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?

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.

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.

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