Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Grand Cafe

There's something about the first flush of spring in Oxford that makes me feel incredibly English. I'm not sure whether it was the daffodils down by the river or that first annual glimpse of pasty white legs showcased in shorts, but this particular Sunday had me craving a cream tea. Visiting the UK from her usual home in Spain, my friend K was only too happy to share my oh-so-English craving, so we made our way to the Grand Café on High Street.

Apparently the site of the first coffee house in England (as claimed by Samuel Pepys), these days the Grand Café is all gilt and mirrors. Classic in style it may be, but it's certainly no historical relic: it's quietly buzzing at all hours of the day. Its petite proportions could be overshadowed by its imposing neighbour the Examination Schools, but the colonnaded front and swish interior of the Grand Café hold their own. Open daily for brunch, light lunches, afternoon tea and cocktails, it's certainly a multipurpose venue, but there's something about its slightly overblown interior that just suggests indulgence to me.

Served from 2-5pm, afternoon tea is one of the Grand Café's mainstays, if the scone-laden tabletops around us were anything to go by. The Grand High Tea (£16.50) reads like the perfect reason to ignore government guidelines for calorie consumption: sandwiches of the smoked salmon & cream cheese and egg mayonnaise varieties, scones served with jam and clotted cream, handmade chocolate truffles, a glass of champagne and of course, tea (or coffee for the less traditional). Just a couple of hours after our picnic lunch, neither of us could quite find room for this decadent delight, so we both ordered the more modest-sounding cream tea (£7.50) of scones and err, tea.


Friday, 16 March 2012

Mamma Mia

In hindsight, taking a group of people currently resident in Florence to an Italian restaurant in Oxford probably wasn't my most inspired idea. We Brits may have taken Italian cuisine to our hearts and annexed its deliciousness, treasuring it almost as much as a Sunday roast, but that doesn't necessarily mean that our offerings will compare with Tuscan fare. In this tale, they certainly don't.

The evening didn't start well. That's a lie: it started far too well. One happy hour cocktail in the Duke of Cambridge led to another and soon my protesting stomach was warning me that it was already 7.30pm. Our original desitination, Branca, was packed, so we tried our luck at Walton Street's other Italian, Mamma Mia. The second branch of the popular Summertown pizzeria, this welcoming spot has been open a couple of years. It's smart and inviting, with cheery decor and friendly staff.

If you're in the mood for pasta or pizza, Mamma Mia is the place to be. If you're not feeling the 'Italian foodsuffs beginning with p' vibe, you'd do well to give it a miss. Although the antipasti are traditionally Italian, in the rustic 'what nonna used to make' vein, the rest of the menu is limited to wheaty treats and salad. The antipasti are worth more than a glance: simple, rustic-sounding starters including baked goat's cheese with fresh tomatoes on ciabatta come in at around £4.95. If you want a double dose of wheat (or have a small appetite), you can also opt for a starter-size pasta portion. The rest of the menu is reasonably priced, with a decent selection of pasta and pizza options from the standard (margherita, £6.75 and spaghetti puttanesca, £8.55) to the more interesting (goat's cheese, spinach and red onion pizza, £8.55, or rigatoni with smoked salmon in a cream and dill sauce, £8.95). If you fancy a bit more of grandma's traditional cooking though, you won't find it on Mamma Mia's menu.

The Italian contingent (who were actually Brazilian, English and French, but let's not complicate an already tricky situation) didn't have much appetite after their lunchtime fish and chip feast, so they opted for antipasti or to share plates of pizza. Y's baked goat's cheese on toast went down a treat, while N and D enjoyed their baked mozzarella wrapped in aubergine and parma ham (£5.95), praising its creamy texture and combination of flavours.

Whitebait & baked mozzarella

The whitebait (£4.95) was described as 'decent', but their Mediterranean pizza (topped with smoked chicken, chorizo, red onion and capers, £8.95) didn't receive many compliments. The base was a little underdone, the crust far from crispy (as the Florence-dwellers have come to expect) - this surprised me, as I remembered the pizza at Mamma Mia's South Parade branch being excellent. The Brazilians were similarly underwhelmed with their pizza.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Black Boy

It's taken almost a year, but here's my first review for the OX3 postcode. Shameful or telling? Well, Headington's not local for me and nor is it in the way of much passing trade, unlike the bar and boutique hubs of Jericho and Cowley. Tucked away from the main road, Old Headington is even less accessible. So when a restaurant located there is repeatedly recommended, it seems like you're on to a winner.

The Black Boy certainly has some champion credentials, not least a glowing review from The Observer's Jay Rayner and an appearance on the 50 best gastro pubs in the country list. Frequently billed as a gastro pub, I found the reality more akin to a restaurant: the leather-backed chairs and elaborately patterned wallpaper didn't really scream 'pub dining room' to me. Whatever bracket The Black Boy falls into, it's an inviting spot: welcoming, well-decorated and intimate without being cramped.

M and I visited on a Tuesday evening to spend a Living Social voucher valid for 2 courses and 2 glasses of wine. We chose from a set menu that was less limited than I had feared: 3 starters and 4 mains were on offer, with a meat, fish and vegetarian option for each course. I opted for a Greek salad followed by fish pie, while M chose a smoked haddock and salmon fish cake to start and bangers and mash for her main. The house wine was decent and cheap at just £3 a glass, while the rest of the wine list was varied and well-priced. The main menu is British with international influences, with starters including potted English trout and shrimp served with toasted homemade bread (£6.95) and Clonakilty black pudding with a soft poached egg and pancetta (£7.50). Starters are a little on the pricey side (mostly around the £7 mark), with mains such as roasted cod loin with spring onion and potato rosti, mussels and a cream and saffron sauce more reasonable around £12.95. There are also plenty of specials to choose from: 3 starters and 4 mains on the day we visited. At lunch time, sandwiches are also available, but don't expect a chunk of cheese wedged between hunks of bread: at £6.50 plus, these are deluxe doorstops.

Greek salad

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Running out of time

It's one month today until the official end of my year of eating my way around Oxford. When I began my project at the start of April 2011, I wasn't sure how it would all work out - whether anyone would actually read my rambling, whether I'd be able to keep up. Thankfully the answers to both those wonderings were 'yes', and although I'm a little bit heavier and my wallet a little bit lighter than one year ago, I've really enjoyed having the excuse to dine out with frivolous frequency, see my friends more often and write about my discoveries. My monthly slot on BBC Radio Oxford was the icing on the cake, and one of the many reasons why I've decided to continue the project beyond its initial one year scope.

Regular readers might have noticed that my reviews have been a little less frequent this year. Well, restaurant reviewing isn't the only hobby I took up in 2011: more surprisingly (to myself anyway), I've also started running. And on 1 April, a year since Girl Eats Oxford began, I'll be running the Reading Half Marathon in aid of Sue Ryder Care. If anyone ever tries to tell you that training for a half marathon isn't time-consuming, you have my permission to laugh in their faces: all that pounding the pavements really cuts into the time I could be spending gallivanting around Oxford's eateries.

I'll be back on track with my weekly reviews soon, and you can tune in to BBC Radio Oxford on Friday 9 March to hear my recommendations for Italian restaurants in Oxfordshire. In the meantime, please bear with me as I prioritise running over refuelling. If you'd like to be so kind as to sponsor me, that would of course be much appreciated both by me and Sue Ryder Care, who work incredibly hard to provide support to those with life-changing illnesses, as well as hospice care. My employers have kindly offered to match what I raise through sponsorship, so even a little will go a long way.

Thanks for your continued readership and recommendations!
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