Friday, 31 August 2012

Las Iguanas foodie night

Italian? Make mine a pizza. Indian? Yep, I know my order by heart. Chinese? That's a rice versus noodles decision. Latin American? Hmm... what does that mean, then?

While most Brits have now embraced a variety of world cuisines,food from some countries has been slower to reach our shores. Delicacies from Central and South America definitely remain under-represented. London has a smattering of independent restaurants from this corner of the globe (plus the Mexican chain Wahaca) and Brazilian rodizio places are gradually popping up nationwide, but it's probably fair to say that Las Iguanas is the best-known Latin American eatery in the UK. Established in Bristol in 1991, there are now 28 branches across Britain, including one on Park End Street in Oxford. The kitchen draws inspiration from numerous countries across Central and South America, largely Mexico and Brazil, although dishes from other nations (and a few geographically hazy but tasty sounding numbers) also pepper their menu. You certainly won't want for choice at Las Iguanas: all tastes are catered for, including fussy vegetarians like myself who wouldn't touch a rodizio restaurant with an asparaus spear.

One Tuesday night every month in the Oxford branch of Las Iguanas, that Latin American geography I mentioned gets a little more soecific. A three-course set menu from one of the countries that make up the continent is also on offer to diners. In August, Brazil took the culinary spotlight. The welcome caipirinha (the country's signature cocktail, or 'drink of the people' as the menu would have you believe) seemed to speed our decision-making: with three options for each course (one meat, one fish, one veg) there's just enough choice. M and I opted for the salt cod bolinhos (fritters) and the cheese empanadas (pastries) to start, rejecting the least Brazilian-sounding option of spinach and chicken dip served with tortilla chips. Aren't they a product of Central America's behemoth instead? Ah well, it's all a big Latin American love-in at Las Iguanas, so a bit of cross-border food trading can be excused.


Starters were served promptly by our friendly waiter. The presentation and portion sizes were both above average: M and I already had the feeling we'd be rolling home bolinho-shaped after our meal. Of the two, we preferred the empanadas: although their slightly crisp texture suggested the traditional method of deep frying had been at work, they didn't taste artery-clogging. The cheese inside was pleasantly gooey, and the spicy cranberry salsa was an unexpectedly tasty complement. The salt cod fritters were, as M pointed out, 'a bit salty', but worked well with the accompanying aioli and rocket garnish.

The difficult-to-photograph bobo

Next up was Brazil's traditional feijoada for M and an intriguingly named seafood bobo for me (chicken, steak or butternut squash crepes being eschewed this time). Feijoada is a meaty stew made up of braised beef, chorizo and black beans with a garlic and red wine sauce, served with rice and plantain. It was reportedly tasty: the beans were particularly flavoursome and held their texture rather than turning to mush. The chorizo was good too, the beef perhaps not top quality but fine for a stew. It was good to see plantain featuring in both of our dishes: it's not something we're often served in the UK, and a different taste makes a welcome change from the usual medley of vegetables on our menus. My seafood bobo was elaborately presented in a clay pot, with a candle to keep it warm. A good selection of fish (prawns, mussels and cod) were cooked in a spicy tomato, cassva and coconut milk sauce, and also served with rice and plantain. To bring yet more flavour to this carnival in a bowl, I was also given a spicy salsa and some toasted coconut farofa. The salsa I soon discarded as unecessary, but the coconut added more depth and an interesting texture to the dish. Despite sounding like some kind of bogeyman, the bobo was fresh-tasting and recommendable. Again, portions of both dishes were generous without being over-facing: you definitely feel you're getting value for money with the set menu.

Chocolate pot


Given the speed with which our desserts appeared, I had a feeling they weren't going to be something a Brazilian grandma had laboured over for the occasion. I find that pudding is often a chain restaurant's downfall, as they're so easy to buy in and refrigerate. Sadly this proved the case here, with both of our desserts tasting ever so slightly of fridge. We regretted rejecting the most Brazilian-sounding dessert, the quindim de yaya (apparently this means 'girlish charm' - why on earth did we turn it down?). If the promise of feminine charm didn't lure us in to order this baked custard flan, the word 'homemade' should have. Instead, we opted for the chocolate pot and the dulce de leche and macadamia cheesecake. The Argentinian caramel that is dulce de leche (ah, there's that inter-country food swapping again) is lip-lickingly divine. It's also my joint favourite ice cream flavour ever. So naturally I went for that. But it didn't taste so much of sweet, gooey caramel as I'd hoped. In fact I detected a hint of garlic (or maybe the taste of the bobo just lingered longer than expected). M's chocolate pot wasn't quite what we expected, but was pleasant nonetheless. A misplaced comma in the menu (layers of dark chocolate, sponge) misled us: there was more sponge in evidence than dark chocolate, and the coffee Kahlua taste was definitely dominant.

For £21.50 for 3 courses and a drink, the themed set menus offer great value if you fancy trying something a bit different. And let's face it, whose Tuesday evenings couldn't do with a bit of Latin American flavour? Upcoming nights include Venezuela (4 Sep), Cuba (2nd Oct) and Mexico (6 Nov). If you don't fancy going the whole enchilada and committing to three courses, give the regular menu a try. There's plenty on there (including enchiladas) to suit everyone, and if you're feeling adventurous there's bound to be something new to try. No matter what night you visit, there's always a bit of atmosphere in Las Iguanas too. As someone who dreads a silent restaurant complete with waiters hovering expectantly, the lively music and flag-filled decor are a welcome touch. There's also a bar at the front of the restaurant with a nightly happy hour if you fancy a mojito or caipirinha. The continent's drinks may be more familiar to us than its food for now, but you could easily be converted.

Verdict: 7

Las Iguanas is at 40 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1JD. Tel: 01865 263150 or book online.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Gousto recipe delivery service

Unless you're fanatically skilled at meal planning and religiously re-stock your kitchen on a weekly basis, you'll no doubt have come home from work and opened the fridge to find some festering carrots, milk and butter from which to create your evening meal. We all lead increasingly busy lives, so sometimes food shopping falls by the wayside. And even if you do have a variety of ingredients to hand, devising ways to combine them into a tasty dinner can prove a time-consuming challenge. But what if you could choose a selection of tasty-sounding recipes for the week ahead and have the ingredients delivered to your door in just the quantities you need, with preparation instructions? Well now, residents of Oxford, you can: thanks to Gousto.

When I was invited to trial Gousto, I was reassured by the fact that their recipes are divided by difficulty rating - and a number of them looked so simple that not even I could mess them up. I'm definitely not a whiz in the kitchen, but I'm not an awful cook either: I just find I don't have time to prepare elaborate meals during the week. I selected two recipes from Gousto's website, a smoked trout summer salad and spicy tofu with coconut rice and waited for my delivery. Gousto is a subscription service: users choose to receive between 2 and 4 recipes per week, available for 2, 4 or 6 people (you better hope your household has an even number). Each week, you log on and select from a regularly updated collection of recipes, and ingredients are delivered to you on Thursday in a cool bag. Although I was concerned about the waste that would come with so many packaged ingredients, Gousto package items together where possible, and is as environmentally friendly where possible (for example, they use Wool Cool to keep produce fresh). In order to keep things as fuss-free and simple as possible, they provide every ingredient you need apart from salt and olive oil. That way, you'll never again have to come face to face with that mouldering half packet of mint you bought two weeks ago for that tabbouleh recipe.

Recipe 1: Glazed trout fillet with summer salad

Not something I would ever have thought to make, this seasonal recipe lured me in with it's one-star difficulty rating and 30 minute preparation time. The double-sided recipe card is photographic, guiding you through the ingredients you need and giving an overview of the dish, plus information on equipment needed and portion size before moving on to a step-by-step breakdown of how to make the recipe.

Eight steps to dinner

Instruction number one was certainly pitched at my level: 'Fill a medium sized pot with water and bring to boil, ideally using a lid'. Confidence boosted by managing to boil water, I worked my way through the 8 steps, chopping, marinating and mixing my way to an evening meal.

The steps were well broken-down and easy to follow: boiling the potatoes, making the dill, honey and mustard glaze for the trout, marinating the fish and making the rest of the salad (apple, beetroot, radish and cucumber). As a clumsy individual, I'm not much of a precision chopper, and managed to make a bit of a lash-up of the apple, but that aside, I managed pretty well. Apart from cooking the potatoes, no timings were given, but due to the simplicity of the recipe and the step-by-step approach, it didn't seem necessary. Instructions were succinct but thorough without being patronising, which I liked.

So this goes in here, yeah?

I totally know what I'm doing.

A couple of the ingredients were unlabelled, which almost proved disastrous when I reached for the coconut milk for recipe 2 instead of the sour cream, but the photographic depiction and a good old sense of smell sorted that issue out. And as for the end result? Impressive. The salad looked great but tasted even better, with a fresh combination of flavours. The glaze was delicious, and the contrast between the apple and beetroot was just right. Good work, Gousto.

The finished product! We'll make a chef of me yet...

Recipe 2: Black pepper spicy tofu on coconut rice

Spurred on by my success with the salad, I moved up to difficulty rating 2 (of a possible 3). Spicy tofu on coconut rice didn't sound too challenging, but there were more ingredients to deal with: onion, chilli, mange tout, ginger, garlic, rice vinegar and soy sauce.

Look,  I can chop an onion, OK?

I just can't chop mange tout length-wise

I began by chopping the onion, but 'cutting the mange tout in half length-wise' defeated me. Too fiddly by half: I chucked them in whole. I tried to stay on brief for the rest of the recipe, although I admit I had assistance with the rice (but only because my attention was focused on the vegetables, you understand). I found the lack of timings more of an issue with this recipe: some stages had timings, but the cooking of the rice didn't ('turn down the heat to let it simmer and stir regularly').

Frying the vegetables appeared to be timed to perfection, but unfortunately the 2 minutes allowed for 150ml of water to reduce just wasn't enough, and we ended up with rather a lot of excess liquid. The recipe was easy enough to follow and tasted good, but it wasn't as memorable as the trout salad. As for the slight sogginess, I'm not sure whether the quantity of water added needed to be reduced or the time allowed increased, but the recipe seemed to need a little tweaking. I admit I added extra black pepper to the end result, as it wasn't as flavoursome as the previous day's dish.

Overall, I think Gousto offer a great service. If you don't have time to plan your meals and shop accordingly, Gousto takes the stress out of dining at home, and is an easy way to ensure a varied and healthy diet. Recipes are developed by a team of chefs and updated each week, so you shouldn't get bored. Although it's clearly aimed at couples, families and house-shares, if you're cooking for one, you could easily take the second portion to work the next day for lunch. With prices starting from £4 per meal, the price is impressively reasonable given the quality of the ingredients (which is sourced from organic farms in the UK wherever possible). Despite their commitment to the environment, I do think that providing a new cool bag each week seems a little wasteful, as it seems like something that would be easy to reuse. I'm also a bit unsure about Thursday as a delivery day: although the ingredients for most dishes keep a minimum of 4 days, it seems to me that Monday would be a much more convenient day for most subscribers. Also, a maximum of 4 meals a week can be ordered currently: 5 seems to make more sense to me in order to cover the working week, but apparently the service will increase if the demand is there.

If you're looking to shake up your culinary repertoire and make your life a bit easier, give Gousto a try. There's no minimum commitment and you can place your order on hold at any time. For more information, check out their website.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Win tickets to Foodies Festival

From 2527 August, Foodies Festival returns to South Park for the third year running. A three-day extravaganza of cookery demonstrations, food & wine matching masterclasses, new product showcases and endless opportunities to indulge, it's the ideal bank holiday destination for food lovers.

Visiting last year, I was impressed by the number of different vendors offering produce from around the world, from traditional English cheeses, to spicy Asian sauces, to sweet American treats. The cookery demonstration by the Italian-English couple behind La Cucina Caldesi provided some culinary inspiration and helped me to work up an appetite; thankfully there were plenty of choices when it came to satisfying my hunger. This year promises more top-notch demonstrations: names to grace the Chefs' Theatre include Michelin-starred Gary Jones of Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, Michael North of the Nut Tree and food journalist Xanthe Clay. Oxford's own Maxwell Mason of The Big Bang will also take the stage, as will MasterChef finalist Andrew Kojima. If you want to do more than merely marvel at the pros, you can get involved in the masterclasses, which include bakery sessions with Outsider Tart and perfect pie-making with the Posh Pork Pie Company. This year, all the family have the chance to pick up new skills while having some fun: there's a full programme of kids' events in the Children's Cookery Theatre.

Unfortunately, I'm going to be away over the bank holiday weekend, but if you fancy some Foodies Festival action, you can find out more and purchase tickets here (priced from £10 for one day; three-day tickets cost £18). Foodies Festival have kindly offered me five pairs of tickets to the Oxford event to give away to readers. If you'd like to win some, please email me your name and postal address to girleatsoxford at gmail dot com by midnight on Wednesday 15 August. Names will be drawn at random and tickets will be posted to you. Good luck!

Monday, 6 August 2012


If a friend had suggested going out for a burger a decade ago, you'd have automatically thought of parting with a few pounds at those golden arches. Nowadays, the simple hamburger isn't just a fast food phenomenon: it's gone a bit gastro. Pubs pride themselves on serving the 'best burger', with high-quality, locally-sourced mince seasoned with just the right mixture of herbs; chains such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen have challenged the dominance of the humble beef patty with creative combinations of both meat and vegetarian ingredients. Sometimes though, simplicity wins.

British chain Byron was established by Tom Byng in London in 2007 with the aim of serving simple hamburgers done well, in the tradition of great American diners. Not that there's anything kitsch about this burger joint, though the decor is more along the lines of stripped-back industrial chic than 50s retro. Until recently, Byron's branches could only be found in the capital, but in July, their Oxford outpost opened on George Street: just two doors down from recently-renovated GBK. A burger battle was about to commence, surely?

Well no, as it turns out. Stepping through the doors of Byron one weekday evening, the atmosphere couldn't have been more different from that of its near neighbour. Rather than a brightly-lit space full of families polishing off a towering stack of meat plus topping, Byron is as simple and fuss-free as its menu. The varied clientele show that burgers appeal to all ages, while the cool and quirky design differentiate it from other Oxford restaurants: as N said, it's 'very London'. Clearly appealing to a different demographic than GBK, there should be space enough in this town for the both of them.

But the proof of the burger is in the eating. How would Byron's 'proper hamburgers' fare when put to my Belgian burger connoisseur's taste test? The restaurant manager explained the concept behind the menu: it's structured around the Classic burger (£6.75), a 6oz hamburger cooked medium (unless otherwise requested), topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayonnaise and served in a bun. The beef they use comes from small farms in Scotland and is freshly ground every day. The menu features only 5 other items: Cheese (a choice of 5, £7.75), Byron (with dry cure bacon, mature cheddar and Byron sauce, £9.25), Skinny (no bun, with salad, £7.50), Chicken (chicken breast with tomato mayonnaise and spinach, £8.75) and Veggie. Which isn't a burger at all, but a portabello mushroom with roasted red pepper, goat's cheese, spinach and aioli (£7.75). Apparently the idea was to give vegetarians something like a burger so they don't feel 'left out'. As one of their number, I say give us a burger! If you go for a burger you erm, want a burger. But still, I decided to withold judgment until I'd sampled one for myself.

While we waited for our Byron (N's choice on the manager's recommendation) and Veggie to arrive, we munched on some 'proper olives' (£2.75) and tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole (£3.50). Both were excellent: good quality olives, and delicious homemade dips. I normally flinch at the English pricetag on olives, but shared between a few of you, these are worth it. When it comes to drinks, Byron's prices reflect its London origins, with soft drinks weighing in at £2.30+ and milkshakes for £3.95. In-keeping with the 'simple' ethos, the wine list is divided into 'good', 'better', 'great' and 'best' categories. I opted for a large glass of 'good' red (a Spanish Tempranillo, £5.25)and very good it was, much nicer than the house red at my local while N chose the 'great' Malbec (£6.95), which she loved but I wasn't sure warranted the price tag.

After a short wait, the burgers and our sides of skin-on chips and courgette fries (£3.25 each) plus a house side salad (£3.50) arrived. Prices may be in an entirely different bracket to Maccy D's, but the portion sizes and presentation take Byron's burgers out of the fast food category entirely. N's burger was definitely sizeable enough to keep her quiet for a good few minutes; once she surfaced from meaty mouthfuls she reported that it was the definition of medium, juicy and delicious. The salad was fresh, the bacon and cheddar were both 'perfect' as she put it, 'the whole experience was enjoyable'.

The veggie versus...

The Byron

My veggie 'burger' was also generously sized yet less tricky to eat than some I've been faced with: it didn't collapse or crumble everywhere. The mushroom, red pepper and goat's cheese all worked well together, providing plenty of flavour and texture. Everything was fresh and tasty, but ultimately I couldn't help but feel that it was more of a fancy sandwich than a burger. It was definitely less substantial than N's meat version, but with the addition of starters and sides I was more than satisfied. The lightly-battered courgette fries were clearly made to order and it showed: they were delicious and moreish. The skin-on chips were the only dud note of the evening in their haste to feed us, the chefs hadn't let them cook quite long enough.



Dessert more than made up for this slight fault, though. I didn't think an Oreo and Brownie Sundae sounded like much to get excited about: after all, it was just ice cream mixed with chunks of cookies and brownie with some chocolate sauce thrown in for good measure. I was wrong. It was pure indulgence in a dish; so good I almost wanted to lick the remnants from the glass. Clearly inspired by the Olympics, N declared that the person who invented it deserved a gold medal. I'm inclined to agree. Silver would have to go to the cheesecake: a worthy contender, although outperformed by the sundae on the night.

Providing simple, fresh food at a decent price, Byron is bound to succeed in Oxford. Although once you've added sides and drinks to your main a meal doesn't come too cheap, it's worth it if burgers are your thing. With excellent service, a relaxed atmosphere and a setting that's a little out of the ordinary for Oxford, it's worth a visit. As for me, I'll be back once there's a veggie burger on the menu...

Verdict: 8

Byron is at 33-35 George Street, OX1 2AY. Tel: 01865 792155.
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