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.

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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.

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.

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

The St. John’s Chop House

If you are a foreigner in England and quite snobbish about the food (it’s always better back home), you should visit a Chop House. Great British food and local ales, served in a very nice environment by helpful, friendly and polite staff. Kind of the opposite of your average curry place.

This is the second Cambridge branch but for some reason I haven’t visited the first one yet. We went there last night with my boyfriend to celebrate our anniversary. It was actually on Sunday, but he was too hangover to talk, let alone go out for dinner.

I hope you appreciate the increasing quality of the pictures, going all the way up to boring mediocrity.

Starting from no picture at all, our starter was Potted Venison. I haven’t had anything like it before and, although I always think that meat isn’t anywhere near as flavoursome as it should be when it is served cold, this one was very good. It wouldn’t have worked hot anyway because there was a layer of solid fat on the top, to preserve it I guess. It was served with some toast and some kind of sweet chutney that I can’t remember the details about, but it went really well with the venison.

My main was an Oxtail and Wild Mushroom Faggot with Parsnip puree, which was brilliant, with really nice tasty meat wrapped in some kind of salty membrane (stomach lining?). The parsnip puree was a great alternative to normal potato puree and I’m definitely going to try making it myself.

Alex had a Steak and Kidney Suet Pudding. I hate kidneys and this didn’t really change my feelings towards it, but the rest was very nice and the sauce went so well with it, being some kind of sweet syrupy gravy.

We somehow found space for pudding, and I found the correct white balance setting on my camera, so the pictures are slightly more presentable. We shared a Sticky Toffee Pudding with Vanilla ice cream which was sweet and sticky and spongy (quite predictably really) but the right amount of each one making a great dessert.

The other one was a Baked Apple Cheesecake which tasted great but was a bit too stodgy for my liking.

All in all, a great meal for under £50 for two. I will certainly be going back.

8/10