Undoubtedly the most memorable moment of this year’s Christmas dinner was the horrified look on my mother’s face when she caught one of our close friends from India pouring generous amounts of Tabasco all over her much-lauded duck breast in a Grand Manier-orange sauce. I learned that night that apparently my family’s inclination towards an international life-style stops short before the modification of traditional German Christmas dishes.
The incident, silly as it may seem, did elicit some serious reflection about the importance of culinary traditions on my part. Many of my friends at Oxford and elsewhere lead lives that regularly transcend regional and national boundaries. We study abroad, take up jobs in foreign countries and are sometimes even connected through global dating sites (Yes, OKCupid has indeed made it all the way to Germany). Yet there are certain occasions when we insist on following our childhood traditions with all the stubbornness of a petulant five year old. Curiously enough these moments most often arise in relation to family holidays and food specialties. It appears that we require a few days per year to reconnect with the smells and tastes of our earliest memories in their purest form. However these habits can pose an interesting dilemma. What happens to the Christmas dinner when its participants quite literally bring an array of spiritual, cultural and culinary customs to the table?
As I set out to gain some insights into this issue and began to frantically dig through piles of online resources on Christmas menus for the multicultural world citizen (one of which tragically argued for a gratin made of Norwegian herring and Swedish meatballs) it occurred to me that perhaps my parents’ obsession with moving across the world every few years had ideally positioned me to exploit the Christmas insanity of my own social network for the purpose of this article. I am therefore pleased to present my personal top three approaches to an international Christmas dining experience.
- The Everything Extravaganza
What kind of Christmas celebration do you get when a British girl who grew up in Mozambique heads to Australia for university, gets married to a boy from Brazil and moves in with him and his extended family? While your first impulse may be to simply label such a situation ‘madness’ and move on, my friend Lyla, also known as the highly international protagonist of this story, transformed intercultural confusion into an opportunity to enjoy the ultimate Christmas banquet. “I really wanted to avoid endless discussions about rice vs. mashed potatoes with my mother-in-law” she confided in me. “So I just thought we could make everything. You know, in an international-understanding-starts-on-your-plate kind of way.” Collectively the family agreed that since Christmas was about joy everyone should cook their favorite traditional dish and that all others had to try at least a little bit of it. Consequently Lyla’s mouth-watering, global Christmas spread included Bacalhau, a traditional Brazilian codfish preparation, spicy piri-piri chicken, cabbage, sweet potatoes, panettone (sweet bread), mince pies and many more tasty specialties.
- The Diplomatic Dining Duet
Hailing from Tamil Nadu, India one of my closest friends recently almost caused her parents to pass out at the breakfast table when she announced that she was not only getting engaged to a US-American but also planned to spend the Christmas holidays alone with him in an effort to manifest their status as a new, independent family unit. What followed was a Christmas experience one may classify as spiritually and gastronomically mind-boggling. A Hindu and a vegetarian herself my friend had never paid much attention to Christmas and its culinary practices, while her husband-to-be, a Roman catholic from Rhode Island, was used to a traditional European-style feast involving potatoes, gravy and an excess of meat dishes. Accordingly celebrating Christmas together for the first time involved much more than a simple decision about what to cook; it became a consideration of faith and upbringing. But love is nothing if not creative and so they came up with a joint Christmas contract. Christmas, they decided, was about God’s attempt to connect with all people and make it a better, kinder place. And therefore out of the kindness of her heart she was willing to help make all of his favorite vegetarian Christmas dishes as long as he prepared his ham and turkey in the neighbor’s kitchen, got her a vast supply of green chilies to spice up her meal and agreed to celebrate the Hindu holidays important to her. “Granted,” she told me “it’s not a perfect system yet but at least the food is not so bland anymore.”
- The Creative Chaos Celebration
All charming tales of culinary dialogue aside there are also those families that are strong believers in chaos theory. A Christian girl from Goa herself a former colleague of mine grew up with a mother who manages the Indian branch of a large French development organization that has offices all over the world. Needless to say the annually the family’s Christmas dinner guest list tends to encompass more different nationalities than the contestant roster of the summer Olympics. Yet their approach is plain and simple. “We cook high quantities of our own traditional Christmas foods and then we always set some of it aside before we add our usual spices,” my friend’s mother explained. “That way we get to eat what we are used to and our guests don’t tear up from all the chilies. Plus we put a whole bunch of different sauces and herbs on the table and ask people to bring whatever they want..“ The family’s method has led to some rather interesting Christmas creations, such as Goan Sea Food Curry with nutmeg and cinnamon or cumin rice with rosemary and a side cranberry sauce. But how else do gourmet recipes get invented if not through experimentation?
So maybe there are ways to overcome the food habits of your childhood. Maybe such an attempt can even lead to more inter-cultural and religious understanding. And maybe it even ends up being a whole lot of tasty fun.
Back in Cowley this week, and this time we pay a visit to Kazbar’s sister establishment, the intriguing Café Coco. It’s been a feature of the Cowley Road (and, until recently, Park End) for longer than most of us have been alive, and with a menu as daring yet wide-ranging as this, it’s no wonder that Café Coco has remained unmoved by the lapping waves of change. Constant gastronomic innovation – for better or for worse – keeps it fresh and ensures that there is always something to pique your curiosity and whet your appetite, with their experimental approach ensuring that what’s tasty sticks around and what’s not gets filtered out.
We kick off with a platter of cured meats which, whilst undeniably tasty, is notable more for its absurd abundance, as we find ourselves nearly stuffed by the end of it. The usual suspects (salami, prosciutto, olives and the like) are garnished with pickled caper berries – a rare treat, plump and juicy and vinegary and fruity. They prove the perfect foil to the meat, as does the tapenade – the black of olives flecked with colourful sweet pepper and bolstered with meaty aubergine – which we eagerly scoop up with crisp, oily, sesame-smattered flatbread.
Café Coco really comes into its own as a melting pot of different cultures – or rather, perhaps, a clumsy, mismatched jumble, depending on your tastes – in the main course, which combines elements of Greek, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan and English (amongst other) cuisines in what is best described as a sort of pan-Mediterranean greasy spoon. It was in the interest of embracing this diversity that we ordered the newest item on the menu: the full English pizza. A stonebaked pizza base with a smear of reddest tomato was crowned with, true to its name, a full English breakfast, complete with multiple rashers of bacon, a sizeable sausage, some spectacularly moist and flavourful black pudding, garlicky potatoes, and a fried egg proudly assuming centre stage. Strangely enough, no cheese, as if the inventor thought that whilst a full English on a pizza was just fine, putting the customary cheese on top would be a step too far. According to the irrefutable gastronomical logic of Joey Tribbiani (‘Pizza? Good. Full English? Good. Full English pizza? Goooood.’), this Frankensteinian monstrosity is a success, not to mention extremely filling. The other mains – one fresh-tasting king prawn salad and one spaghetti with luganica sausage sauce – were both exemplary, if not as exciting as the first; the salad, peppery with rocket, tangy with ginger, and spicy with fresh chilli, had a healthy scattering of tender king prawns to satisfy even an appetite that would usually transcend the reaches of a plate of greenery, whilst the herby, cream-laced luganica sauce was thick with piggy chunks, its spaghetti base pleasingly al dente.
The café in its nocturnal guise doubles as a cocktail bar, albeit to a questionable degree of success. This is not to say that the bar isn’t popular: on the contrary, floods of yummy mummies and lads-on-the-town alike regularly occupy every table, thirstily slurping down Coco’s colourful offerings. It is these, however, that are a little hit-and-miss, most notably their signature Coco Cooler, which boasts a creamy concoction of amaretto and strawberry. I couldn’t help but feel a little nauseous at the cloyingly saccharine flavour which ill-advisedly straddled the realms of milkshake and cocktail, and in the end opted for a freshly squeezed juice of apple and pineapple and mint and whatever else they decided to throw in – clearly the safe option, but rewarding nonetheless. Another foray into the cocktail menu was recommended by the charming waitress, who encouraged us to sample some sort of rhubarb cocktail made with the extremely niche rhubarb vodka along with a splash of fizz and some other fruity nonsense. Thoroughly intrigued by the champagne flute of bubbly redness, we took a sip of the six-pound drink, only to find the unpleasantly familiar flavour of…WKD red. Whether this is some hilarious post-ironic joke, reconstructing an alcopop out of the most absurd and expensive ingredients around, or whether they genuinely think it a novel and appetising cocktail, I do not know. But either way, I’ll be steering clear of the bar next time.
Dessert, on the other hand, was more welcome, doing justice to the preceding courses much better than their liquid accompaniments; we just about managed to fit in a sizeable wedge of homemade banoffee pie, its fluffy cream covering a dense caramel, alongside all the other dishes we’d just demolished. Also applaudable was the chocolate-drizzled waffle, crispy and warm, which was soon drowned in flowing cream. It’s nice to see artery-clogging indulgences alongside healthy salads in a place like this, as the menu’s range ensures that Coco is a happy medium for groups of picky eaters who usually spend half the night arguing about where to go.
[caption id="attachment_42980" align="alignnone" width="225"] PHOTOS/Raph Torrance[/caption]
To call Café Coco a jack of all trades would be unfair; yes, perhaps the food lacks the unity which customarily speaks of authenticity and expertise in a restaurant, but they manage to cover classics and novelties alike with enough success that you should be willing to overlook the place’s disjointed nature and just enjoy it. If nothing else, the room’s energetic buzz will lift your spirits – even if the spirits don’t.
Something a little different this week, as the Gourmand and Danny go down the rabbit hole and emerge bewildered, enchanted, and drowsy as dormice.
A recent and exciting addition to the increasingly dull Oxford watering-hole scene (heretofore ancient pub, ancient pub, ‘Spoons, grotty college bar, ancient pub), The Mad Hatter has set up shop in what used to be The Cricketer’s Arms (poor chap probably can’t bowl any more…) on the corner of Iffley Road and the aptly named Circus Street – in other words, a stone’s throw from the Cowley roundabout and not even as far as this so-called ‘gime’ that I’m told is down Iffley way. With naught but a hanging sign and an inviting chalkboard to give away its presence, The Mad Hatter’s secluded entrance is elusive indeed. But even if you find it, the gatekeeper ensures that not just any old riff-raff is allowed access to this veritable wonderland; no thuggish, mountainous bouncers here, but rather a speakerphone which, in the vein of the Ravenclaw common room, poses a riddle which you must answer to be let in. Cranial conundrums such as “What can you catch but not throw?” (answers on a postcard, please) as well as the strong Alice in Wonderland theme mark The Mad Hatter out as a uniquely Oxonian establishment, comfortably ensconced in the nichest of niches.
Once seated at a table inside the minimalistic yet intriguingly decorated cocktail bar, we are presented with cocktail menus – ingeniously camouflaged within copies of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ – and introduced to the ordering system; no more queuing at the bar, desperately trying to attract the overstretched barkeep’s attention, for at The Mad Hatter each table is equipped with a proper old-fashioned telephone from which you can call the bar to order your drinks. This is possibly the coolest thing ever ever ever and should definitely be implemented basically everywhere in the name of convenience, laziness, and just pure, glorious kitsch. So, giggling at this ridiculosity, we call up the guy standing about ten metres away and put in our first order: a blueberry bramble, intensely violet and packed with beautiful fresh blueberry flavour, and a café crème brûlée, rich and strong with espresso and vodka, yet caramelised and creamy, and at no point suffering from the harsh kick of cheap spirits, as it goes without saying that The Mad Hatter’s wares are top notch.
What does Wonderland’s Mad Hatter offer if not a bangin’ tea party? It was, therefore, with some anticipation that we awaited The Tweedledum: a teapot full to bursting with smooth gin, summery raspberries, and floral elderflower, amongst other things, which we delightedly poured out into dainty teacups for our boozy tea party. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the sharers go up to the gargantuan ten-person Hatter’s Hat, which features – besides the usual liquors and fruity additions – an entire bottle of Champagne in what is, whilst perhaps an absurd luxury, definitely a better outlet for your inebriated profligacy than that overpriced bottle of Grey Goose you bought at Camera, according to a receipt found the morning after.
We eschewed the less novel parts of the menu (‘the classics’, ‘bubbles’, ‘wine’, etc.) and instead rounded off our tasting session with a shooter, Crackbaby, which was largely the intensely sour tropicality of passion fruit with hints of tongue-teasing fizz and plenty of kick, as well as The Hatter’s signature Rum Punch, redolent of that jewel of the childhood lunchbox, Um Bongo – except with a healthy dose of rum for the grown-ups. Shrouded in mystery are the drinks in the only section we didn’t manage to sample: Molecular Madness. Simply named Alice’s Growing Juice and Alice’s Shrinking Juice, they are fantastical potions which are mixed and then (and God knows how Health and Safety aren’t onto them about this) smoked with either hickory or applewood smoke in what we presume is a spectacular show.
One thing to bear in mind is that, thanks to a combination of high-quality potent potables and excellent theatrics, it’s not an especially cheap bar, so if your student loan hasn’t come in and you’re pinching pennies, head for the lowest shelves at Tesco, or perhaps your college bar. That being said, if you’re feeling flush, are sick of the same old routines, or want somewhere merry for an unbirthday party, The Mad Hatter really should be top of your list. Just hope that they don’t ask you why a raven is like a writing-desk, else your plans for the evening might be scuppered…
[caption id="attachment_42554" align="alignnone" width="300"] PHOTOS/Raph Torrance & Danny Piper[/caption]
Gee’s is fresh from a refurbishment, and it is freshness that is at the heart of the restaurant’s philosophy. A short walk down Banbury Road, it’s a world away from the identikit chains that populate the town centre. And for every once-in-a-blue-moon Pizza Express menu change, there will be countless specials at Gee’s, where the menu bears the day’s date and is never quite the same two days running.
So when we came to choose from the ‘Small Bites’ menu, we tore up our plans for beef dripping-laden sourdough when our waitress told us about the Scotch egg special. A soft-boiled quail’s egg with a golden yolk at its centre matched the strong, earthy black pudding surrounding it, and was a good tip from the waiting staff, who have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Gee’s menu. The other Bites we ordered, the wild boar prosciutto and the baby squid in chilli and parsley, also warrant mention: the prosciutto melted on the tongue like a greasy pork snowflake, and the squid – minute and aesthetically delightful – was pleasantly chewy, the verdant parsley and bold chilli endowing it with an unrivalled freshness.
Another special followed as we proceeded to the starters: duck hearts, rich, gamey and fruity, slipped down on a buttery brioche base. Alongside it, we ordered deep-fried soft-shelled crab, which arrived in a gilded batter shell, accompanied by a thick dollop of homemade mayonnaise.
It being Sunday, a roast was on the cards. A succulent sirloin of beef, which barely required a knife, arrived alongside a mountainous Yorkshire pudding and a medley of innovatively produced trimmings, but the real star of our mains was the venison chop dish. Admittedly, there was a disappointing amount of meat for £8.50, considering there were no sides, but the elusive meat was pink and rich, and the blood orange sauce was a perfect foil: tangy and bittersweet, it proved an irresistible condiment for meat, vegetables and chips alike. So striking was this sauce that the airy glass atrium in which we were eating seemed almost an orangerie.
A number of dishes in, we still felt able to tackle the dessert menu, and plumped for a chocolate espresso tart, voluptuous and subtly-flavoured, and lemon sorbet, acerbic but refreshing. When we emerged from the restaurant, we felt satisfied, but not unpleasantly replete, a reflection on meals which hit the spot without being too heavy.
[caption id="attachment_42269" align="alignnone" width="225"] PHOTOS/Raph Torrance[/caption]
Gee’s comes with our hearty recommendation. It’s a treat on a student budget, and seemed to us like the sort of place you might persuade your parents to take you. You might have to book, though – but, after our experience of the restaurant, it’s easy to see why.
It’s not often I wander out to Cowley, as the journey more often than not ends with a disastrous tute, so it was with some apprehension that I left the Dreaming Spires with my trusty companion, Danny, to enter the unknown. Fortunately, Kazbar is only a few minutes’ walk down Cowley Road, and its vibrant exterior shines out like a beacon from what I otherwise extrapolate to be a grey, industrial wasteland. Diners lounge outside under strings of fairy lights, a gesture which seems to look the British weather in the eyes and say “Screw you, it’s summer if we say it is!” – and hey, this ballsy move pays off, as the air is unseasonably warm both outside and inside the partly-roofless yellow ochre structure which shows no signs of ever having been anything traditionally Oxonian. If a pub weren’t visible through the windows, you would be entirely convinced that you had left Oxford entirely, as Kazbar seemingly creates its own Mediterranean sun with a combination of cushioned benches, ornate lamps, live Flamenco music (though more on this later), and, of course, a menu without equal.
We perched upon cute wooden stools and started with some drinks; seduced by my favourite fruit, the enigmatic fig, I went for a fig and vanilla daiquiri, which arrived shimmering and frosty. Like all of Kazbar’s drinks, it was exceptionally refreshing, with a delayed rum kick after the sweet and sharp stay on the palate. Their house sangría, too, was remarkably full of juicy berry flavours rather than the acrid tang of cheap red all too often encountered, though a hungover Danny was not having any of it, going for a freshly squeezed lemon-and-limeade instead.
The tapas menu at Kazbar is extensive, but don’t feel daunted: it’s really quite impossible to order something bad. We nibbled everything from Spanish standards to Moroccan classics to house specials, each gobful bringing something different to the table and making us insist “Try this! TRY IT!” at every maiden bite thereof. Babaganoush, which we happily piled onto fresh crusty bread, was sweet and earthy and tasted of the charred aubergine flesh within, whilst a dish of houmous (the real McCoy, laced with cumin, not that lemony Greek nonsense) with spicy minced lamb and pine nuts was equally moreish, given substance by meat and pizzazz by heat. Then came the seafood: gambas al chermoula, colossal king prawns with an age-old Moroccan herb and spice mixture (smashing stuffed into fresh sardines to put on the barbecue), had the distinctive salty kick of preserved lemons; meanwhile, an adventurous Danny ordered pulpo a la gallega – octopus legs simply boiled with potatoes, red onion and smoked paprika to bring out their unique flavour. They were pleasingly chewy and aesthetically just wonderful, especially for those who like to see exactly which part of the animal they’re eating.
Meatwise, Kazbar offers a range to suit the taste of any carnivore (except a Jewish one – we think it’s not kosher); though it is pork-heavy, as Spanish food is wont to be, the menu still offers impressive beef dishes, notably the house special beef tagine, featuring melt-in-your-mouth slow-cooked beef which drips its nectarous juices onto a bed of prunes, apricots and fluffy couscous. Merguez – a Moroccan staple consisting of harissa-spiced lamb and beef sausages and, in this case, tzatziki – was a little disappointing, with the yoghurt sauce imparting a strange flavour to some otherwise flavourless meaty morsels. However, Kazbar’s sausage reputation was redeemed by the exemplary baked chorizo, bursting with violently crimson paprika and rich oil, full of guts and boldness: in short, the best we’ve ever had. Interesting though ultimately unremarkable, thought Danny, were the pork cheeks braised in cider – juicy and apply, they had an inoffensive, pleasing flavour and great texture, but were nothing to write home about.
I wasn’t especially looking forward to dessert until I saw that they had one of the best desserts ever made. CHURROS. Fresh crisp hot fluffy sweet greasy delicious sticks of cinnamonny goodness dipped in glossy chocolate sauce – so good that Danny, already eating a very rich potito de chocolate, tried to poach some, much to my dismay. And it’s not the first time, either. He needs a muzzle. All this was washed down with a strong cortado, a uniquely Spanish coffee that’s somewhere between a macchiato and a regular café au lait, which I really wish would catch on in England.
- PHOTOS/Raph Torrance
We finished our meal, y pues…the live flamenco music started (it being Flamenco Thursday and all), for which we were sat front and centre! A floppy-haired ragamuffin jamming on his guitar and a mysterious Spanish maiden with a flower in her hair and a flirtatious smile on her lips filled the place with irresistible rhythms, including an entirely unexpected cover of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ – though, of course, it was ‘A mi manera’, and significantly jauntier than the original. Whether you come for Ol’ Blue Eyes (or rather, Young Brown Eyes), for the cocktails, for the unrivalled range of tapas, or just for the atmosphere, make sure you find an excuse to come to Kazbar pronto.
The Sharif may not like it, but I certainly do.
I’m inclined to reserve all judgements about restaurants, a habit that has opened up many curious eateries to me and also made me the victim of not a few total disasters. The reason for this is exemplified by Shezan, a small Carfax-based Indian place with the humblest of signs, alone in betraying the presence of a restaurant within. Down the seedy/charming (delete as appropriate) High Street alley towards Carfax chippy then up a flight of absurdly crooked stairs – the first clue to it having been there since the 17th Century – and you’ve reached Shezan, unexpectedly luxurious considering the unassuming façade. It’s plush, I’ll give them that: beautiful warm reds, intricate Eastern designs, and cushy seating areas whisk you away from the drab High Street without (unless, of course, you sit by the window, in which case the effect is amazing and ridiculous in equal measure), whilst the architecture, slightly askew, brings grandeur with its age. Indeed, the name itself means ‘beautiful’ in Arabic (so I’m told), and there are no arguments here. It has served as a dining room for nigh 100 years, with such skilled neighbours as Raymond Blanc and the beloved Michel (of Bookbinders fame) having graced the area with their impressive presence.
Though it advertises itself as an Indian restaurant, the owner keenly insists upon the more niche culinary influences – namely Goan and Mughlai – which set it apart from countless other indistinguishable curry houses. Perhaps this was something of a mistake: at the mention of such exoticism, the loosening of the shackles of homogeneity, my mind was instantly cast back to one especially delectable rendition of a Goan curry previously experienced at The Standard, raising my expectations considerably. What followed dashed them again, though it would be unfair to write off Shezan entirely, as it did have its ups as well as its downs.
Our appetiser was inexplicable: a stack of poppadoms – some crisp, some a little chewy (why?) – came with four condiments, of which the most impressive was a homemade lime pickle with a lot of kick, like a midget with a black belt, and of which the least impressive was the mango chutney, suspiciously syrupy for a restaurant that puts such an emphasis on everything being made from scratch. Thankfully the starter was much better, the ‘trio of Shezan specials’ not rocking the boat whilst still adding a little flair; a samosa, crisp and hot and pleasingly oily, was well-seasoned and full of fresh vegetables, its tamarind dipping sauce accompaniment tangy and intriguing; a vivid green half seekh kebab, the lamb tasty and tender, was better seasoned than usual, though disappointingly half-absent; what appeared to be a chicken pakora was competent enough, overriding my bias against chicken; lastly, chana chat, which served as a base for the others, may well have been delicious: sadly, though, the chick peas were unpalatably firm.
Though I would not usually devote an entire paragraph to a single gripe, on this occasion I feel I must. The speed of the service was atrocious. We must have waited at least 45 minutes for our main course, being told by each of the three waiters we asked that it was “just coming”. In a restaurant with only four or five tables occupied, this kind of waiting time – which, in total, caused the whole meal to drag out to nearly three hours – is unacceptable.
Anyway, the mains eventually turned up. One Goa chicken and one prawn masala Goa style, accompanied by lemon rice, Indian sweet rice, and a paneer naan. Strikingly presented, the prawn masala came in a traditional copper pot (as do all their curries) with a majestic and delicious king prawn garnish, tail still attached. Unfortunately, the curry itself came not with a bang, but a whimper, as the explosions of bold chilli, nutty coconut, and zingy lime to which I was so looking forward were instead dulled, barely perceptible, the reduction of what could have been a great curry evident too in the use of the sort of tiny prawnlets you would use as bait rather than the great juicy things for which there is no real substitute. Goan chicken was tender and more coconutty but ultimately more of the same, a boring curry for the boringest of meats. The rice dishes were more or less indistinguishable, save for the crunch of the odd cashew in the lemon one, and the paneer naan looked like it had cheese on, but I’ll be damned if I could taste it. Shezan had better have a bloody good trick up its sleeve for dessert.
Shezan did not have a bloody good trick up its sleeve for dessert at all. I ordered gulab jamun with ice cream, but due to communication problems (the Indian analogue of Manuel being one of the waiters) I only received the first bit. Resembling a pair of testicles to an uncomfortable extent, the gulab jamun did not taste much better than it looked, the unpleasantly sickly, perfumed rosewater syrup rendering the balls soggy and cloying. Meanwhile, the promising-sounding pistachio and mango kulfi (kulfi? kulfis? I don’t know.) turned out to be two scoops of vaguely greenish pistachioless ice cream and two of orangeish ice cream which tasted passably of mango.
The lassi was nice, though.
[caption id="attachment_42096" align="alignnone" width="300"] PHOTOS/Raph Torrance[/caption]
For most of us, Summertown has unshakeable connotations of exam stress, be it feverishly cramming in the sub fusc-packed Starbucks or walking through the marquee of doom to face another three-hour paper. But as you leave the infernal clutches of Ewert House amidst the revelry, take a glance across the road for a real post-exam treat. Florio Bar and Kitchen is a relatively new addition to the Summertown line-up, and certainly worth your patronage; the downstairs plays host to a charming, modern restaurant with contrasting fixtures that hark back to the Roaring Twenties, such as seltzer bottles and crystal chandeliers. The upstairs, however, is a carpeted den of luxury, decked out with sofas you could melt into, a panoramic bay window, and, most importantly, a fully-stocked bar with all manner of cocktail ingredients.
We opt for the downstairs, pouncing upon a duo of starters and poncing upon a pair of cocktails; the latter a maple-scented house special and the ‘Forbidden Fruit’, redolent of Prohibition-era libations, the former some of the most innovative fish dishes around. Delicate scallops, seared to tender perfection, were offset by intensely smoky chorizo, whilst a Catalan fish soup, rich and vermillion with spicy paprika, held three tender mussels beneath the broth. A new addition to the menu was intriguing, if perhaps unbalanced: chicory and rocket salad with caramelised figs, parmesan, and blood orange dressing had all the makings of summery perfection, but was often unpalatably bitter, despite the fruity sweetness.
But any bitterness was soon washed clean from our mouths by a classic tart gin Bramble and a Jasper Collins: the minty twist on its brother, Tom. The mains did yet more to impress, as a glazed confit duck leg and a roast rump of spring lamb appeared before us, both exemplary meat mains which we have nary seen done better; the duck, which lay on a bed of root vegetables, had an exquisite red wine reduction, the combination proving unrelentingly rich in its abundance, whilst the lamb, wonderfully tender, was a festival of flavours. With a stack of spring onion potato, a smidge of celeriac purée, and a garnish of poached grapes, it proved that the Florio chefs have a perfect grasp of innovative taste combination, as the sweet, tender grapes and earthy celeriac added a burst of flavour to the juicy, pink lamb.
Dessert was something of a mixed bag: the treacle sponge, soaked in a wonderfully tangy blood orange marmalade, was an island in a sea of fluffy crème anglaise; a bouncy and homely and flavoursome sponge, as all desserts should be. However, a promising-sounding strawberry and chocolate mousse pot was unexpectedly dense and had a surprising coffee edge, rich and, sadly, a little too bitter, though this could certainly be offset by one of their dessert cocktails, such as the classic Brandy Alexander.
[caption id="attachment_41941" align="alignnone" width="300"] PHOTOS/Raph Torrance[/caption]
All in all, our Florio experience was a surprising one, its seemingly nouvelle cuisine menu belying what is actually wholesome, filling, and really quite delicious fare. All the staff, even the friendly owner, are ready to welcome you with a smile and offer a stiff drink (or a girly one) to melt away your woes – and if you’ve just finished an exam, we suggest you take it to start your summer off in style.
Exactly what sort of restaurant is Bill’s? It’s a question I asked myself as we stepped through the door, and even now I can’t quite pin it down. The décor is an odd mixture: warehouse chic, rustic diner, part-kitchen, part-allotment, with industrial-looking high ceilings surrounded by art deco-esque cracked mirrors and wooden booths, all adorned with strings of chillis, shelves of homemade jam and colourful raffia, among innumerable other peculiarities. Its soundtrack, too, is an eclectic mix of the buzz of excited diners’ conversation and the stylings of James Brown, Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra, – to name but a few – all of which add to the playful, vivacious atmosphere at Bill’s. Waitresses and managers alike are exceedingly amicable and knowledgeable, always ready to drop an inside tip about what’s hot on their extensive menu, which – with all due respect to the nature of produce – changes with the seasons. An especially wide-ranging menu, it pays homage to such cuisines as Greek, American, and the universally adored fare of home, unmistakably present in every bite.
Deciding to try only what looked especially good, we ordered nigh on everything, with no small amount of terror, wonderment and delight as the literal smorgasbord of starters was presented to us. Sprawled out before our ravenous eyes were crisp, golden rings of calamari, chewy and lemony; a freshly-baked loaf of potato and rosemary bread, crunchy and fluffy in equal measure; a mezze board featuring creamy, smoky baba ghanoush, Greek houmous rich with the olivy taste of a quality extra virgin, and intensely flavoured lamb koftas, all of which were accompanied by grilled wholemeal pitta. One dish, however, could draw us both back to Bill’s singlehandedly: with the unassuming name of ‘mini Cumberland sausages glazed with grain mustard and honey’, we were not expecting a great deal beyond the usual. However, these miniature gobfuls of heaven, juicy and meaty, tattooed with char-marks and covered in the most ambrosial of honey mustard glazes, arrived in an adorable little saucepan, which was duly licked clean of its sauce.
Whilst waiting for the main course, we partook of what was a mere drop in the ocean of their comprehensive drinks list: an amaretto sour made with pink lemonade was tart, amandine and exceptionally refreshing, as was the eponymous Bill’s Beer, a golden ale produced a stone’s throw from the original Bill’s. For those with less alcoholic tastes, the raspberry, peach and mango juice comes very highly recommended and with a melon garnish (though I’m sure a nip of rum couldn’t do it any harm).
On to the mains we proceeded with gusto, albeit weighed down a little from the starters. The selection is broad, but what caught our eye were some especially attractive fish dishes, most of which seem to rise above a somewhat uninspired selection of meat mains – though the classics are covered, should you desire them. Bill’s fish pie, featuring queen scallops and tiger prawns alongside the usual piscinities, was a nautical triumph, its range of textures and fluffy mash topping requiring only a smidge of mustard to give it some bite. Similarly, the crab and smoked haddock fishcakes, ostensibly a ‘lighter main’, were satisfying indeed, their tangy mango-based salad proving a perfect partner, as did the charmingly-presented mug of sweet potato chips, crisp and caramelised, and unbeatable with dash of salt.
Full to bursting, we nonetheless soldiered on to taste the desserts, luscious-sounding dishes which we had been coveting for a good long while. A slice of warm pecan pie, gooey and maply but with a satisfying crunch, came with a scoop of malted banana ice cream which was entirely out of this world when compared to most overly-sweet knockoffs, the bananas used obviously green and crisp rather than cloyingly sugary and ripe. The jewel of this dessert menu, however, is quite clearly the sextet of mini cinnamon doughnuts, fresh out of the hot oil and served with a rich chocolate sauce. Orgasmically fluffy and entirely irresistible, they could well be the best item on the entire menu.
Bill’s offers both breakfast and afternoon tea as well as the usual lunch and dinner, the selection for the latter comprising all their desserts as well as twists on old classics, including jaffa cake and lamingtons. Luckily, if you become enamoured of the charm and fare at Bill’s, both are available for purchase through their grocery service, allowing you to take home anything from homemade jam to enamel pots, extra-virgin olive oil to Bill’s delightful brew. So forget about Murray and Cosby, Gates and Clinton: Bill’s of St Michael’s Street is the only one you need remember.
[caption id="attachment_41910" align="alignnone" width="270"] PHOTOS/Raph Torrance[/caption]