Food

Jamie's Italian
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Jamie’s Italian: More about the money, less about the mamma mia

 

It’s obvious Jamie’s Italian isn’t going to be overflowing with raw, traditional peasant dishes, cooked just the way Mamma used to make them. Mr Oliver is big business, embarrassingly lucrative, and no artisan front or charming Mediterranean waiting staff can reconcile that this is just as much a shop as it is a restaurant.

I’m not crazy about a restaurant selling you their chopping board range (range of sizes too: S, M, and XXL, for when you carve that braised shank of whale) while you eat. It’s nothing aggressive – no secondhand car salesmanship gimmicks here – more passive-aggressive. It’s often been derided as cultish, all walls blessed with the presence of Kim Jong Jamie. But I don’t think it’s all that overbearing and sinister. Only the casual shelf here and there, loaded with merchandise that no apple-pie homemaker could live without, and all so delightfully rustic! Like a flasher or a high-rate Amsterdam whore, the Naked Chef flirts with you, boasting all the utensils for a perfect meat and two veg, an arsenal that will cost a pretty penny to get your hands on. He’s not shoving it down your throat; he’s merely presenting himself suggestively to those rich or desperate enough to indulge.

I’m not actually that taken aback by it all. It’s a joint with a TV chef pasted all over the windows, it ain’t going to be subtle. You do have to deal with this Jamie-flavoured white noise though, and if you’re not too keen on the cheeky chappie a night here might leave one with a bitter aftertaste. Visually one can appreciate the shabby (but not actually shabby) chic vibe, with the deli set-up and one of those counters where, if you’re piss-bored or have no friends, you can watch them cook your food. It’s bucolic without the knee-deep cow shit, perfetto.

Jamie’s does show there’s more to Italian cuisine than a Margherita, by serving no pizza whatsoever. Bereft of my staple choice, I started with arancini, continued with an aubergine, spinach and ricotta cannelloni, and ended on macerated strawberries with elderflower and frozen yoghurt. It was delicious, with good-sized portions and speedy service. A Pizza Express plus, despite the lack of pizza.

There are only so many places to bleed the parents dry, when they pop down to remind you that you can’t afford nice things beyond a night sodden in store-brand lager. For those this side of Broad Street, Jamie’s has that balance between exquisitely marketed dishes (a selection of artisan breads followed by wild rabbit casarecce) and Michelin costs that satisfies both the stomach and the inevitable guilt-ridden loosening of purse strings.

 

Jamie’s Italian Oxford

 

PHOTO/afromusing

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My first time with kung-po, chow mein, and foo yung

Boarding school: hardly something synonymous with cultural diversity, horizon-broadening or wildly new experiences. Nonetheless, it was in my year nine dorm at the establishment I called “home” for five years that my eyes were opened to a ritual that has come to shape my culinary outlook ever since: the Chinese takeaway.

Growing up on the edge of a village so small that most of my friends still struggle to believe it has mains electricity, my childhood self considered takeaways an treat reserved exclusively for metropolitan city dwellers like those I worshipped from Friends. The closest I got to this experience was our weekly fish and chip van pilgrimage, but standing in the rain watching someone throw pale, half-cooked chips into splattering hot oil never seemed to posses what I imagined to be the magic of someone arriving on the doorstop as if from nowhere with a selection of hot, specially prepared exotic food.

So it was that, sitting cross legged on the floor of the room I shared with four other girls, my excitement escalated as we waited for the big moment.

The event had been planned meticulously in advance. The week before, a friend had obtained menus for nearby takeaways, and those in the know (which turned out to be pretty much everyone but me) set about comparing the relative merits and prices of the different establishments, finally settling on the Jasmine Garden because “you get free prawn crackers with every order and they have pictures on the menu”.

It was decided that we would go for a mixture of things, so everyone could share, and this suited me perfectly; the prospect of having to choose alone between dishes as mysterious as kung-po, chow mein and foo yung was not one I would have looked forward to. Once the call had been made, preparations were made for the grand arrival, each of us rifling through the makeshift kitchens for plates, knives and forks with which to delve into our meals.

Then the phone rang.

Playing it cool around the other girls for whom this was a regular, unremarkable experience, I traipsed downstairs to the front door, watching in awe as the exchange took place, £19.50 for two white plastic bags filled to the brim with plastic boxes. Where to begin?

It seemed everyone else was starting with the prawn crackers, so naturally I did the same, dipping my first into a pot of sauce I later would come to recognise as hoi-sin. A sucker for all things with the slightest hint of sugar, I was swept away by the sweetness of the sticky brown sauce that coated the airy, crisp white cracker, and soon devoured several more.

Then began the main event. Everyone set about piling spoonfuls of the immense array of dishes onto their plates, as if following a minutely choreographed routine of this-red-sauce-poured-over-that, these-spring-rolls-dipped-in-this, which I quickly realised I would never manage to fully comprehend first time around. Instead, painfully aware that the longer I took the less I would get to try, I threw hazard to the wind and set about choosing dishes at random and arranging them carefully in separate mounds around the edge of my plate, the egg-fried rice heaped in the middle to avoid cross-contamination; it seemed essential to me that if I were to fully appreciate this experience I ought be able to distinguish between each of its various components, a habit I am prone to slip back into from time to time even now.

My mind soon set to work attempting to compile a hierarchy of each new taste, privileging the lemon chicken, partly because of the amazing golden crispiness on the outside, mostly because Zoe, who was unbelievably cool and had already had 3 boyfriends, said it was her favourite. It is only now that my older self draws more cynical conclusions about the origins of its gelatinous yellow sauce that looked and tasted so much like citrus washing up liquid.

A close second was the crispy duck pancakes, undoubtedly I was won over by the DIY element of pile, drizzle, sprinkle, roll (the one rule I managed to pick up that evening, and which I still follow religiously even now), and they, along with the heavenly golden triangles that are sesame prawn toasts, remain a personal favourite.

Since that night, many a Chinese takeaway as found itself in front of me, and though the bland uniformity of flavour of most dishes so promisingly described by many a menu means few subsequent meals have been the gastronomic eye-opener of that first time, the thrill of opening the door to a hot, additive infused, meal is something that retains the power to banish the fear of even the worst essay-induced crisis.

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Going out with a Big Bang at Oxford’s pork joint

Freedom is slavery, said a great man who knew a thing or two about pig farming. Paralysed by the vast range of the Wetherspoons menu, I begin to understand. Hundreds of dishes jostle for space on the easy-wipe A3 sheet, all of which will emerge uniformly pallid and damp. Perhaps if they just cut down a bit, they’d be able to do a small number of mediocre items, rather than boundless iterations of the same miserable slip of grey meat accompanied by your regulation five-and-a-half chips.

The Big Bang seems to have a much better idea. Minor variations on the same staple – you’ll never guess what – form the bulk of the menu. Cumberland. So far, so normal. Pork and apple. Good. Wild boar and pigeon. What? Lamb and apricot tagine. How? Toulouse. Where?

You can get three sausages served over any mash with gravy, along with peas, red cabbage and fried onions, for £12.49. In the spirit of journalistic enquiry, I plump for this option. For those of you without the swollen OxStu expenses account for which I have been pleading, there’s a ‘Cheapskate’ option for £6.99.

The Piri Piri Chicken sausage is fiery and dense, and would have been deftly mollified by the creamy mash, if I hadn’t gone and chosen the grain mustard variety with stilton gravy. Fortunately, the mash is so darn good that it didn’t matter. Strewn with dark little mustard seeds, it almost steals the show, soft, fluffy, and welcoming to the sharp, crunchy strips of red cabbage.

Wild boar and pigeon sausage – gamey AND piggy. Genius. And the venison – a haughty hereditary peer of a sausage, which reclines on its mash like a country pile on a sprawling estate, until I scarf the lot and end its reign of lean, beefy terror. Gratifyingly thick, the plentiful gravy helps me sop up every last morsel of an excellent meal.

Here ends Part One of my Big Bang experience. My next visit was part of a crew date, an unnervingly regressive experience at the best of times. If I wanted noise, mess, and enforced girl-boy seating, I’d go back to primary school. But I can see why the Big Bang have a dedicated crew date night, cramming us all in, like umpteen sausages packed together in the same intestinal casing, sweating like the pigs we’re wolfing down – it’s lucrative, and it’s fun. Supposedly.

It’s also crowded – very crowded. I have to slalom my way into a chair, halted every time some chump in my path stands up to unleash a sconce which nobody will even hear, such is the cacophony under the low-slung ceiling. Granted, the food is infinitely better than Jamal’s used to be, but the venue, a clean, modern, light corner of the Castle Quarter, just isn’t suitable for conventional crew dates.

But the Big Bang still has a lot going for it. They try to source all their ingredients from within 20 miles of Oxford, supporting some excellent small suppliers. They work with prisoners nearing the end of their sentences to give them a valuable route back into employment. And its manager, Max Mason, is – bizarrely – followed by Barack Obama on Twitter – quite an endorsement.

Don’t go to one of Oxford’s many chain restaurants, even if you’re a vegetarian, and even it’s not dinnertime: there are four kinds of vegetarian sausage, and they do coffee and fry-ups during the day. And, for all this, it’s extremely good value, with a midweek lunch currently costing a very reasonable £5. If you want bang for your buck, you know where to go.

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Faith, food and fusion: a multicultural Christmas

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

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Café Coco: where the food’s loco…but in a good way

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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"]IMG_1716 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.

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The Mad Hatter serves up something to go to your head (and it ain’t mercury)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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"]IMG_1637 PHOTOS/Raph Torrance & Danny Piper[/caption]

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