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.

Peckham Bazaar, Peckham

A few years ago I decided to give up on Greek restaurants in the UK. I obviously love Greek food, and I feel quite homesick at the best of times, so there’s a limit on how many times I can get served dishes accompanied with that weird bright-orange passata, or charged £6 for a shot of ouzo, before I buy myself a one-way ticket back home.

The thing is, Greek food is not too hard to make, but does rely on lovely fresh ingredients that are not always cheap or easy to find here. In Greece, my mum will come back with a huge carrier bag stuffed with peppers, courgettes, aubergines, for little over €10. Every time I try to make moussaka in the UK, the aubergines cost substantially more than the mince.

I’m saying all this because, plot twist, there is a really good Greek (/Balkan) restaurant in London and finally, after months of drooling over their online menus, I made it there.

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We turned up for Saturday lunch with the right number of people to allow us to try everything on the menu. We had a couple of our own bottles of wine as this was their first BYOB lunch, but we also tried a Monemvasios from their extensive (mostly) Greek wine list. The restaurant is relatively small but bright, and the big open grill is visible from the tables. The smell from it hits you as you walk in and, together with the music, it set the tone for an authentic-feeling afternoon.

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Overall, everything on the menu tasted fantastic; both familiar but also with some interesting twists and additions. This is pretty authentic stuff – the presentation is more refined but the flavours are punchy. I enjoyed everything but below are some photos of my favourites.

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The octopus with fava (a houmous-style puree made from yellow split peas) was the dish I was mostly looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. The octopus had the right amount of chewiness and good char, and went well with the earthiness of the fava. Pretty to look at, too.

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This was the squid with Israeli cous cous, cabbage and orange. Flash-grilled squid on brilliantly chewy cous cous, with the orange segments keeping it fresh and interesting.

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Anchovies were perfectly fried and served alongside gem dressed with a very savoury graviera (my favourite Greek cheese!) sauce. I might have licked the plate.

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Lovely pork chop and, as the rest of the meats, it came in 6 slices, which was presumably to make sharing between the 6 of us easier. A nice touch. I love gigantes (giant butter beans in tomato and herb sauce) and this was a great example of them.

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One of the highlights, even for meat lovers, was the imam: aubergines roasted with tomatoes and olive oil till silky soft, served alongside stuffed Turkish peppers.

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We finished with Greek (or Turkish, if you prefer) coffee, a bottle of Samos sweet wine and a couple of puddings to share. The pistachio cake with mastiha ice cream was my favourite. Mastiha is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s really fragrant and an interesting alternative to vanilla ice cream. My boyfriend normally complains it tastes like soap, but he seemed to be enjoying this version of it just fine.

We ended up stretching our lunch to about 3 hours, threw in a spot of wine tasting, and left full and happy. The 6 of us paid around £30/head for all the starters and mains, 4 desserts, a bottle of red, a small bottle of dessert wine, and coffees. It’d be great to go back when the weather improves and sit out on the patio. Maybe for an Easter-special spit-roast lamb?

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.

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.

Little Chef, Kettering West

For the last few years, everytime we’re on the motorway, I look at the Little Chefs along the way and remind myself to find a reason to travel south and visit Heston’s one. Obviously, I’ve never actually managed to organise it. The other day, I was looking through my Good Food Guide and came across Little Chef’s entry. Apparently, Heston has 3 now and, guess what, we’ve been driving past one of them about once a month on average. Including the day before I made this discovery.

Worry not though, as I managed to get my fix on my next visit of the A14. It took us a while to find it, because of Google Map’s incompetence (according to me) or my incompetence (according to the boyfriend). But when we walked in, all was good. I loved the diner-style decor, the staff was smiley and helpful and the menu looked good.

I was tempted by the Tag Bol (tagliatelle rather than spaghetti) – making a good Bolognese is a test every kitchen should have to pass before being allowed to serve food. But in the end, I couldn’t say no to the braised ox cheeks.

My picture just doesn’t do this dish justice. The cheeks were moist and tender, and any bits of fat running through the meat had been cooked for long enough to turn soft and pleasantly wobbly. The sauce was the real surprise for me, dark and intensely flavoured, and with the odd pearl onion adding sweetness. The boyfriend described the mash as “buttery but not greasy” and I happily used it to mop up the leftover gravy.

The steak and ale pie was almost as good, but ultimately I think I won with my choice. The filling was encased by a lovely, flakey and thin suet pastry. The not very attractive-looking green mush around it was a surprisingly good minty pea puree. I liked that a lot. The filling could have been a bit more flavoursome but this was still a good dish.

This is food you expect to find in a good gastropub, rather than on the side of a motorway. It might not be the prettiest location for a restaurant, but smart double-glazing makes for a pleasant eating experience and, to be honest, there’s something quite old-fashionedly romantic about pausing your journey to have a good, honest plate of food. We’ll be stopping there again.

High point: The sauce that came with the ox cheeks. And the staff. Really lovely without being even slightly pretentious. Very relaxed atmosphere.

Low point: Couldn’t find it on Google Maps. It’s not the Thrapston one, and it’s not Kettering East.

The money: Just over £20 for our two mains, a coke and a cappuccino. Massive portions. Really good value.

Go with: Co-travellers. Treat the driver (although in this case, the driver treated me).

Alimentum, Cambridge

Most of Cambridge restaurants offer mediocre food and try to make up for it with the pretty surroundings. Most of them are chains, since they are the only ones that can afford the ridiculously high rent for a spot in the town centre.

Alimentum does it the other way round. Situated on the side of a main road, with a Travelodge opposite, it uses the quality of its food to attract customers. It’s probably not the most popular dining establishment for students; I always found it easier to pop across the street to a Pizza Express. But, with a set lunch/early dinner menu priced at £16.50, it is not just affordable, but a bargain.

Quite a few of us went there for lunch recently to try their Christmas menu. We started with a complimentary “Beer and Onion” amuse bouche. A white froth was poured over little cubes of beer jelly and bits of onions and the whole thing ended up tasting a lot more complex than we expected.

I had of course already decided what I was ordering, days before our lunch! The game ragu with polenta is exactly my kind of food: rich and meaty, with creamy polenta and a grating of salty parmesan to top it off. Absolutely delicious.

My main was a soy braised pork belly, salty and fatty. If I can fault this somewhere I would say that the sauce could be a bit too salty for some, but luckily I tend to overseason my food anyway. It was served with the creamiest sweet potato puree and some refreshing pak choi to cut through the richness.

We of course wanted to try the dessert too, and I chose the white chocolate delice with passion fruit jelly and ice cream. The white chocolate delice was a sweet and airy mousse and the jelly provided texture and sharpness. Even tangier was the the smooth passion fruit sorbet which was face-blowing by itself but balanced the white chocolate perfectly.

Coffee was served with petits fours and both the marshmallow and the mini sticky toffee pudding that I tried were excellent. Three hours after we had arrived, we left happy, full and just a little bit tipsy. That’s what lunch should always be like.

High point: The pudding? The starter? Can’t choose.

Low point: The location I suppose. But it’s a short walk from the train station. All you Londoners can hop down for a great lunch and a spot of sightseeing.

The money: Just over £30 for 3 courses, a couple of glasses of wine and coffee.

Go with: Friends. A date. Your parents. Everyone.

Chilli Cool, Bloomsbury

Saying that Chilli Cool has been reviewed by many before is certainly an understatement. I was already well informed about what to order from this and this and this post. And I knew I would love it.

This is the kind of place you want to go with sharers. There are so many lovely dishes and you really don’t want to be stuck eating just one of them while staring at other people’s food!

The starters were cold, which was maybe a little surprising, but the Szechuan Chicken was very tender.

Even better was the Pork Belly in Garlic Sauce which was so thinly sliced and silky that it actually took me a while to figure out what I was eating. And somehow I mean this as a compliment!

The beans were brilliant, crunchy, charred, salty, with porky bits to add flavour. As an added bonus, you felt you were almost being healthy eating them.

I can’t actually find a picture of a dish I loved, the shredded pork. Maybe because I was too busy stuffing my face with it. But above is my real favourite, as expected, the Sea Spicy Aubergine. This was so awesome that I am still dreaming about it, a few weeks later. It was silky, sweet, spicy and resulted in a certain male companion sheepishly admitting it was his favourite dish. He seemed relieved when we told him there was pork in there too and tried to pretend he knew all along, but that’s high praise coming from him thinking it was a vegetarian dish!

High point: The aubergines.

Low point: Not many. When I ate a chilli?

The money: £12 with tea and tip, and we ate until we ached. Bargain.

Go with: Friends who like to share. Bonus points for liking tripe.

Launceston Place, Kensington

I had been looking forward to visiting Launceston Place for a good few months; actually, since I saw Tristan Welch working his magic on Great British Menu. Starting the day with a massive hangover and a 3-hour journey to Kensington was probably not the best appetizer, but the weather was lovely and the short walk from the tube station helped the recovery process.

I have to say, I felt a little intimidated when we walked in, but the waiters were very nice and things got off to a good start when someone cracked a joke and got the sommelier giggling while taking our order for a lovely bottle of Rioja – I just wish I had managed more than a small glass.

We were also given some homemade crisps, tied up with a cute black ribbon, one for each person. We were having the 3-course set menu, so I was pleasantly surprised when a little amuse turned up soon after we ordered. It was a yoghurt sorbet with little pickled cucumber strips, which tasted, unsurprisingly, quite a lot like Indian raitha. It was nice.

For my starter I chose the beef and beetroot risotto, where beetroot bits were playing the role of the rice. It was served with some wild garlic foam, which was yummy and some bone marrow, which freaked me out a bit with its slimy texture, but Alex finished it off quite happily. The thin cured beef slices were absolutely stunning and I really could have eaten a lot more.

The other starter was probably the best dish of the meal. A perfectly poached goose egg, about which we talked for days after, was served alongside some toasted bread with mushroom pate and shaved truffle. There were two mushroom haters that ordered this and declared it a success, so I don’t think it can get much better than that.

My main was a perfect little cylinder of tender lamb, served with the creamiest mashed potato I’ve had in a while and some crunchy, minty stuff on the top. There was also some clear broth that the waiter poured on our plates, and I just felt sad that I didn’t have a spoon to scoop it all up.

After mains, there was another little surprise in the form of Pimm’s gelly topped with lemon and lime granita. Although my hangover wasn’t thankful about the extra alcohol, this little pre-dessert was absolutely yummy, just tart enough and perfectly summery.

I convinced a friend to share the Apple Tart Tatin with me, while everyone else had the Chocolate and Rasberry Mousse. They were both lovely, the tart was as good as they come, with sweet caramelised apples topping flaky puff pastry and served with some superb homemade clotted cream. The mousse was dark and intensely chocolatey.

We turned down coffee as we were planning afternoon tea soon after, but we were still offered a couple of pots of warm mini sponges and cream that were incredibly light and fluffy.

We spent a good few hours after the meal talking about how brilliant everything was and, at £20, it’s a complete bargain. The service was great, the waiters were attentive and we never felt rushed – a perfect lunch.

9/10