Sunday 19 October 2014

Trend Zone - the scary and the cool

Published in the Sept/Oct edition of Vale Life Magazine

When it comes to food, simple is often best. Traditional Victoria Sponge, good old steak and chips, comforting cheese on toast, or early morning bacon sarnies on really good bread – all these things can be perfectly executed with little need for fuss. Every now and then though, I just need something, well, different.

Tonight I'm off out to a restaurant near MrF’s hometown, where the menu consists mostly of burgers and steak. Not just any old burgers and steak though, seven different cuts of steak (or a mixed grill if you simply cannot choose) and eighteen, yes EIGHTEEN, variations of burger. There are small plates and salads available, but when online reviews promise the “best burgers” in the local vicinity, which are “to die for & on par (if not better) than high end London restaurants”, well, what’s a Foodie to do – I'll take one of those thank you very much. In fact, I'm currently struggling to decide between “The Frenchie”: topped with pan fried Foie Gras, gingerbread and truffle mayo, and the “Crabby Patty”: a pan fried crab burger with baby herb leaf, tomato and spicy mayo. Decisions, decisions.

The trend for gourmet burgers with endless topping choices clearly isn't a new thing; neither is pulled pork, which seems to be on 90% of all menus these days. But some trends do stick around for a while, ultimately ending up shoehorned on mainstream chain restaurant menus, in a sad kind of ‘child star’ style downward spiral.

How to do pulled pork...
'The Angry Texan' from The Rusty Bicycle

2012 trends predicted by The Telegraph included: cheap cuts of meat, slow roasted and served up with store cupboard essentials; all things pickled, inspired by kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage); meatballs; salt beef; casual dining (think minimal interiors or supper clubs); and doughnuts. All recession-friendly and easy on the pocket.

Jump forward to 2014 and slow cooked meats are still on menus, you'll likely still see kimchi and salt beef kicking around and supper club popularity continues to rise.

According to The Guardian though, future food trends are much scarier. Kale ice lollies? Please God no. Smart knives that can check the levels of harmful bacteria while you're cutting? Too much information.  Alcohol awareness ice cubes, which warn you if you're drinking too fast? No thank you. Sensors embedded in your teeth that report your diet and smoking habits back to your doctor? No. Freaking. Way.

There’s a fine line between genius and crazy, and you sometimes have to go a little crazy to find the genius ideas. Personally, I can’t wait to see what comes next, and I'm all in favour of a little crazy – you just won’t catch me near the kale lollies. 

Friday 8 August 2014

Restaurant Review - The Old Parsonage, Oxford

Location: 1 Banbury Road, Oxford, Oxford OX2 6NN, UK

After what had been a stressful July, MrF and I decided it was high time to let our hair down. With one MiniF nearing three years old and the other approaching one, we booked our first child-free 24 hours in well over a year and a half. Feeling a little flush and in need of a worthy celebration venue (no kids... for TWENTY FOUR hours!), the shortlist was very short indeed. High Table, an old favourite of ours, was fully booked; so the slightly more grandiose Old Parsonage, part of the Mogford Group and sister to Quod and Gee's, was booked. I'd been for dinner once, years ago, and afternoon tea since, but hadn't stepped foot inside since it's refurb and was eager to visit.

Monkey bag, tiger dummy and Mummy's scarf packed up and kids loaded in Grandad's car, the front door shut and I was enveloped by a quiet quite unfamiliar. The mantel clock ticked by with a loud clattering beat, wind blew threw the open sashes, gently nudging blinds back and forth. I sat. Forty minutes passed and the only thing awakening me from my dreamlike state was a call from my parents reporting safe arrival.

Time to party! OK, that might be a slight exaggeration. 

The night started off with a couple of Havana Clubs at The Royal Oak, before making our way to Old Parsonage. MrF, in his wisdom, had selected an outfit of t-shirt and jeans - albeit with smart shoes - and we were immediately offered the option of sitting in an empty second dining room to one side of the main entrance, separate from the main dining area and directly behind the front terrace. We assumed this was down to MrF's attire, though it turned out to be quite the result for a 'date night', having it all to ourselves for a large part of the evening. 

Our waiter for the evening, a fine young man with an eager presence and professional nature, allowed us space to settle in, offering menus, drinks, table water and subsequently bread - a delicious sourdough sourced, as I understand it, from local baker Natural Bread Company. Surrounding us were portraits of artists, writers and even Mr Mogford himself (prompting me to imagine him standing aside his own image for an instagram shot, #doubleselfie?). Walls and paneling painted with a dark mauve, curtains a rich velvet in deep pink hue, aged wooden doors natural and thick with original metal rivets. You could be fooled into thinking this was a modern day take on a secondary residence for Henry VIII.

MrF may have felt a little out of place, but my inner princess felt really rather at home - fetch my other glass slipper and I'll happily stay a little longer. 

Delicious sourdough from local baker,
The Natural Bread Company

Back to the job at hand, our regal feast began with fish soup, served with rouille and croutons (£8). Having told MrF in advance I would definitely be partaking in three courses, we both opted for fairly light starters and mains, selecting a luxurious sounding lobster salad for main (£18.50 - sometimes available as a starter for £9.50). On arrival, the soup matched in quality with others I'd sampled at equally high end restaurants - velvety as the drapes, rich as the clientele - though in need of a tad more seasoning. The salad of lobster, avocado, fennel, radish and little gem was tasty, though a little underwhelming. I'd have possibly preferred a more exciting leaf, possibly frisee, to add a more interesting dimension and greater elevation of the dish. Little gem felt a tad too common for it's classy crustacean partner. The lobster itself was delicious though and generous enough in portion, plump and sweet with freshness. 

Tasty but underwhelming, lobster salad

The pace of the meal flowed naturally and calmly, allowing us to savour the evening. We were joined by this point by another couple. With tables spaced comfortably apart there was no feeling of crowding or lack of privacy, impressive given the diminutive size of our 'private' dining space.

Dessert glided in, crème brûlée (£6.50) for me, raspberry ripple ice cream (£6) for MrF. MrF really does love his ice cream, if it's on the menu in a restaurant, you can guarantee that he'll choose it. But raspberry ripple? In a posh restaurant? Seemed like an odd choice, even for him. His predictability did him no favours on this occasion, as he wasn't impressed with his ice cream - bordering on crumbly with ice particles throughout. My crème brûlée on the other hand, well that was divine. Rather than a deep ramekin, this brûlée was served low and wide, in a small gratin-style dish, allowing for a greater proportion of sugar crust to soft underbelly. Delicious. The caramelised sugar topping was perfectly executed - just thin enough, just caramelised enough, with a satisfying crack upon meeting the spoon.

Perfectly executed crème brûlée

With 12.5% service automatically added to the bill, no extra thought was required on paying. After an experience of this quality, I have no objection to that. Ask me about automatic service charges after a solitary sandwich or crêpe though and my answer will differ.

Including drinks (lager, wine, rum, dessert wine and mint tea!) and service, the bill totalled just under £110. Pretty impressive given the expensive perception of Old Parsonage. Certainly we'd ordered light for main, but without consideration to price, so it was pleasing to see a posh meal out in Oxford can be obtained without having to break the bank.

Overall Score: 8

Old Parsonage
1 Banbury Road
Twitter: @OldParsonageOx
Facebook: @OldParsonageHotel
01865 310210

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Bring back the buffet!

Published in the Jun/Jul edition of Vale Life Magazine

Photo credit: University of Exeter

As I write this I'm three days away from being bridesmaid at one of my best friend’s weddings. I haven’t been a bridesmaid since I was about twelve and never particularly enjoyed it then. With five of us as bridesmaids this weekend, you might be surprised to hear I'm one of the tallest – especially given I’m about 5’3”. I'm not massively excited at the prospect of towering over most of the wedding party on the bride’s side, nor am I excited about teetering around on a risky pair of 4” heels. What I am looking forward to, however, is seeing my friend getting married; she’s kissed her fair share of frogs and has finally met one who isn't a complete pillock.

BUT, all that pales by comparison, to what I'm most excited about… the food of course!

You see I love a bit of wedding catering. A little bubbly here, some banquet food there, table wine, wedding favours, canapés, maybe even a buffet if I'm lucky.

Wait, what? Yes, the B-word is a little out of favour these days, but as a natural grazer I like nothing more than a sea of tasty treats stretching from one end of a room to the other.  I am very partial to the odd prawn vol au vent (who am I kidding, I’d happily clear a plate by myself), but I'm not talking cheese and pineapple on sticks or frozen sausage rolls. I’m talking big beautiful salads, crostini, gourmet quiches and tarts, really good sausage rolls, salmon, prawns, terrines, cheeses, plus platter after platter of meat. And puddings, think of all those puddings! From the obligatory trifle, to pavlovas, cheesecakes, wedding cake... profiteroles!

I'm literally like a kid in a sweet shop. My knees go weak, my pulse races, my eyes widen. And as much as a try not to leg it to the buffet table as fast as my little legs will carry me, in my head I've already dived straight for the cold cuts, rolled around in the meringues and landed in a happy heap amongst the cupcakes.

Photo credit: Alpha

We may have moved on from buffets to more formal sit down meals or street food fun these days, but I'm sure that if I just wait long enough, the buffet will come back around again - eventually.

If, however, my friend went a bit 80’s and I do spot my beloved prawn vol au vents this weekend, don’t be surprised if I lose all sense of dignity after one too many glasses of fizz and end up head first in the crustacean canapés. Just look the other way, nothing to see here. 

Saturday 14 June 2014

Restaurant Review - Oxford's Grill

Location: 21 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1HP, UK

Once in a while, a restaurant comes along that looks like nothing special, but knocks your socks off with amazing food. Port Mahon was the last place that did that to me, while Hamzah was still Chef, but that was some time ago and we may have to wait a while longer till his return at The Chester. After several restaurants that have over-promised and under-delivered of late, I was blown away once more - this time by a humble little Turkish cafe at the bottom of Cowley Road.

With its bright red, budget-looking signage and windows busily adorned with menus, frosting and stick-on text, the cafe lacks any kind of kerb appeal. My only real desire to visit was born from hearing numerous people raving about it, about the amazing food within.

Visiting on this occasion, with MrF and the littlest Foodie, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. It was our Anniversary night and we were desperate for some time out, some peace and quite, with really good food. From the outset, it may have seemed like an odd place for an Anniversary meal, but if you're sleep deprived like we were, you just need something low key and easy. It turned out though, that we had some of the best food we'd had in a very long time.

On arrival at Oxford's Grill, we were all warmly welcomed by the Manager and directed to a table by the window, next to a large green pot plant, before being presented with menus, table water and some complimentary bread and houmous. I can't think of many places in Oxford offering complimentary bread and houmous - especially any where you would pay less than £20 a head and still get great food. The houmous was soft and silky, with the right balance of tahini, chickpea and lemon - a generous portion too - alongside a decent supply of traditional Turkish bread, pide - a flat'ish bread with a texture somewhere between ciabatta and farmhouse.

The menu contains a mixture of Mediterranean dishes like Beef Carpaccio, Lasagne and Bolognaise, alongside a larger quantity of traditional Turkish dishes like Borek (baked filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough), Imam Biyaldi (braised aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes, simmered in olive oil, and served at room temperature), Shish and Kofte.

I love Beef Carpaccio (£4.95), so had to order that, while MrF chose Sucuk (£3.95), a Turkish garlic sausage. For mains, Iskender pour moi (£9.95 - grilled layers of kofte, lamb and chicken, presented on crispy bread cubes and served with yoghurt and a tomato sauce) and Pirzola with mashed potato for him (£12.95 - marinated lamb chops with crispy leeks, on  mashed potato or rice with a shallot sauce).

The starters were good, though didn't leave us wowed. The Turkish sausage, served simply cut in half, was flavoursome and slightly spicy, and unfortunately far too well flavoured to try before my carpaccio - which I did. Once the spikes of cumin, sumac and salt had left my palate, the carpaccio tasted much better, though it's difficult to judge. I wouldn't say it was the best carpaccio I'd eaten.

It was really the mains though where OG excelled. Beautifully plated up, each dish looked amazing. MrF's dish had a think and buttery looking mound of mash, topped off with dark glazed lamb chops, delicately splayed out in a circle, all drizzled with the shallot sauce and topped off with an unexpected but evidently delicious aubergine crisp, finished with a dusting of sumac around the edge of the plate. My Iskender looked slightly less pretty, but attractive nonetheless - a generous portion of marinated mixed meats and bread, beside a large dollop of thick yoghurt, all surrounded by a moat of rich, paprika-red tomato sauce.

Literally diving in, we both looked at each other with eyes wide, this was amazing food - tasty, expertly cooked, with perfectly balanced spices and seasoning. Tangy in some parts, sweet or savoury in others - each mouthful wowed. I eyed up MrF's Pirzola, and he my Iskender, so swapping ensued. Both swaps met with grunts of appreciation, and an acknowledgement that we'd each landed the perfect dish for our personal tastes.

The Iskender was delightful, with an abundance of the stunningly piquant tomato sauce, spiked but what I can only imagine was paprika. The yoghurt accompaniment a nicely cooling companion, providing a creamy contradiction to the zesty tomato sauce. The Mash underneath the lamb chops adorning MrF's plate was exceptionally tasty, thick and luxurious, though bordering on rubbery in texture (I would say due to excess mashing by a food processor rather than over-cooking). Given that I'm not a big fan of fluffy mash, this was a good thing for me. The aubergine crisp was a huge hit with MrF, who usually avoids eggplant, as were the lamb chops - the caveman-style gnawing of the bone was testament to this.

Upon reaching the end of our meal, as MiniF2 was beginning to become unsettled, we agreed we needed to return - a lot! With this quality of food, at these fabulous prices (they offer a lunch deal of £6.95 for 2 courses, or a set dinner menu of £10.95 for 2 courses and a glass of wine), the place should be full every day - which is isn't - so go there, NOW!

Overall Score: 8

If I was just reviewing the mains, then 10/10 - stunningly good food in a remarkably humble setting, with warm and hospitable service throughout at exceptional prices. Keep your eyes out on Bitten for an #OxTweatUp there. Takeaway also available (but it tastes better if you eat in).

Oxfords Grill
21 Cowley Road
Twitter: @OxfordsGrill
Facebook: @Oxfords-Grill-Turkish-Restaurant
Phone: 01865 201120

Restaurant Review - The Mole & Chicken

Location: Long Crendon, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP18 9EY, UK

In recent months, the only time MrF and I have had the chance to enjoy a meal out together has been mostly for an occasion of some sort - my Birthday, our Anniversary, or simply a long overdue date night. On these special occasions, I try my utmost to hold back all temptation of photographing the food, the setting, the frontage... pretty much everything. Long suffering MrF has waited countless times to dive into his food, while I spin the plate to the best angle and snap away with my camera phone. It's bad enough that he has to wait for me, a notoriously slow eater, to finish my meal while he looks on in anguish, ordering yet another pint of ale or glass of wine.

Our recent visit to The Mole & Chicken was for my Birthday, not a milestone birthday, but a birthday nonetheless, so I knew I wanted somewhere low key but with great food. Who better to test the water for me than the future King and Queen of England, who stopped by a few months ago.

So with a venue fit for a Queen (to be) and Grandparents booked for babysitting, off we trotted to a restaurant we hadn't been to for almost two years. We'd only visited twice before, but both times had been exceptional: the first - a light lunch on the rear terrace with views of rolling green pastures and puffy green trees, the second - a visit for Father's Day a couple of years ago, with a spot of delicious Sunday Lunch inside the pub.

This time round, we were visiting for an evening meal, which we'd been looking forward to since I booked it a few days prior. Pouring over the menu, I knew exactly what I wanted - it was a celebration meal and a celebration calls for STEAK! So building a menu around my ribeye, I opted for a lighter shaved fennel salad to start. Seeing as it's now just over a month since my Birthday, and given I was a little tipsy on wine, I've since completely forgotten what else the salad contained - but I do recall enjoying it if that helps (note to self, if not taking pictures, remember to take notes!). MrF had the Flaked Confit Duck Salad with spicy thai herbs & cashew nuts to start (£8.50) which he mostly enjoyed, though felt it lacking a little in punch.

As we awaited our mains, we chatted about The Mole & Chicken's similarity in feel to that of The Mole Inn, in Toot Baldon. It so transpired that both mole-monikered pubs are in fact related - take one look at the bespectacled mole logos and you'll spot that. Both L-shaped pubs share the same Franglaise 'country kitchen chic' decor, with solid wooden furniture, dried flowers and muted colour palettes. The layout is almost identical too - you walk in to find the bar offside to the left, with the dining area further left and extending into the left wing. Both have beautiful sun-trap gardens, with traditional garden furniture, perfect for dining al fresco on a hazy sunny day.

Having enjoyed food at both establishments, I'm pleased to say the consistency of quality is also a common denominator. Time for mains - Braised Shoulder of Lamb for MrF, with creamed potatoes, spring vegetables and fresh mint (£19.95), which while delicious, was no match for my steak - served perfectly medium-rare with an outstanding peppercorn sauce, tomato, mushroom and excellent chips (£19.50).

We didn't have room for puddings at the end (we'd naughtily had some bread and sumptuously silky houmous on arrival), but I was pleased to be furnished with a cup of fresh mint tea at the end of the meal - no second-choice tea bag in sight.

Off we rolled home, bellies full and hearts warmed.

Overall score: 9

The Mole & Chicken
Nr Long Crendon
HP18 9EY
Twitter: @moleandchicken
Phone: 01844 208 387

Wednesday 21 May 2014

CiCi-CoCo Cookery School

Location: Cuddington, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP18, UK

One wet Wednesday a couple of months ago, I arrived at a gorgeous little stone cottage, in a village on the outskirts of Aylesbury. The cottage itself turned out to be quite the tardis - opening out into a modern glass and steel kitchen extension, overlooking beautifully manicured lawns. Greeting me on a homely wooden table was a delicious ricotta and almond cake, flanked on either side by a bottle of San Pellegrino and a big bunch of Tulips - not the toughest of days then!

So what was the reason for this escape from my usual chaos of nappies and play groups? A cookery class at CiCi-CoCo Cookery School, to which I had kindly been invited by Giuliana - the lady behind CiCi-CoCo and its wonderful lasagne!

If you've visited Vale Harvest Market in the past, or ventured to Selfridges Food Hall, then you may be familiar with CiCi-CoCo already. Residing in Cuddington in Buckinghamshire, Giuliana originates from much sunnier climes, specifically Friuli Venezia Giulia in the north of Italy. Having built a business selling Italian meals and pasta, picking up a few awards along the way, Giuliana branched out into cookery classes - lucky for me, as it meant I got to spend a few pleasant hours with good people and good food.

Over the course of the next three hours I, along with three other students (one young couple whose places were purchased as a gift, plus a returning student), assisted in the preparation of a two course Italian meal, centred around the 'Flavours of the Italian Alps' - a  sumptuous polenta starter of Toc' in Braide (the farmer sauce), followed by an Oxford wild venison, pork, mushroom and Sud Tirol speck ragu baked with Socchievina mountain style polenta. Not quite diet food, but then when is diet food ever this good?

A slice of cake and a cuppa was the perfect ice breaker and start to the course, then pinnies on, hands washed and on with the cooking. Baked polenta and the ragu to start with, wonderfully high quality ingredients all laid out awaiting our attention. We chopped, we chatted, we tasted, we drank more coffee; I even picked up a few tips along the way (add some milk to your ragu - sounds a bit odd but leads to a wonderfully rich and creamy).

Once the ragu was simmering and the polenta was in the oven, we moved on to our wickedly naughty starter - think full fat milk, polenta, butter, cream and cheese, topped of with sautéed mushrooms - absolutely delicious. Rich, smooth, silky... bordering on sensual, this would be well received at any dinner party or restaurant. Once we'd all ooh'd and ahh'd over the soft polenta it was time to move on to the baked version, this time with that wonderful rich ragu. Served up with braised cabbage and bacon, the ragu and mountain style polenta was earthy, heart-hugging, home cooking; great for a large family gathering or meal with friends.

With the cookery class done, I was somewhat hesitant to leave the cool calm of Giuliana's kitchen; she'd been a warm host, a patient teacher and an oasis of calm amidst a sea of life's usual to-do lists, chores and toddler negotiations. I'd met some great people, talked a lot about food, eaten well and added a few extra dishes to my personal repertoire - not a bad way to spend a morning!

If you've previously purchased some of Giuliana's fab lasagne (count me in, I loved the venison & chestnut version), then you'll be sad to hear she is no longer selling them. But, if you're interested in attending one of her cookery classes then you'll be very happy to hear Giuliana will be focussing her efforts here, with a selection of interesting classes coming up. And, if you're a home-leaving student in need a repertoire of meals to cook yourself, or the parent or grandparent of one, then Giuliana's 'Cooking for College' classes will definitely be of interest.

Here's a list of CiCi-CoCo's upcoming classes (do check the website for further events):

06/06/2014 – Friday 10-3
Tyringham Hall: £95
Italian lunch 2. 
Summer in Tuscany: family lunch al fresco. Traditional recipes form the Tuscan hills using local and seasonal ingredients to taste for lunch. Perfect with a good bottle of Chianti in the wonderful setting of Tyringham hall.

17/06/2014 Tuesday 10-3
Beam Cottage: £65
Quattro pasta 3: Summer feast!
Summer’s here. Enjoy making pasta for lunches, in salads with the best local seasonal produce, meats and cheeses.

29/06/2014 Sunday 10-3
Sandy Lane Farm: £95
Italian lunch 3. 
A Sicilian family feast! 
Using all the beautiful ingredients from the farm you will cook and eat a three courses Sicilian style lunch with a refreshing glass of wine. 

A series of fun, hands-on courses to equip first-time home-leavers with the knowledge and skills to cook simple, delicious and nutritious meals on a student budget
Session 1: The Famous Five. The five classic pasta sauces: Authentic Ragu’ alla Bolognese, Carbonara, Spicy Sausage & Chilli, Puttanesca and Neopolitan Meatball Ragu’.
Session 2: Kitchen Parties
Session 3: Quick Street Food.
Aug 6th, 12th & 14th. 10-2pm (ish) inc lunch.
£75 per session; 2 for £135; or 3 part course for £200

CiCi CoCo
Twitter: @cicicocokitchen
Facebook: @CiCiCoCoKitchen

I was invited as a guest of CiCi CoCo Cookery School

Sunday 11 May 2014

Restaurant Review - 1855

Location: Oxford Castle, 6 New Road, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 1AY, UK

The true test of a restaurant's customer service has to be in it's ability to handle a customer complaint. Serve me up an undercooked sausage then tell me it's meant to be cooked like that, I'll be livid; but apologise unreservedly and bring me a perfectly cooked banger, all is forgiven. So when faced with a rather unusual complaint from me on a recent visit, I was hugely impressed that the team at 1855 were unflappable, apologetic and quick to address the issue.

Having visited 1855 for its launch last December, I'd been meaning to return for ages, but what with one thing or another, it had taken me a while to get back there. With the promise of tasty dishes on the menu, Ue coffee at the bar and free wifi, I was pleased to be returning for a spot of blogging and a lunch meeting.

With an hour or so to spare before my meeting, I grabbed a seat in front of the glass-fronted wine bar bistro to crack on with some writing, with a little 'people watching' thrown in for good measure. Great coffee, quiet setting, hospitable staff - all going well so far. My companion (Katy) joined me a little later, ordering a house selection of three cheeses (£11.50), possibly easier for mid-meeting eating than my confit duck requested (£8.95), but arguably less enticing.

That's not a knife, THIS is a knife!
House three cheeses with hand made biscuits & quince jelly

Confit Duck with salad and sourdough

The cheese selection arrived accompanied by handmade biscuits and quince jelly, Katy happily nibbling away, showing all the signs of being satisfied with an agreeable plate of food. The confit duck arrived soft-skinned, served alongside sourdough, a tomato confit and salad leaves. Whilst some may have expected a crispy skin to their duck, I was less bothered - not a fan of fat on meat it was swiftly removed. Skin aside, the duck was delicious; simple but elegant, rich and silky, I could've eaten it several times over. While this may be one of the larger dishes on the menu, with most of the dishes being more like bar snacks, it still remains light - leaving plenty of room to partake in a glass of vino or several. On this occasion I wasn't drinking, so won't discuss the wines other than to say each one sampled on launch night impressed (and ask MrF, I'm really quite difficult to please with wine).

Still going well. That is until I found we'd not been dining alone.

With at least two thirds of the duck eaten, I found a little 'guest' which had seemingly been confit'd along with the duck, attached to the bone. On alerting a waitress quietly to the unfortunate woodlouse, she promptly whisked my plate away with a sincere apology, offering to remove both meals from our bill. General Manager, Alistair, then followed afterwards to apologise. As far as complaint handling goes, this has to be pretty textbook - no excuses, no deliberations, no doubt, just sincere apologies and removal of the food from the bill. Downright good customer service.

Now, I must say, this particular complaint was a highly unusual experience for me, and not one I expect 1855 had encountered before either. Had they handled the issue poorly, I would have gone away fuming, not wishing to return. In the end, I went away feeling happy to revisit, maybe even ordering the same dish (minus the added seasoning). Goes to show what a good customer service can do; and, to be fair, if you were ever going to eat a woodlouse then confit seems a great way to do it!

Overall score: 6 (7 without the added 'guest')

1855 provided the following comment in response:
Following this incident of the 'guest' in the duck, we... removed the remaining stock as a precaution. Each of these Confit of Duck have since been checked and nothing untoward was found... ...followed back through our hygiene procedures and at no stage could the foreign body have entered the system in either the bar or our kitchen... ...contacted our local supplier and provided details for the original supplier, we await their response. We see no reason for the issue arising at our local supplier.
 It seems from the position of the foreign item that it was within the body of meat prior to cooking. This most probably occurred during the original packaging of the duck. We work to the highest possible standards at all times through our preparation, cooking and customer service. Once again we apologise for this unusual and unfortunate incident.
4 Oxford Castle
New Road
Twitter: @1855oxford
Facebook: @1855
Phone: 01865 247217

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Foodie Overhaul

Location: Oxford, UK
Every now and then, life gets just a little more complicated and a little more hectic - you add little hobby here, a new exercise routine there, a couple of extra projects and, before you know it, you suddenly realise you can't juggle any more.

Two kids, two websites, a fledgling business, a household to manage AND a residents' committee brought me to just that point. Thankfully though, I've recognised it before it drove me totally insane.

So, time to prioritise. You'll see a few minor changes to Foodie, while I'm busily squirrelling away on Bitten Oxford, but hopefully it will mean improvements for both.

Foodie will continue, as my ongoing hunt for great food - be that in recipe books, at home, on holiday, round the corner... wherever I find it. The Foodie Events Guides will stop (sorry if you were enjoying these), and the Foodie Events Calendar will eventually relocate to Bitten as part of Bitten Events, promoting lots of wonderful food-based things do to locally.

I'll continue publishing restaurants reviews here on Foodie, along with my Top Picks and search for #OxSundayBest. The #OxTweatUp events will all be organised by Bitten, so do make sure you sign up to the Newsletter to keep up to date with upcoming events.

In the meantime stay tuned for reviews of 1855, The Wandering Kitchen and CiCi-CoCo Cookery School, plus food travel features on Suffolk and London street food.

Foodie x

Sunday 27 April 2014

Restaurant Review - Pierre Victoire

Location: 9 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford OX1 2HP, UK

With a young family at home, it's a rare treat when MrF and I get to go out for a date night. So when we do finally get the chance for a few hours to ourselves, the last thing we want to do is risk it on a restaurant that could be hit or miss. We have a few favourite 'date venues' - either they hold some kind of romantic significance, or they're simply delightful places to spend time together away from the chaos that is parenthood. But what do we look for when we want to dine out for those few precious hours on our own?

Well, let's see, we need a restaurant that's romantic, local, reasonably priced (aren't we all on a tight budget these days?!), and that serves really good food... Easy answer, Pierre Victoire.

Having been before, and loved it, we hadn't revisited since I started the blog. Not because we didn't want to, simply because we like going to a variety of places, and rarely revisit the same place repeatedly. A year or so later though, we were really excited to return. So table booked, babysitters arranged and expectations high, the big question was - could they meet those expectations? Oh yes, yes they did!

After pre dinner drinks at The Duke of Cambridge, my first step through the door at Pierre Victoire was a reminder of how 'bijou' the restaurant feels. With lots of 2-4 seater tables dotted at varying angles around a small ground floor dining area, couples and families as far as the eye could see, the restaurant feels intimate without being crowded. We were led up to an even smaller first floor dining area, near some stairs, which I assume (based on customers passing through) led to a further dining space.

With table water, menus and fresh crusty baguette with butter provided promptly, first impressions were excellent. Second impressions, from browsing the menu (not that I hadn't looked before), were better still, with a 3 course pix fixe option available for an astonishing £22 (excludes Filet de Bœuf and Rib Eye Steak Frites). Talk about a no-brainer!

MrF decided on the Chicken Liver Parfait (£6 with caramelised red onion marmalade and garlic toast), while I decided on a lighter starter of Mille Feuille de la Mer (£6.50 crab, avocado and prawn with a grapefruit vinaigrette). Both were equally tasty, beautifully presented and perfectly proportioned. The salad light and delicate, with the freshness of the shellfish brought to life by the zestiness of the vinaigrette. Both myself and MrF being big fans of chicken liver parfait, often choosing it to start a meal, and thankfully this one did not disappoint. Rich, fruity and well accompanied by the crispness of the garlic toast.

Crab, avocado and prawn with a grapefruit vinaigrette

Chicken suprême, stuffed with a mozzarella & jambon de
Bayonne farce, baked with a herb crust and served on gratin
dauphinoise with a red wine jus

Now, you'll be forgiven for mistaking the meat in the picture above for lamb at first glance - with the herb crust and threat of pink from within. But no, this was the Poulet (£11.50) ordered by MrF. Not a fan of ordering chicken in restaurants, finding them often too dull or lacking imagination, this one had me literally reeling with envy - chicken suprême, stuffed with a mozzarella & jambon de Bayonne farce, baked with a herb crust and served on gratin dauphinoise with a red wine jus. *droooooooool*. And yup, it tasted great too. NOT that I'm bitter of course.

Thankfully though, I'd ordered pretty well myself, opting for the Magret de Canard aux Pruneaux (£14) - duck breast roasted pink on a winter vegetable & potato rosti, with a prune & Armagnac sauce. De-bloody-licious! The duck was soft, and juicy, and pink, and absolutely gratifying to eat. Perched atop a vegetable rosti and drenched in that wonderful fruity and boozy sauce, I was literally in food heaven. Or at least I thought I was, until I reached dessert!

Duck breast roasted pink on a winter vegetable
& potato rosti, with a prune & Armagnac sauce

Banana Tarte Tatin

Banana Tarte Tatin!!! OMFG.... £5.50 worth of groan inducing, eye closing, fist clenching, foodie pleasure. I couldn't finish the whole thing, but what I could manage was shamefully good. A proper sexy pud... what a way to end a perfect dinner date.

Courteous and inoffensive service throughout, detectable food, fabulous prices - will I return? Just try stopping me!

Overall score: 8

They also offer a 3 course set price lunch for £10.90 Monday to Saturday, you'd be mad not to give that a try.

Pierre Victoire
9 Little Clarendon Street
Facebook: @PierreVictoire
Phone: 01865 316616

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Get Fresh on Market Date

Location: Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, UK
Published in Mar/Apr edition of Vale Life Magazine

After what seems to have been relentless rain and storm force wind since December, the UK has been a battleground for the elements. Our media has been filled with the reality of flooding, with some southern areas of the country underwater for several weeks. Motorways were closed, public transport halted, numerous homes suffered power cuts and whole villages have been cut off.

One of the worst hit communities has to be that of the farmer, suffering damage to crops, loss of feed and accommodation for livestock, along with the flooding of their own homes. I've read of the agricultural community banding together by sheltering livestock for flood hit neighbours and donating feed. But what can we, the consumer, do to show our support? Build an ark? Well, yes, quite possibly. But perhaps something a little more realistic is to invest our hard earned.

Oxon and Bucks have a stunning selection of farmers’ markets and farm shops, where you can buy direct from the producer, often at lower prices and fresher than in supermarkets, but with higher profit margins and less restrictions for the farmer. Not only that, but you can stop for a tea or coffee at an onsite cafe or refreshments stall, get some fresh air, meet the producers, pick up a bargain or two and discover a whole world of fabulous local produce that may not end up on your supermarket shelves... could this quite possibly be the most enjoyable good deed ever?!

Most of our local towns, even villages, have regular weekly or monthly markets. Often steeped in history, these markets can date back hundreds of years, to a time well before the big supermarkets – though the produce has probably moved on somewhat.

Reopening in early February was one of my favourite markets – Vale Harvest Market. Based in the quaint village of Haddenham, the market runs on the first Saturday of every month, from 9am to 1pm. Make sure you get there early though, to avoid missing out on all the good stuff - such as fresh fruit and veg from Bucksum and Sandy Lane Farm, wonderful fresh bread from Cornfield Bakery, breakfast-ready bacon and sausages from Egg House Charcuterie, fresh beef for your Sunday lunch from Oving Dexters and delicious Italian dinners from Award winning CiCi-CoCo.

It doesn't stop there though, you'll also find plenty of fabulous cakes, soft centre Scotch eggs, hot drinks, beer, oils and chutneys. I don't know about you, but I’d much rather amble around a lovely local market than elbow my way round a packed and frenetic supermarket at the weekend. Better still, you'll be supporting your local producers through what, for many, will be a very challenging time. That has to be a no-brainer, right?

Just remember to pack your wellies though; while I can promise great food, I'm afraid I can’t do much about the weather.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Restaurant Review - Oxfork

Location: 39 Magdalen Road, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX4, UK

After almost three and a half years of living half a mile away from Oxfork, I finally made it there for breakfast. Not at breakfast time, like one might expect, but at lunchtime. You see Oxfork, though very close to my house, has never been all that convenient for me. With its buggy unfriendly interior, and 9.30/10am opening, I was either in need of somewhere more accessible, or ready to gnaw my own arm off with hunger by the time it opened. No, I'm not one for a late breakfast - neither am I particularly patient (MrF will be nodding furiously).

So, when someone pointed out they serve breakfast for lunch too, well, it seemed like a pretty genius way of finally getting to try what many refer to as one of Oxford's best brekkies.

Now, it's not fair to say I don't have any experience of this eccentrically decorated East Oxford cafe - I've been in for a coffee after a local baby group; bought a jar of bacon jam from the mini deli at the cafe counter; had a takeout of Mac 'n' Cheese (quite wonderfully rich, served with honey roasted carrots, greens and puy lentils); and had one of their BLTs to go (I could still kiss them now for their delightful addition of sunblush tomatoes).

One of the many delights adorning the cafe counter

Eclectic interior
A little light reading...?

I'd scoped out the interior at each opportunity - it's kind of Grandma's house meets arty student digs, with old fashioned lampshades and cookbooks intermingled with cutlery chandeliers and bistro chairs hanging on the wall (yes, you read that right). The small counter area near the front door is furnished with a tantilising selection of cakes, overlooked by slelves of teas, coffees and chutneys

This time though, I was finally at a table... with a menu... ordering some actual food. I'll have a Full English please! And here it finally was, in all it's glory - the Oxfork breakfast. So... was it worth the wait?

I guess so. I won't be raving about it to anyone that will hear, but it was a damn good brekkie. Bacon and sausage all passed my taste and cooking test - i.e. they were actually cooked! (I'm gobsmacked by the number of times I've been served flaccid bacon or under-cooked sausages) - with the sausage being of particularly high standard. The mushrooms, tomato and egg all perfectly pleasant - if a little over on the egg - and the buttered sourdough toast an ideal companion. 

One thing I'm not completely sold on though, as at another local cafe, is is the addition of home made baked beans. I know the tinned variety is no gastronomic feat and hardly 'high end', but, I'm yet to try a home made version that isn't too dry - especially when mopping up at the end with toast. I get that tinned beans may not have a place here amongst such high quality produce, so I'd almost rather not have beans at all; throw in a potato cake, hash brown, black pudding, or an extra mushroom or two instead. It was a bit like eating quorn when what I really wanted was meat.

As far as cooked breakfasts go, this was up there, however I'm not left with a sudden urge to revisit for the same. Given that Oxfork do a good variety of breakfast choices, I'd probably choose something a little more exciting next time - I hear they do particularly good Eggs Benedict. If you fancy something even more exciting though, they often do breakfast specials, both veggie and meat versions, featuring the likes of baked eggs with new season garlic, mushrooms, plus organic potato and herb cakes. Arrrghhhh, I want that now! Oxfork also open in the evenings for dinner and often host pop up events, so it's really worth keeping an eye on their Facebook page for updates.

Overall score: 7 

Good, but do check their egg dishes and breakfast specials for something more exciting. Their FB page currently suggests they open at 9.30am during the weekend, but am waiting for confirmation.

39 Magdalen Rd
Twitter: @oxfork
Facebook: @Oxfork
Phone: 01865 243280

Thursday 17 April 2014

2013 Scores

OK, so it's half way through April already. Where the hell has the year gone?! I've been meaning to write this for ages, as a follow up to my review of 2012 scores.

I find it really interesting looking back at the previous years scores, to see who ranked alongside each other, to see if repeat visits are consistent, and to see if I feel I've scored each review fairly.

What I notice looking back on 2013 is that there are only 3 restaurants scoring below 7. In the majority of cases I've made decent choices in where to eat - thankfully I'm getting pretty adept at finding good food - and I'm sure you won't mind if I don't go out of my way to eat somewhere shit, for the sake of balancing things out (I hope!). However, while my scores are fully reflective of my enjoyment levels at the time, in hindsight I do think I've been slightly over-generous in some cases - which I'll be doing less of this year. I'm also going to try avoiding half-point scores, unless I really can't make up my mind!

With all this in mind, I've tweaked my scoring system accordingly and here we have it, 2013 in review. Oh, and remember you'll have to work a little harder for a higher score this year! ;-)

Foodie x

18 Dec
20 Sep
23 Oct
3 Apr
28 Apr
7 Jun
18 Jun
6 Aug
21 Aug
11 Sep
17 Oct
24 Mar
31 Mar
28 May
31 May
16 Jul
26 Aug
20 Nov
4 Dec
1 Apr
6 Jun
15 Aug
25 Mar
24 Apr
31 May
27 Jun
19 Apr
25 Jun
28 Apr

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