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.

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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.

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.

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.

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).

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.