bar and restaurant with a small, daily-changing menu, Turl Street Kitchen is a welcome addition to the city centre. It's busy, so booking's advisable at weekends  – even for lunch, as I found out. Review coming soon.

Trichy Dosa – 209 Cowley Road
I've heard great reports of the friendly welcome and great food at this South Indian restaurant (formerly Dil Dunia), which serves up bargain dosa, idly and curries. If you're looking for a take away, you'll be pleased to find that home delivery is free. I'll be visiting soon. You can find their menu here.

Crisis Skylight Café – Old Fire Station, 40 George Street
Part of the revamped Old Fire Station, this bright, welcoming café not only serves tasty meals and snacks, it also provides on-the-job training and a way back into work for homeless people.

Yeti – 237 Cowley Road
Another interesting addition to the Cowley end of the road, Yeti is Oxford's second Nepalese restaurant. I've heard positive accounts of fresh, flavoursome food at decent prices.

The Oxford Blue – 32 Marston Street
Reopened last year by the folk formerly behind Bottega in Jericho, this revamped pub has a tasteful interior and an interesting menu. My review was a bit mixed, but they assure me the carpet issue is now sorted! Worth a visit even if just for a drink.

If you've dined at any of these or know of any other new/refurbished places worth a mention, drop me a line.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Recipe: Beetroot dip with sheep's cheese and walnuts

The Christmas excesses may be far behind us, but the dent it left in our finances probably isn't. As a result, dining out probably isn't high on your list of January priorities. With this in mind, it seems a good idea to offer some recipe ideas in addition to reviews. Now I'm not the most creative in the kitchen, but fortunately my friend Tom is a bit of a culinary whiz.

In the first of series of simple, seasonal recipes, musician, cook and aspiring food writer Tom Rees serves up a dish good enough to win over the most hardened of beetroot critics.

Beetroot Dip with Sheep’s Cheese and Toasted Walnuts


In the past couple of years I’ve become a serious beetroot convert. I’m not talking about the pickled stuff in jars which I dreaded as a child, but about fresh roots with their wonderful earthy sweetness and autumnal aroma. Raw beetroot makes a superb accompaniment to beef, particularly when paired with celeriac and a vinaigrette thick with dijon mustard, and it is among my favourite additions to a green salad. It is equally delicious boiled or roasted, but this serves to accentuate the sweetness of the root, so it's even more important to pair it with something sharp or salty for contrast.

This recipe is based on an exquisite beetroot and feta dip I ate at Sam and Sam Clark’s tapas bar Morito about a year ago. The walnuts and the tangy sheep’s cheese in my version temper the sweetness of the beetroot, while the lemon juice and the parsley add freshness to the finished dish. Thickly spread onto slices of rye bread it’s a joy to eat, and somehow all the more enjoyable for the way it stains your mouth and your fingertips.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Chiang Mai Kitchen

Hype is a dangerous thing. When it’s PR-generated, we’re all naturally suspicious, but word of mouth is usually so much more reliable. After hearing excellent reports of Chiang Mai Kitchen for several years, I was thrilled to be invited to a work dinner there. It’s probably the priciest of Oxford’s Thai restaurants, so I’d been saving it for a celebration (or February at least), but thankfully there was no need.

Walking in at 8pm with high expectations, I was glad we’d made a reservation: the place was packed. Nothing unusual for a Friday or Saturday evening – but it was Monday. We were shown to the last free table in the restaurant’s cosy upstairs. Set in a historic building, Chiang Mai is charmingly higgledy-piggledy, its oh-so-English wood-beamed dining area given a Thai touch with the addition of gold statuettes. Glamorous it isn’t, though: tablecloths are the paper variety and the menu was well-thumbed and spiral-bound. I wasn’t impressed to note a stain on our tablecloth – yes they were busy, but surely there was time to quickly exchange a sheet of paper?

The menu quickly improved my opinion though. If you’re indecisive, you’ll find dining at Chiang Mai a challenge: there are just so many tasty-sounding dishes to choose from. With a page each, starters and salads are manageable, but when it comes to the main event, there are options galore – chicken, pork, beef, seafood, fish, vegetarian dishes, curries; it’s all covered. There’s something for all palates too – spicy dishes are indicated with chillis; 1 denotes medium spice and 2 is seriously hot. With starters ranging from £5.60–7.90 and mains between £8.30 and £14.50, it was less expensive than I imagined – but of course, the price of noodles or rice (from £2.70) must be factored in. After a good ten minutes ruminating, we placed our orders. 45 minutes later, as the other diners had almost all emptied out of the restaurant, we were still waiting to eat.

After some prompting, our starters appeared. M and I had both opted for the tofu (£5.60), which was deep-fried and served with a spicy peanut sauce. Thank goodness for the sauce – we both agreed the tofu was bland and a little watery in the middle, as though it had been sitting around for a while rather than jumping straight from the fryer to our table. The portion was generous, though, as was C’s Mieng Gai (minced chicken with spinach, £6.60). This dish was particularly well-presented (apologies, we were too ravenous to care about photography at this stage), the spinach leaves forming a pretty floral pattern on the plate. She was surprised to discover it was served cold, though. The peanuts sprinkled on top certainly gave an extra dimension, but were whole rather than chopped, overloading the dish somewhat. The chunks of lime also included were a more successful touch, adding a fresh flavour. Unlike the Mieng Gai, S’s fishcakes were hot: both in terms of temperature and spice. With 4 pieces, this was another sizeable starter, and was complimented on its taste.

Sunday, 8 January 2012


You might not remember dining at Bodrum on Cowley Road, but if you've ever had one too many drinks in East Oxford, chances are you've probably stumbled in for a kebab. Bodrum's one of the many take-away joints lining the stretch from Randolph Street to Leopold Street: but it's the only one that has a queue come 2am. It turns out even drunken revellers can be discerning - Bodrum's grub is a cut above the usual chips n' cheese offerings.

There's much more than doner meat, burgers and chips on the menu at Bodrum. Pass the take-away counter and take a seat at one of the few tables and you'll be offered a menu. Make no mistake, there are no frills here: the menu's laminated plastic and the surroundings are frippery-free, but there's waitress service and a pleasantly buzzing, low key atmosphere. The extensive menu ranges from starters such as houmous and falafel through kebabs to vegetarian dishes, casseroles, steak and pide (Turkish pizza), with burgers and curry thrown in for good measure. Understandably, steak tops the price range, but order anything else and you'll walk away with change from a tenner. Probably quite a bit of change, to be honest.

On our Friday evening visit, Turkish food lovers M and D both opted for kebabs: a chicken sheek kebab (£6.95) for M and a Bodrum kebab (chicken sheek, lamb kofte and doner meat, £7.95) for D. I was impressed at the number of vegetarian options: 4 combined plates, a vegetarian kebab and vegetarian pide, in addition to the ubiquitous houmous and falafel. I opted for one of the combined plates - houmous, falafel and borek (feta pastries), served with rice and salad (£5.95). After ordering, we were presented with a basket of fresh, warm pitta bread along with a plate of dips to pick at while we waited.

Bodrum kebab

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