Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Bring back the buffet!

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 round again - eventually.

If, however, my fiend 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 glass of fizz and end up head first in the crustacean canapés. Just look the other way, nothing to see here. 

Published in the Jun/Jul edition of Vale Life Magazine.

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
Oxford
OX4 1HP
Twitter: @OxfordsGrill
Facebook: @Oxfords-Grill-Turkish-Restaurant
Website: www.oxfordsgrill.com
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
Easington
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. 

COOKING FOR COLLEGE
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.
1855
4 Oxford Castle
New Road
Oxford
OX1 1AY
Twitter: @1855oxford
Facebook: @1855
Website: www.1855oxford.com
Phone: 01865 247217
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