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North Parade #BittenStreet Night Market

“It’s like a glorified take-away” I heard a woman mumble as she made her way through the crowds. I would have attempted a come-back if I wasn’t busy stuffing my face with the Secret Pizza Society’s Christmas special. (Which was excellent as usual – this one had pancetta, chestnuts, and sage. Absolutely the best pizza I’ve eaten in this country. It cost £7 if my memory doesn’t fail me.)

Street food has been making some more regular appearances in Oxford recently, thanks to the great people at Bitten Oxford, and I’ve been going on about their events to anyone who will listen. This time it was a joint effort with the North Parade market people, for an evening market. The weather co-operated as much as it possibly could in late November, there was music and there was great food for not very much money at all.

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We started off with a lamb and salsa verde roll (£5) from Ross & Ross which I failed to get a picture of as I was too hungry, but I’m sure you can imagine a lamb roll. The lamb was slow cooked and then crisped on a hot plate, and there was plenty of herby sauce to cut through the richness. It made for pretty messy eating.

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We then managed to piss off everyone in the queue behind us by having the very last bits of pork belly from Smoke Yard Kitchen. That’s not the best photo in the world, but there are slices of pork belly, smoked in a Green Egg I think, in a Yorkshire pudding (£5ish). That’s pretty genius, so much nicer than a normal roll or bap, and I regretted my sharing strategy. We had it with some coleslaw topped with extra pork crackling, and I couldn’t resist a small portion of their macaroni cheese (£2).

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I was gutted to miss out on the Barefoot Kitchen‘s bacon brownies – apparently they disappeared before they had even finished setting up! I’m heading straight for them next time. I took a slice of the pecan pie home to console myself and had it with some whisky. Delicious, though probably not the wisest on a schoolnight.

The next event is this Saturday 20th December at the Oxford Castle Quarters, from midday till 8pm. I’m planning on going for lunch, braving the Christmas shopping crowds because I’m disorganised and leave everything to the last minute, and then returning for dinner. You should too.

The Big Bang, Oxford

About a year ago, when I first found out I was moving to Oxford, I did what any sensible person would do: research the restaurants and make a list of the ones I wanted to visit. The Guardian’s Oxford’s top 10 budget eats seemed a good place to start, but I was quite annoyed to find out that the Big Bang had since closed. 

Forward a few months later and it’s back, at a different, posher location apparently. This was the first time I had been to the Castle Quarter, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about all these restaurants taking over the beautiful historic buildings, but half asleep after a night shift and with only an hour on the car parking meter, there wasn’t much time to worry about it.

I must have been a bit grumpy, as things started annoying me quite early on. I liked the newspaper-style menu, and the room was bright and spacious. Using a tablet to take an order though is silly, especially when it’s obviously taking much longer than good old-fashioned pen and paper would. Service was friendly, but they did that weird thing when they pull out a chair and sit next to you when ordering, which I’m not very keen on. It just felt like they were trying a bit too hard to be cool.

But none of that is too important if the food is good. I suppose it’s a bit silly to go for anything other than sausages, but Alex liked the sound of the bacon steak and poached eggs. It was pretty disappointing; the bacon was, and I quote, “fairly gash”. The eggs were overcooked – is there a worse food experience than cutting into an egg expecting gooey yolk to ooze out, and getting, well, nothing?

My baguette was much better, with two fat juicy sausages and served with fried onions and a tangy homemade ketchup. I gave half of it to Alex to make him happier.

I guess the moral of the story is pretty obvious: stick to what the restaurant claims to be doing best – sausages, in this case. But you’d expect anyone to be able to poach a couple of eggs and fry some bacon. Having said that, I might go back for dinner at some point and try the main menu – the selection of sausages is pretty extensive and sounds pretty interesting.

Wild Thyme, Chipping Norton

We’ve got a new thing. The new thing involves going for “posh lunches” on Thursdays before fly-away races – having to be at work at 1 in the morning on Fridays means that I need to encourage myself to sleep for a few hours on Thursday afternoons/evenings, and a big boozy lunch seems the way forward. 
I quite like the novelty of half-day Thursdays actually, and there are lots of great value set lunches to be tried. For the first one, we headed down to the Wild Thyme, which is apparently the best restaurant in Chipping Norton. Well, I haven’t eaten anywhere else there, but I’m happy to believe that.

The dining space is, for lack of a better word, cute. Some might find it a bit too much, but I’ve got a thing for white-painted wood and fancy wallpaper – blame Pinterest. Anyway, we ordered some (non-alcoholic) drinks – the problem with eating outside Oxford is that you have to drive back – and munched on the house bread which was really enjoyable – an olive focaccia, a potato bread and some brown sourdough, if I remember correctly.

I was tempted by a duck starter, but I also wanted the duck main so I half-heartedly settled on the butternut squash risotto, which was just as well as it was probably the highlight of the meal. Creamy and rich, I dread to think about how much cheese and butter had gone into it.

That’s not to say the rest wasn’t good – a seafood platter starter (brown shrimp, crab, smoked salmon, salmon mousse and probably something else I’m forgetting now) tasted fresh and my main of confit duck, lentils and chorizo was a great combination of strong flavours and textures – especially loved that deep-fried duck skin. Really, the only thing we could complain about was the few bones we found in the haddock main (served with hollandaise and a poached egg – very good). But obviously we didn’t complain, as the rest was near perfect.

We of course had desserts, a molten chocolate cake with ginger ice cream (why do people put ginger ice cream on everything nowadays?! hate the stuff) and a baked vanilla cheesecake which was very rich and creamy. Nicely balanced though by the lemon curd flavour-wise and the meringue texture-wise. 

What always amazes me at restaurants like this is the quality of food you get for your money with lunchtime deals. 3 courses for £22 or thereabouts, and I could have easily spent that on something like Jamie’s Italian which is just upsetting.

So, yeah, if you find yourself in the Oxfordshire countryside, go. Lovely service, lovely food, lovely space. I’ll be back soon.

Shabu Shabu, Cambridge

Shabu Shabu is one of the many recent incarnations of the mirror image of Teri Aki, situated by the river just off Magdalene bridge in Cambridge. Teri Aki is one of my favourite restaurants in Cambridge – it helps that I lived about 200 metres from it for 3 years so I’m rather emotionally attached to it. Their stir-fried udon have cured many a hangover, and their dumpling soup is perfect for a cold wintery day. There’s not much they do wrong, and that’s why the restaurant is always packed. Shabu Shabu though (or Aki Teri as it used to be called) is a complete mystery to me. Having been an almost identical copy of Teri Aki initially, with a slight Korean twist, it moved on to being a cocktail bar, then started serving hot pots and dim sum and is now mostly Thai. We thought we’d be adventurous and give it a try.

We were hangover and starving so we ordered a few starters to share and a main each. The starters were slightly hit-and-miss. The pork skewers with some satay-style sauce were juicy and with a good bit of char on the outside. The sauce was great too. Deep fried chicken wings were also nice; good crispy skin, reasonably tasty sauce.

The squid rings though were mediocre at best, looking like what you’d expect to find in the freezer section of a supermarket. And then there were these deep fried strips of beef which were dry and strangely tasteless – though the latter could have been the effect of the rather spicy sauce that accompanied them.

My pad thai was OK – the noodles had a nice bit of bite on them and the prawns were large and mostly juicy. But the sauce was too sweet and it soon became a bit sickly. No lime to cut through the richness either.

A beef massaman was probably the best of the mains, rich and warming. I only had a small taste but I suspect that if I had to eat the whole thing I might have struggled with the richness. The third main was a completely uninspiring chicken and vegetable stir fry. I reckon they could do with some stir frying lessons from their older and more experienced sibling next door.

All in all, meh. I’ll wait for the inevitable next version of the restaurant before I return.

Courgette fritters

I always thought of courgette fritters as something you order at a greek tavern and because they taste so amazing I assumed they would be too difficult to make at home. I do have an irrational fear of deep-frying too so that might have contributed to my reluctance. It turns out they are pretty easy, and you can shallow fry them instead. We even made a “diet” version by dry frying them on a non-stick pan. They turned out less like fritters and more like savoury pancakes, but still tasted great. I added a red pointy pepper for sweetness and some chili for a bit of a kick.

Courgette fritters

Ingredients (serves 3 as a main)

2 large courgettes, grated
1 red pointed pepper, chopped finely
3-4 spring onions, chopped finely
150 gr feta, crumbled
1-2 chillies, chopped finely
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp dried dill (or a handful of fresh dill, chopped)
1/2 tsp dried oregano
pinch of salt
lots of ground pepper
2 eggs
about 4 tbsp flour, to get the right consistency

Mix all the ingredients together, adding the flour slowly and mixing until you get a gloopy but not too thick consistency. In the meantime, heat some sunflower/olive oil in a frying pan; you want plenty to cover the bottom of the pan and be about 1/2 cm high. With the pan over medium-high heat, use a tablespoon to carefully drop some mixture in the pan and slightly flatten the top. Cook on one side until golden brown and then flip it to cook the other side. If they seem to be cooking too quickly you can turn the heat down a bit, as you don’t want them to still be raw on the inside. A few minutes on each side should do. Remove and place on kitchen roll to absorb the extra oil.

Serve these with tzatziki (garlicky yoghurt with cucumber) for dipping. They are also perfect as part of a greek meze dinner, as I did recently, serving them with spetsofai, a slab of feta and lots of crusty bread.

Continental Breakfast

Breakfast is by far my favourite meal of the day. It’s the meal that can really kick-start an otherwise slow, bleary-eyed, lethargic morning. And so, without further ado, this post describes one of my favourite breakfasts of all-time. It would make for a perfect start to the day if, say, you’d just spent 11 hours being shaken to fuck on a sleeper train from Berlin to Basel.
Deutsche Bahn Continental Breakfast
Breakfast (enough to stave off hunger for about as long as it takes to eat)
1 anhydrous bread roll
1 plastic-wrapped croissant (original, French)
1 20g packet of white viscous matter
1 similarly-sized packet of off-white viscous matter
1 fractionally larger packet of orange gel
1 200 ml carton of “The Flintstone’s” orange juice
Beverage and beverage paraphernalia
1 heavily insulated cup of tepid, brown, ostensibly caffeinated liquid (hereinafter referred to as the “tepid brown”)
2 small capsules of white, fatty fluid
1 sachet of sugar
So, first, brace yourself for a massive, soul-crushing bout of disappointment. This step is critical. Spend too little time bracing yourself and you’ll end up so comprehensively dismayed that you climb under said sleeper train while it’s moving at speed.
Get someone to throw all the ingredients into a cardboard box covered in multilingual bullshit about “savouring the journey”. Get said person to hand the box to you. If they can keep a straight face, ask them to present it as if the box contained an actual breakfast.
Shut up.
Open the box. Jesus Christ. I hope you spent enough time on the bracing step.
Jubilance.
Try and cut the bread roll to put a combination of the viscous matters inside it. You can’t. You actually can’t cut it. The flimsy plastic instrument with which you have been furnished has been deftly defeated by a bread roll. Seriously, on the Mohs scale of hardness, this bastard takes the crown. Step aside, diamond, Deutsche Bahn crust has stolen the limelight now.
Futile.
Unsheathe the croissant. Try and cut it in half with your mangled remains of a knife. (Moderate success awaits here.) Apply the orange gel to the inside of the croissant. Eat it. Try to savour the sparse hints of moisture therein.
In anger, throw the bread roll in the bin, along with the now-useless viscous matters.
Remove the straw from the front of The Flintstone’s orange juice carton. Use the sharpened end of the straw to pierce the tiny circle of foil on the dorsal face of the box. Squirt a bit of orange juice out of the box onto your jeans. Fuck. 
Use the straw to suck the remaining orange juice out of the carton into your stomach, at which point it will start to drag down the pH of your entire digestive system. Bile is no match for this mother.
Add the fatty liquid and/or sugar to the tepid brown, to taste. Difficult. The tepid brown is just so astonishingly bland. Staggeringly insipid. Mindblowingly tasteless. Mind you, somewhat impressively, it does just about manage to taste of brown. The colour. I don’t have synesthesia, but if I did, I imagine this particular taste/colour confusion would make a lot of sense.
Now go home, have a long sit down and think about how it’s all come to this.

Croque Madame

This is one of my favourite sandwiches ever and so great for a weekend lunchtime treat. I’ve been trying to recreate my favourite version for a while and I think I’ve finally got the balance right – turns out you can have too much bechamel sauce. Would would have thought it.

Anyway, since I’m running out of words (unless you want to hear about fracturing toughnesses and patterned grounds) I’ll go straight to the recipe.

Croque Madame 

Ingredients (makes 4)

3 tbsp flour
3 tbsp olive oil (you can use butter, but I’m Greek)
less than a pint of milk (excuse the vagueness but I never measure – you should be able to tell from the consistency of the sauce)
1/2 to 1 tsp of english mustard (to taste)
pinch of nutmeg
salt and black pepper

8 slices of bread
lots of cheddar (about 2 cups when grated)
4 slices of ham

Quickly fry the flour in the fat over medium heat until you’ve got a paste – do not overcook or your sauce will taste biscuity. Take off the heat and add a splash of milk and incorporate until you’ve got a smooth mixture. Turn the heat on again on low-medium and keep adding milk and mixing until the mixture is thick. You want it to be slightly thicker than normal bechamel so make sure you don’t add too much milk. Stir in the mustard, salt and pepper, and let it cool slightly.

Start preparing the toasties: spread about half a tablespoon of bechamel on one side, top with grated cheese and a slice of ham, and toast them using a panini press or a griddle pan. If you’re doing it on the hob, make sure it’s on medium heat as you don’t want the bread to toast before the cheese is melted.

Turn the grill on to preheat. When the toasties are golden on both sides, top with a tablespoon of bechamel each, and then more grated cheese. Place under the grill for a few minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is starting to brown. In the meantime, fry 4 eggs – I did them all in one large frying pan, so it didn’t take long.

To serve, just top each sandwich with a fried egg.

Dim Sum @ Aki Teri, Cambridge

One of my favourite Cambridge restaurants has just got better! I am a huge fan of Teri Aki and Aki Teri, and I do miss the days when I used to live about 2 minutes away. They’re not cheap but they are reasonable, and the noodles and sushi are consistently good.

Aki Teri is the most recent of the two, a mirror image of Teri Aki and, like most younger siblings, has struggled to find its identity for a while. They tried to do a slightly different menu and had a karaoke room for a while, but I think they ended up short-staffed and closed it down for a few months. It then did a stint as a cocktail bar but really, who want cocktails when you can have noodles and sushi next door?

Recently, it changed its menu considerably, and now does Chinese food instead. I’ve only had a brief look at the menu but I’m keen to return to try the hotpots. On weekends, between 12-4, you can get a dim sum buffet for £12. And it’s good.

We were advised against wasting when we sat down – apparently, they will charge you for any leftovers but presumably that’s only if you take the piss. In any case, it makes you think about what you grab from the buffet a bit more.

I loved the cold noodles with Szechuan sauce, salty and spicy although I couldn’t tell you what was in there. Had a few portions of them. I also had a silly number of gyozas, both in spicy soup (which was a bit bland on the flavour front, just spicy) and pot-sticker style ones. I particularly like the latter, with the contrast in textures between the crispy bottom and the soft, chewy top being quite addictive.

I braved it and tried chicken feet but wasn’t too keen. I found them a bit slimy but the taste wasn’t bad.

Sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves was good, although I was slightly disappointed that the filling was chicken and mushrooms rather than chinese sausage.

There were a lot of steamed pork and prawn dumplings, pork buns, and some rather lovely glazed sticky buns with some kind of chicken filling. Rice rolls were good but I would have preferred them pan-fried. And custard buns were a good way to end the meal. We were also offered a little pot of either black sesame or green tea ice cream. Good times. Basically, go.

Teri-Aki & Aki-Teri
6-8 Quayside 
Cambridge
CB5 8AB

Peking Restaurant, Cambridge

About a year ago, when I started reading loads of London food blogs, I made a list of restaurants I wanted to visit. Due to greediness, it’s been growing steadily. Due to laziness, lack of free time and lack of money, I haven’t crossed many of them off. Every now and then, I discover interesting Cambridge restaurants to add to that list. The Peking had been there for a while, and I finally forced myself to visit a few days ago, as I had a voucher for it that was expiring.

This is the kind of place you want to go with quite a few people as the menu is big and sharing is recommended. My friends managed to put up with me going on and on about how “We need to order the pot stickers. And loads of aubergine.” on the way. Not only that but, as we sat down, they asked me to choose all the dishes. I’ve got awesome friends.

The prawn fried dumplings were pretty good, crispy at the bottom and the filling was savoury and went well with the spring onion and ginger soy sauce that came with it. The dough was maybe a bit on the thick side, but it had been way too long since I had any decent dumplings; I was happy.

We then shared 5 main courses, including the much craved aubergines in hot bean sauce, double cooked pork (pictured below), tripe fried with chillies, squid with ginger and szechuan shredded beef. I thought the tripe was a bit flavourless and particularly loved the fatty pork and the very smoky szechuan beef.

All in all, great food and worth going if you live in Cambridge. But I couldn’t help but compare it to my experience with Chilli Cool, where we got more and possibly better food for almost half the price. Cambridge needs good, independent restaurants and I don’t mind paying a bit extra to avoid going to yet another chain, but if other places can do it for cheaper, why not the Peking?

High point: The beef, the pork and the aubergines were all excellent.

Low point: The bill, predictably.

The money: Without our £25 off voucher, £20 for a good (but not ridiculous) amount of food and a small beer each.

Go with: lots of people and share.