Arbequina, Oxford

When you’ve been away from your blog for such an embarrassingly long time, you’d better have something exciting to write about when you return. Well, I am here, and so is Arbequina.

The love child of the now-closed Door 74 and Oli’s Thai, Arbequina is a tapas restaurant taking over the Door 74 residence. They had a very subdued opening last Friday, they still don’t have a website, and their twitter account has no address and only a handful of tweets. Despite this, on a Tuesday night the – admittedly small – restaurant was packed.

I embarrassingly never made it to Door 74 but I’m a massive fan of Oli’s Thai – let’s be honest, what kind of person with working tastebuds would try Laddawan’s food and not fall in love with it – so I had high hopes for Arbequina. First impressions are important and they were very positive. A beautiful space, simply decorated, with a long bar running its length and customers perched on it drinking cocktails and sampling the small plates on offer. Next to that, a handful of tables, all taken. The atmosphere was relaxed, warm and friendly, as was the service, and we took the spare bench seats by the window, looking out on the street. There’s something quite funny about eating your meal at what’s basically a store front, especially when the store is a brand new restaurant on one of the busiest streets of Oxford – people constantly stopped to inspect the unfamiliar entrance, sneak a peek inside and, in some cases, downright stare at our food. We reckon we did a pretty great job at advertising the food, though that was not particularly hard.

The menu consists of small dishes, perfect for sharing between two, my favourite way to eat – no food envy here. The prices are not particularly low and the portions are not overly generous but when you try the food it feels completely worth it. Every single thing we had was perfect; from the thinly sliced salchichon, to the juicy tomato toast, bread heavy from the tomato juices and olive oil, to the fat-soaked silky fried aubergines with molasses. Simple stuff that was done so well it became special.

The pork belly with green sauce was quite possibly the star of the show (though it was not an easy choice); a perfect balance of fatty juicy meat and crispy crackling that didn’t leave you worried for your teeth’s structural integrity. The nduja and honey toast was meaty, sweet, spicy; very addictive.

A short dessert menu, baked pears, ice cream, and custard tarts, which I can never not order.

Of course, not everything was absolutely perfect: the bread basket was a little boring compared to the highs of the rest of the food – some sourdough would be good – and I guess they could warm the custard tarts before serving, and, erm, no, that’s about it.

Now, after a single visit, on their third night – imagine being this good at something only the third time you do it – it’d be ridiculous for me to claim this is the best restaurant in Oxford. All I’m saying is that, two days later, I am still thinking about the perfect texture of that pork belly crackling, and I did get a little bit emotional about the tomato toast, and I’m really really looking forward to taking everyone I know and even vaguely like to Arbequina.

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