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

Sunday 13 April 2014

Restaurant Review - The Red Lion, Gloucester Green

Location: 14 Gloucester Street, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 2BN, UK

Firstly, I have no idea why it's taken me sooooo long to review The Red Lion. I've visited a number of times with MrF and the kids for the last few years. I've bigged them up on Twitter, recommending them for full English, Rotisserie Chicken and Duck Salad. I've always found the service to be friendly and helpful; the setting stylish without being pretentious; the atmosphere pleasant and relaxed; the seating comfortable and spacious... the list kinda goes on. They even have really nice toilets, with the most amount of cubicles I've ever seen in a ladies loo!

For one reason or another, I just haven't gotten round to reviewing them. Until now.

Part of the vast Mitchells & Butler empire, The Red Lion is sister pub to The Trout in Wolvercote, The Chequers on High Street, All Bar One on High Street, The Crown in Cornmarket Street, O'Neill's on George Street, The Eagle & Child in St. Giles', The Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Iffley Road, Browns Brasserie on Woodstock Road, The Royal Oak also on Woodstock Road, Jericho Tavern on Walton Street AND Britannia Inn on London Road! Wow, twelve of them in Oxford alone?!

This does taint things somewhat, especially when you realise a number of them share menus - The Trout and The Red Lion both fall under the same sub-brand and share a menu (though Red Lion cooks it much better); as do The Chequers, The Crown, plus Eagle & Child; The Cape of Good Hope, The Royal Oak and Jericho Tavern's menu sharing caused some controversy not that long ago when people noted some menu items priced at £1 more in North Oxford than in East Oxford.

So, with all this going on in the background - and after all my recommendations on social media - the 'steaks' were high for The Red Lion (excuse the pun). Many were non believers, having visited in a past life and having a bad experience. So, thank Christ, it turned out to be good. Like REALLY good!

I'm throwing the rules out the window here and going straight for the conclusion - this was possibly the best roast dinner I've had in Oxford so far, bar my own (obvs). I had help, so we sampled not one, but three types of roast on the day and all were bang on - delicious and perfectly cooked meat, gorgeous proper gravy, HUGE home made Yorkshire puddings, tasty roasties, plus all the condiments required - I do hate when correct condiments are not available - plus a nice bit of crackling for the pork. 

Spit Roast Chicken, Apricot Stuffing & Bread Sauce £12.95

Roast Pork Loin, Sage Stuffing, Roasted Apple & Crackling £11.95

Roast Rib of Beef & Yorkshire Puddings £13.95

Given the quality of everything, the prices seemed really rather reasonable. So, with such great food, why the hell is it always so quiet when I visit? Who knows. Though maybe it's better that way, I'm always guaranteed to get a good table!

Overall score: 8.5

The Red Lion
14 Gloucester St
Twitter: @RedLionOxford
Facebook: @redlion.oxford1
Phone: 01865 726255

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Try This - Momo's

Location: Gloucester Green, Oxford OX1, UK

WHAT: Momo (a Nepalese version of Gyoza or Dumplings)

HOW MUCH: £3 for 10 vegetable dumplings, £4 for 10 chicken or pork dumplings, £3 for fried rice. Or mix it up and have 5 dumplings with vegetable fried rice, like I did in the pic above and as recommended by In Oxford, Will Eat)

WHERE: Gloucester Green Market, Wednesdays weekly

HOW GOOD: Bloody marvelous! If you work in town and haven't had your lunch here yet, or if you simply love dumplings, then you're seriously missing a trick. For under a fiver you can get five plump, steamed dumplings, with fried rice and a spicy (or not) sauce - delicious and cheap. Go get your Momo on!

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Restaurant Review - The Marsh Harrier

Location: 40 Marsh Road, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX4 2HH, UK

Having visited The Marsh Harrier a few months ago, and thoroughly enjoying some tasty bar snacks, it was about time I revisited - this time to sample their roast dinners. The Marsh is always a popular drinking pub for MrF en route home from work, and I can see why. It's a comfortable pub, recently redecorated in soothing, homely, Farrow & Ball'esque colours; the staff seem friendly, as do the customers; it has a nice garden; and it's literally equidistant between our house and MrF's office.

So, having covered them previously, I won't launch into full review mode, but what I will do is give you a little insight into recent events, and answer that all important question - can they cook a good roast?

After my earlier review, I was invited along to a 'tasting day' - nothing formal, but an opportunity for the kitchen to show the pub's customers it's new menu. On arrival, we grabbed a seat in the garden and waited patiently to see what the plan was. Then we waited some more. And some more. Before long it became apparent that things were a little haphazard. Waitresses were bringing out large, cheap looking, disposable platters (not a great look) and delivering them to seemingly random tables. When a platter finally made it's way to our table for sampling, we were pleased to see a good selection of items, though none of which stuck in my memory (other than the overly dry mini burgers and quite dull potato wedges). The odd thing was though that the platter before us didn't match up with the sampling menu on the tables. Disorganisation seemed to be the theme of the day. Since then, as I understand it, the chef has moved on and someone else has donned the chef's whites - the menu remains and is being cooked perfectly well. As to better organisation, I cannot complain so far.

Anyway, on to the Sunday Roast! I ordered the Topside of Beef - quelle surprise! At 10.95 it was good. Ok, I can expand more - it was really good. The meat was delicious and of decent quality, as were the vegetables. In fact I'd say I was pretty happy with the entire plateful - until I spotted the 'cook from frozen' yorkie *sigh*. I know they have a really small kitchen, so maybe it's impossible to get a big stack of yorkies prepped alongside all the other required elements, but that styrofoam texture of a frozen yorkie is always a disappointment. Don't let that be the overarching impression though, as the meat really was very tasty, and cooked well.

Topside of Beef

Hot Chocolate Fondant with Vanilla Ice Cream

For dessert, I'd gone for the high-risk Hot Chocolate Fondant with Vanilla Ice Cream (4.50). How many fondants die the death of an overcooked centre? Millions? Billions..? Trillions...!? Unfortunately this one fared no better - dry throughout with a slightly less dry middle. The texture was actually quite unpleasant, so much so that I didn't even finish half of it. A shame really, because I know they do some great dishes here. Stick to the bar snacks and meat and you won't go far wrong, but I'd definitely steer clear of the puds - both of the Yorkshire and dessert variety. 

Overall Score: 6

The Marsh Harrier
40 Marsh Road
Twitter: N/A
Facebook: @marshharrieroxford
Phone: 01865 718225

Friday 4 April 2014

Foodie Events - APRIL

Here we have it guys, the start of the foodie festival season - YAY! Fill your boots with a deluge of delicious and delectable events coming your way. Food, food, and more FOOD! And maybe some coffee..

The London Coffee Festival

If you're even remotely interested in good coffee, go check out the London Coffee Festival, running from 3-6th April at the Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London. Oxfordshire's own Ue Coffee will be there in the True Artisan Cafe, alongside some of Europe’s best coffee shops and roasters.

Milton Keynes Food Festival

11th April sees the launch of the Milton Keynes Food Festival. Running until 13th April the event features recipe demonstrations, children's cookery school sessions and more. Find out how to make the perfect chocolate truffles and delicious cocktails, along with Easter workshops, a cool children’s food lab and cookery school and interactive cooking lessons with retailers including Wagamama. Celebrity chef Richard Fox will be hosting the event and Heart FM will be on site with exciting competitions throughout the weekend.

Continuing the Bucks link, head back over the county border for the Easter weekend and visit the Great Missenden Food Festival. With up to 120 exhibitors, TV chefs demonstrations and masterclasses, you can be sure you won't be bored... or hungry!

Since the launch of Wolvercote Supper Club, Chilli Boo Chan (visiting this month, review to follow) and The Wandering Kitchen (visited last week, review on it's way) have both popped their heads above the parapet to a warm welcome. Oxfordshire just can't get enough of these homely, but high caliber, pop up restaurants. Spaces go quickly though, so book well ahead to avoid disappointment. 

As much as I love tea and toast, sometimes I need a bit of inspiration for what to cook; but with a great selection of cookery classes and workshops within driving distance, I never need to run out of ideas!

With regular farmers' markets in East Oxford, Jerico, North Parade, Gloucester Green, Wolvercote, Summertown and South Oxford, you have no excuse to miss out on a fabulous selection of local produce. Check my Foodie Events Calendar for full listings.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Try This - The Baconator

Location: 96 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JE, UK

WHAT: Caramelised Bacon Milkshake with Cream


WHERE: Atomic Burger or Atomic Pizza

HOW GOOD: If you've never considered making a bacon flavoured milkshake, with a rasher of streaky bacon sticking out the top - which to be fair, you probably haven't - one taste and you'll realise what a fool you've been. A head-screwing combination that just plain works. But if you think about it, people have been eating bacon and maple syrup for years, which this basically tastes of.

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