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.

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.

Oxford

I visited Oxford last weekend, for the first time ever! It was awesome; sunny and hot, we watched some rowing (I hate rowing but the atmosphere was great, I got a tan and there was Pimm’s), had a barbecue and saw lots of colleges. Oxford really is very pretty. We found (with some help!) a hidden pub that apparently lots of famous people have visited. We had to walk down a little alleyway to get to it. Disappointingly, it was another Greene King pub, but it still had lots of atmosphere and the extra element of mystery to it. We had a drink there and on the way out we saw this little Hotel entrance, which I found very pretty and ever so slightly french looking.

Oxford feels more like a city than Cambridge does but without looking industrial or dirty. Also, it doesn’t have a phallic-looking University Library, which is always a bonus.

Anyway, food! On the way back, we stopped at this pub just out of Oxford. First impressions were great. It has a huge garden (and a playground!) and you can have your little picnic there which you can pick up in a pretty picnic box from the pub. You can’t have any hot food though and we were keen for some Sunday lunch.
Although it looked pretty busy, we were lucky enough to find a table to fit all 8 of us on the balcony. By that point, I was trying to avoid the sun because I could really feel my shoulders burning. I wasn’t very successful. Shouldn’t complain though, or the sun will never come back.

We had the choice of, well, all the standard ones really: beef, pork, chicken and lamb. Only beef came in a individual portion so we had a pork for 4 (on the other half of the table) a pork for 2 and a lamb for 2 for the 4 of us to share. It was good. The pork was a bit dry, but came with good crackling and some roast apples which I loved. The lamb was tasty and most of us preferred it. They also looked cool on those big boards. I would have liked some more exciting vegetables than boiled carrots and cauliflower but it seems to be acceptable to serve boring boiled vegetables with roasts. Whatever.

For pudding, I wanted to have the Summer Berry Crumble, being a crumble addict, but Alex had his eye on the Special Cheececake for two, and no one to share it with so I offered. It was served on a wooden board, the two individual cheesecakes looked properly homemade, with loads of vanilla in the cream. There were also 3 pots of different toppings: the first one was some chocolate sauce which, although tasty, didn’t seem to compliment the cheesecake that much. That’s what I thought at least, Alex loved it! There was also some wild berry compote which was great, tangy enough to counteract the sweetness of the cheesecake. The last one was supposed to be granola and it was nice for texture since the base wasn’t very thick. As we were eating, the waiter came up to us, apologised and gave us the £10 pudding for free. Apparently, the granola wasn’t granola but biscuit. Oh no.

All in all, the meal ended being a bargain, and pretty tasty too. I would happily go to The Fishes again if I didn’t live two hours away.