A Rose by any other name…..

So here it is. The last proper day of my holidays and with it the last single lunch review I will be doing for a while. Next week whilst I am not going back to school after a luxurious week of holiday – yes I did spend most of this week sleeping- I am off to intern at Delicious Magazine in hope that sometime in the next ten years they might have an opening for a job…. Unfortunately I have realised that much as I am enjoying a weekly solo lunch adventure there is simply not enough restaurants in Oxford that are independent and affordable and also I’m lucky enough to boast that my social engagements have overtaken the ability for time to myself. I’m aware this isn’t a bad thing. Of course I’ll still be reviewing. There is a rather favourable review of a Hampstead Heath gastropub on its way, a date with my ex housemate, watch this space. 

At least I’ve chosen a rather nice way to finish the holidays. It is a beautiful day in Oxford. It’s cliche, but the architecture in Oxford does seem that bit more impressive against a clear blue backdrop. It’s as if those grey rainy days were merely a rehearsal for the really performance. It’s just a shame that this often feels like a once a year show. I’ve whipped out my new sunglasses, I’ve dusted off my spring coat (let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we are still in England, a coat is necessary) and I’ve headed to The Rose. A staple of the Oxford afternoon tea scene, I happened to come across a review which said it was the best lunch in Oxford. However as I sat for a rather late lunch in the window basked in sunlight, people watching the street, my heart sank when I looked at the menu. The goats cheese salad whipped into memory a weedy limp salad leaf attempt from a health care I’d had a few weeks ago. The ciabatta sandwich options suggested the dry thin offerings from various sandwich outlets around and reminded me why I never order ciabatta if offered. The £6.95 charge for a plate of ‘home cured salmon’ which sounded suspiciously like 3 slices of Sainsbury’s finest laid on a plate, taking barely 5minutes to eat. But…..I am prepared to stand up and admit how wrong I was. Just to be clear. This is the place that all the aforementioned cafes should take their cue from. This is the place where the menu doesn’t lie. In case you need it in bold letters BEST LUNCH IN OXFORD.

  
I chose the home cured salmon and asked for some bread and butter on the side with some trepidation as the only offering for bread was ciabatta. I sat undisturbed for an hour and a half reading The Versions of Us (an excellent book by the way) and enjoyed a large salad plate, loaded with salty gravlax trimmings with dill. Pesto and an excellent shallot dressing. It was accompanied by warm, soft ciabatta and excellent creamy yellow butter. I could well have eaten a couple more rolls. I don’t eat bread a lot but when it tastes that good…. I consoled myself that I only had the one ciabatta by ordering some cake. Again I’m not usually that into cake, I prefer a bar of chocolate or a creamy dessert if I’m going to treat myself but I thought if the bread is that good and they call themselves an afternoon tea shop, the cake is probably pretty damn good. I was not disappointed. An incredibly moist carrot cake studded with walnuts with the thinnest spreading of tangy cream cheese icing cutting through the sweetness but without making the cake too rich. My only criticism is that the staff could have been a little more attentive especially as I was only given a small glass of water which I finished pretty quickly and had to keep waving to try and get refills despite the cafe being pretty quiet at this time. But it’s only a little thing and mostly the staff were friendly and helpful and clearly knew the dishes which is always a bonus. And for a total of £12, I will certainly be coming back. 

  

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Portabello, Oxford 

One of the first lessons you learn at cookery school is that there is my way and then there is the Leiths way and you are there to learn the Leiths way. Whether that be using cutlery knives to rub butter into pastry, hand mixing water and flour on a counter top for pasta or finding the bloody oysters before you even think of jointing a chicken. The theory is that we should learn a basic solid level before we experiment and branch out on our own, and it’s a good method. Every day we follow a recipe or 5 from the Leiths book and serve it to our teacher at an allotted time and get marked and given feedback. – apparently soon we’re going to start to be given freedom with our choice of accompaniments, pressure.- We’re given a grade for things like meat cooking, sauce consistency, knife skills, you get the picture. I bring this up because I’ve realised that I’ve started viewing every dish I eat like this and marking it in my head…..
It was my own fault. I shouldn’t have ordered the chicken with red wine jus, bacon and celeriac puree. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious. As my teacher Michael would say: ‘It’s nice warm plate, food piping hot and served in good time. Good presentation, nice portion size, maybe a little extra colour next time, some green or something to add freshness but nice clean plate. Fibres nicely set on the chicken but there’s still some moisture, beautiful rendering down of the skin and nice carving of the supreme, still served in the bone, good. Lovely sauce consistency, see how it’s syrupy but still runs down the plate, that’s what your looking for. Bacon, on the less crispy side but works on this dish. Puree isn’t gloopy, nice flavour, hint of pepperyness coming through but good punchy flavour of the celeriac. The consistency though, see how you can still taste those fibrous textures from the celeriac? I’m looking for silky, creamy smoothness, maybe next time pass it through a chinoise (very thin sieve) and add a little cream or Creme fraiche, but otherwise lovely dish, just think about the veg as well as the main event’. I’m being pinickity here because mostly it was a delicious dish, a lovely atmosphere and really great friendly waitresses, but this is what cookery school does to you. As you can see I might not be able to have McDonald’s ever again! ( I’ll cope, I’ve only eaten there about 5times ever anyway #foodsnob). Also I don’t mean to brag but I did nail the celeriac puree when I made it on Friday in my duck, dried cherry and almond sauce, celeriac puree, artichoke crisps and sautéed kale. I’m allowed to say this mostly because my sauce was too thin and my duck wasn’t portioned right, Portabello won anyway.      

   I should also mention the wine and quails eggs I began with. I knew already that the owner of Portabello served exceedingly good English wines as we had previously been to another of his restaurants, the Perch, where we had had a lovely Oxford retreat white wine. The rose, whilst overchilled (another annoying hangover from now having an interest in food and wine, you realise most white and rose wine is served far too cold in restaurants, kills the flavour) was fresh and dry, with strawberry and raspberry flavours, beautiful. I highly recommend Portabello, it’s not the most easily accessible but the cheerful atmosphere and reasonably priced food make it worth a visit. 

My Saturday ritual 

I have a guilty secret to confess. I’m afraid it’s not quite as scandalous as it seems but apparently it is still taboo in our society. I like going out to lunch in a restaurant, ON MY OWN. I know, what a weirdo right? It’s become my little Saturday ritual. despite being at cookery school I am actually really missing eating. Yes of course there is plenty of food around but given that I frequently run over lunch cooking or in meetings most of the time food I can grab is pretty scarce and fast. On top of that by the time I get back to Oxford after the 2hour+ commute the last thing I want to do is eat the food I’ve cooked, mostly I’d rather grab some cereal and head to bed. Don’t get me started on breakfast, when do I find time for that between the 6am get up and morning traffic on the bus, thank god for tastings in demonstration lectures is all I can say. That and my increasingly worrying caffeine habit. I miss the ritual of taking the time to sit down and savour food, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the buzzing but luxurious time at a restaurant. Therefore I see it as not only necessary but part of my education to take an indulgent lunch on a Saturday. I’ve even got structure now. It has to be a different place every time, ideally not a chain. I have to review it (as of today), I have to eat exactly what I want to eat, and I have to enjoy a reality ice glass of wine of something I’ve chosen to compliment the meal. The last prerequisite is also new but inspired by how much I loved the wine lecture we had the other day on food and wine matching. I want bore you (or give away my secrets) too much by gushing over the details too much but essentially we have been instructed to try as many different wines with as many different flavours as we can. The sooner you taste wines back to back and realise how different and why they taste differently the better, include food in that flavour balance and you reach about the level of fascination I’m at now. The more you learn the more you want to know. It’s a vicious cycle. Of course I am open to including other people in my now sacred Saturday lunch ritual but I am enjoying focusing on the flavours and not the socialising. Applicants apply below. Foodie: necessary, intelligent conversation: required, putting up with my gushing: essential.  Plus they have some vicious competition from the cryptic crossword puzzle, I haven’t got that far yet but they say you can only get better. 

This week I tried out Branca in Jericho, Oxford. I’d spent the morning making homemade bread with homemade butter (my new craze) but restrained on trying any because I was saving myself for lunch. So when the first thing Branca brought to my table was lightly salted foccacia with olive oil and balsamic, I felt they’d read my mind. As I left the house my dad had said to me that Branca was overpriced and not tasty. My analysis is that he had a bad meal. I went I with incredibly low expectations but from the second they brought out the burrata (creamiest I have ever tasted) with pesto and sweet roasted red pepper as a tapas , I was converted.

   I followed this with two started portion size salads, a chicken Ceasar and a chickpea, aubergine, broccoli salad. Not only was it all a pretty substantial meal for one, it cost about the same as a main, I had lucked out. I started with the Chicken Ceasar, a highlight. Simply done, moist chicken, crunchy but not greasy croutons, a perfectly soft boiled egg, creamy dressing and fresh salad. It almost made the second salad tasteless and dull in comparison. But luckily th smoked aubergine topping lifted an otherwise well proportioned salad. All I can say is you shouldn’t have given me that a,axing bread Branca, I had no room for dessert. 

  Where I was let down was the wine. The wine list was impeccably written. Promising interesting flavours, long finish and good prices. Unfortunately most of the wine lacked aroma and (as I can actually now read a wine list) I soon realised the wine was pretty much all the same style and pretty uninspiring. The Viognier I had was mid priced, specially recommended and featured exotic fruits and crisp finish, all I can say is where were the exotic fruits? I know I was pairing it with salty food but the description promised so much.  Since I know they’re not a wine bar I won’t criticise but simply say ‘ could be improved’. All in all bravo Branca, I know picked the right dishes but you’ve earned a return visit. 

  

Le Manoir: The Guest Experience.

I often realise how lucky I am with my family. When I read the articles about ‘preparing’ for Christmas where others talk about throwing ornaments, seating plans and drinking to mask uncle Alfred’s stories, I thank god that my family are rather good company. I have in the past lamented the fact my family are not large enough for my Christmas spread and how much I need some teenage boys to wolf down the 11 side dishes I provide. It is a very small, first world problem I face in my family, but then again not many people have 8 in the extended relations category. Let me introduce them. There’s my grandad, this 93 year old world traveller can proudly claim that he recently flaunted an 80years or over ban on a submarine exhibit (swinging through the port holes), travelled on the train down to visit us on his own and gleefully was in charge of twister spinning last Christmas which got more and moreI agitative as he abandoned the spinner. On the other side of the family is the 93 year old, mildly racist grandma, who recent asked my (happily married) mother if she had a nice young man, said to me ‘you look really good, it’s good you’ve lost a bit of weight, I’m sure it will help you find a boyfriend’ and whilst in hospital for a hip replacement ‘ are you alright? Why am I in bed when it’s you who needs a hip replacement?. There is my aunt and One Direction/Justin Bieber loving cousin. Then we have my mother, fiercely intelligent but constantly busy, my father, with a headmaster’s presence which makes you think he’s a lot taller than his 5″10 height and my sister who is living the city life with a job in property – I still have no idea what she actually does…-.

So it’s rather nice to catch up with more distant relations who we don’t see at christmas and realise that I’m lucky that even my over-extended family are extremely good company. I was not going to turn down the opportunity to go to Le Manoir Quatre Saisons with my grandma’s sister’s grandson and his family. They do do things rather well at Le Manoir. It is the little details, from the fairy light lit drive and impeccable valet service (they even retrieved my bag from the car) to the perfect decor, dietary tailored menus and exemplary level of attention – neither too much nor too little-. I may have got a bit excited when we arrived because Le Manoir is my old stomping ground and first experience of working in a professional kitchen. My time at Le Manoir inspired the realisation I actually wanted a career in food and I haven’t looked back, well except the following year when I went back to do more experience…  

I could waffle on for ages about the perfect gin martinis I had pre dinner and the beautifully presented canapés but let’s cut to the chase of the 7 course tasting menu. Our first surprise was the selection of bread on offer. I wish I could remember all the different types but highlights included sun dried tomato ciabatta, pecan and raisin and the intriguing beer and mashed potato bread which the couple of foodies around the table decided to try. Surprisingly light and moreish it has been added to the list of things to attempt. 

 

Butternut Squash Soup

 
Our first course was the best butternut squash soup you have ever tasted, displaying what Le Manoir does impeccably, highlighting the flavours of the natural ingredients. It was accompanied by a perfectly cooked scallop and blue cheese garnished crouton, which I actually enjoyed despite my normal dislike of blue cheese. The courses just improved with the next being a highlight. A melting salmon confit, topped with a little caviar to enhance the flavour and accompanied with a little potato salad and lemon, apple and cucumber to compliment rather than overwhelm. Then came a perfectly poached duck egg in a round ball (hitting my attempts far far far out of the water) with wild mushroom tea. I’m scraping the barrel for criticisms but I will say I would’ve preferred a slightly richer mushroom flavour in the broth and possibly an individual teapot the customer could pour themselves just to add a little theatre. This is possibly the only area some other restaurants have the edge on Le Manoir. My personal favourite is Midsummer House in Cambridge which for me finds a great balance between the theatricality of The Fat Duck and the simple flavours of Le Manoir.  

Salmon Confit

Poached Egg

 Anyhoo. The next course was, I believe, my favourite, – which when I looked at the menu I wouldn’t have said – but the subtle flavours of cucumber against a poached brill fillet, scallop and a little kick of wasabi was literally heaven in bowl. It was at this point I regretted earlier getting excited about wine after some phenomenal champagne and letting slip about my wine course last summer; as the pressure was on to pick a perfect more floral white. Luckily even the non-white wine drinker enjoyed it, dodged a bullet there. Next was the venison, thin slices of perfectly rare meat with a simple red wine jus and potato cake topped with caviar again, a surprise addition. Another unusual garnish was the chicory leaves and microherbs adding a fresh burst of colour and texture, lifting the dish from a traditional venison, blackberry or like combo, giving Le Manoir the edge.  

 

Venison

 
I would usually judge a restaurant on its desserts as from experience it is sometimes where restaurants try and cut corners, failing to hire specialist pastry chefs. But having been behind the scenes I knew Le Manoir had one of the most exciting pastry kitchens I’ve ever seen. Think Willy Wonka’s workshop. There is a rumour the pastry chef at Le Manoir is judging the upcoming professional take on Great British Bake off and I don’t doubt it, desserts are a serious business at Le Manoir. They didn’t mess around with dessert no.1. It promised apple and it delivered an overwhelmingly intense flavour of apple, unmarred by any others. Layers of compressed apples matched with a highly distinctive apple sorbet which we all agreed we could probably have had a bowl of on its own. The meal ended in style with a beautiful chocolate and coffee concoction. A praline layer, chocolate ganache, coffee ice cream, even gold leaf and espresso mousse gave an intense hit. Oh and then Raymond Blanc came over to the table to say hi. Even gave me some advice about my chocolate making ambitions, but that would be telling. Not a bad end to the  night.

 

Chocolate, Espresso Delice

 Le Manoir excels at stripping food back to ingredients, generally favouring to streamline one or two flavours rather than wacky combinations or too many. Some chefs should take note of the cooking style: sometimes simplicity is best; the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. What an evening. Good Food, Good Wine, Great Company. As my uncle said, we should live our lives through experiences and I will be dining out (pardon the pun) on and remembering this one for a very long time.