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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.
I seem to be getting busier and busier (so in demand obviously, or just desperately clinging to my social life, you decide). But I was very keen to try out the new George Street Social that’s opened in (unsurprisingly) George street. So I managed to squeeze in a visit between social and professional engagements. ‘Welcome to the ‘edgiest’ place in Oxford. Your own piece of Shoreditch in Oxford. We have board games. We have book swaps. We even have an old pay stub system for giving out allergy information. We are the hippest place out there. Come to us vintage living students of Oxford, we are the place you want to be.’ Is what this place is screaming, except it just doesn’t live up to the hype.
‘Let’s give this place the benefit of the doubt, it is its first week.’ Is what I thought for the first 5mins I waited to be given a table whilst I watched the waitress clear and set up 5 empty tables and ignore the steady queue of people blocking the stairs. When I got my table after 15 minutes I thought ‘maybe it isn’t style over substance, maybe the food will make up for the irritating ‘we serve water in milk bottles from a beer pump’ and the ‘we serve our wine in tumblers so that it’s lukewarm and tastes worse’. I’m ranting, but seriously most self respecting humans who drink wine in a restaurant for ridiculous mark ups expect to be served something with a little more finesse than your average student party. I suppose I should be thankful it wasn’t a plastic cup. I could’ve forgiven them if the wine had been a) any good or b) chilled, but as it is , I felt like I was drinking grape juice with a mild fermentation from sitting out on the counter too long. I know I complain about over chilled wines killing the flavour but this is ridiculous.
Their menu is a little confusing as well…. There is a different menu in the window, at the table and at the main bar downstairs. I felt slightly like they might have been able to make better use of their resources and I wouldn’t have felt quite so much of an inconvenience as a guest to the staff, if they’d stuck to one menu with perhaps a few sandwiches on offer to ‘grab and go’ downstairs. If I’d have known pizza was an option, as it is downstairs, I would’ve gone for it. Instead , skipping over the rather overdone and dull ‘brunch eggs’ options as I’d had eggs that morning, I went for pretty much the only other choice; a salad plate. I’m not quite sure why it took so long for my waiter to run downstairs and grab a plate of salad FROM THE DOWNSTAIRS cafe (this is how backward this place is with its menus) but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt as I was not the only customer and presumably they were planning on cooking and presenting other clients lunches better.
As it was I was served with a mildly depressing selection of salads, lumped limply on the plate with about as much care as I take when throwing dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Again I could’ve forgiven them if the panzenella had been vibrant with plump fresh, juicy tomatoes with a zingy dressing and oodles of chunks of crunchy yet soft pieces of bread instead of what appeared to be just mushy tomatoes with 1 crouton in and a slice of onion for good measure. Or maybe the salad which appeared to be just beetroot and Orange, had been roasted faintly caramelised beetroot with a hint of acidity, from the market around the corner rather than something which seemed oddly like pieces of vacuum packed beetroot from Sainsburys, artfully chopped up. (Disclaimer, I have no proof this is the case and may very well be wrong, it is merely a metaphor). I was hoping the couscous might’ve been its saving grace bursting with raisins or nuts or to be honest anything other than the offering I was given, dry flavourless and I believe from Ainsley Harriot’s new from a packet range. (Disclaimer, again, no proof.) All in all I wish I’d been less English about the situation and complained and refused to pay the £9.50 they charge for the salad. Or argued my point as I did to the man in the pub who claimed the dishwasher salt I drank at the bottom of my wine glass was ‘crystallised sugar’. One glass maybe ? But both the my Riesling and my friend’s wildly different Sauvignon blanc, I don’t think so. I take after my mother (a law tutor) and as Marshall Eriksson would say from HIMYM, Lawyered.
All in all I am disappointed Geroge street social. Take a lesson from the Turl street Kitchen or to be honest, any other restaurant. Never try to hard and never go for style over substance. On the other hand this is new, I’ll come back in a few weeks to see if it was all teething problems, I’m always optimistic. But scathingly I’m not sure how long George street social will last.
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.
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.
In today’s paper there was a sad story. It was about the suicide of a Michelin starred chef, Benoit Violier, head chef of the ‘worlds best restaurant’: Restaurant De L’Hotel De Ville Crissier-Suisse in Switzerland. The man who had reached the pinnacle of success in the culinary world. The 44 year old had it all; a successful restaurant, a beautiful wife, a young son, so why did he end it? Because as a chef you are the only artist whose legacy is destroyed or made by a masterpiece that is demolished within minutes of creation. You are only as good as your last dish.
Imagine if Da Vinci could only be a success if he produced copy after copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’ to order within 15mins of each other. Or if Mozart was written off as a failure because he messed up bar.74 of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ the 20th time he performed it despite working a 90hr week. Or even if Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, whilst an accolade, simply meant that he was expected to nail every take he did on his next film first time, whilst conveying the emotion of his performance in ‘The Theory of Everything’. And on top of that, everyone on the film set took a picture and immediately tweeted the achievement or demie of that single take. Welcome to the world of the professional chef. Everyone is an expert in food, because everyone eats. They know what they like, they know what they don’t, they tell you when it’s overcooked, undercooked, over seasoned, not what they ordered and they discredit that business and livelihood you built up over years in a single line on Twitter, Instagram, a newspaper. I’m pretty sure Justin Bieber would not have brushed off his bad performance at last week’s O2 arena gig if he’d lost his Grammys based on that one show.
Of course it is a chef’s lot. We buy into the lifestyle when we enter the industry. Chefs understand the risks, the pressure, the work. I’ve seen first hand chefs come in at 6am on their day off because a late shipment of beef meant it hadn’t been prepped for that evening’s service. More worryingly I’ve seen a chef’s hand shaking when he comes back from the bathroom having just snorted cocaine because he was surviving on 2-3hours sleep and I’ve smelt vodka surreptitiously snuck in to the kitchen in water bottles. Arethe extremes what makes a good chef?
I can’t say I’ve ever felt the pressures that Benoit Violier faced but I know what it’s like to feel like a failure. When you’ve cooked a steak a hundred times and this time you misjudge medium rare. When you’ve seasoned a sauce to perfection and this time you’ve forgotten you’re adding bacon so it’s over salted. I’ve come from a long line of pressurising environments; from a high achieving school to Cambridge, no matter what the teachers said my perfectionism meant, almost always, second best didn’t feel good enough. Whilst perfectionism in the industry is an issue that needs to be addressed, today’s sobering news is forcing me at least to reassess my own attitude. I’m at cookery school to learn, if I already knew everything there would be no point in paying the fees. The highest bar is always the one we set ourselves so you’re never going to be a success if you set up it at an impossible height. The same is probably true of Benoit Violier. Yes he had expectations to fill but at the end of the day it’s just food. All of us chefs would do well to remember that, it’s not worth dying for.
I have a strict rule of thumb since I’ve started cookery school; no late nights/drinking during the week. Since I am commuting from Oxfrd to London on a daily basis I can’t afford to get tired or turn up hungover while wielding a knife. But then again rules are made to be broken, and what a way to break my rule. Remember the amazing dinner at Le Manoir I blogged about a few weeks ago? Le me refresh your memory. 7 course tasting menu, fantastic conversation, caught up with Raymond Blanc? Well when the same line up invited me out for dinner again at the OXO tower in London I wasn’t going to turn it down.
I have been to the OXO tower once before, but not to eat. Since my sister moved to a London we’ve gone out of our way to find fun, quirky things to do in London together, preferably cheap, in order to spend time together (apparently my scintillating conversation isn’t enough….) one of our favourite things to do is a treasure hunt . We might both be suffering from Peter Pan syndrome but there is just something about walking around and discovering London (new for us Oxford-folks) through a series of cryptic clues sent to your phone. http://www.inthehiddencity.com/london-treasure-hunt/ I sound like I advertise for them, I don’t (I wish, maybe I should….please let me!! ) go anyway. One of our hunts we ended up on the top of the OXO tower. I can’t exaggerate the view enough. It is phenomenal. You can see the entire line the river, St Paul’s, the Shard, Buckingham palace, and guess what, it’s even better at night.
I arrived 15 minutes early and twiddled by thumbs at the bar. Normally I am never so impolite (although seriously- who really believes you should never be on time for a dinner party, clearly someone who has never cooked a dinner party) but storm Jonas was raging outside and I was cold. So consequently I stared at the view for 15 minutes. I probably could’ve stared at it for 30mins and it would’ve still been as mesmerising. I know we go to restaurants for the food, but actually for me (a major foodie) if the atmosphere isn’t there, the restaurant falls short. On the other hand, if the restaurant has amazing atmosphere I might forgive it a few food points. It might have been necessary here, but I can’t complain, I lucked out. I started with a melting salmon confit on a sweet potato pancake, beetroot and horseradish cream; other table dishes included the addictive salty langoustines with garlic butter and a platter of duck for two with Jerusalem artichokes and gingerbread.
Then. What a main course. I reluctantly agreed to share the Chateaubriand, just to help out a fellow foodie. It was cooked perfectly, a dark pink centre, complemented by melting buttered girrolle mushrooms and an intense beef jus. The Gruyere cheese mash was also something special. I apologise for not getting a photo, I was too busy savouring the meal. My only complaint would be that the carrots, while beautifully presented as whole baby carrots complete with tops, were hard as rocks, a little hard to eat. Unfortunately the Venison Wellington (shared by one set of father/son) fell short. Restaurants really ought say if they include such a dominant flavoured blue cheese in a dish. The beef fillet with cauliflower and walnut dressing promised a lot but seemed a little dull and small for its price. Again the vegetarian at the table commented that whilst ok, her butternut squash dish was nothing special, a shame when vegetarianism is being explored in such an exciting way at other restaurants currently.
Despite being rather full from the main, my pudding stomach was fairly excited by the array of desserts. So of course we decided to split a few. The Rhubarb mousse, gin sorbet and earl grey meringues boasted some impressive flavour in the meringues, less so with the sorbet (honourable mention to the octopus inspired presentation plate). The lemon meringue pie and cardamon ice cream melted in the mouth and the chocolate plate lived up to its reputation. It was rich (probably a good thing we were sharing) but the smoked white chocolate mousse alone was worth it. Finally a quick mention about the drinks. Well worth a try is the martini menu. A perfect martini should be ice cold, but not watery, biting and either salty or faintly sweet and the Oxo tower had something for everything on the spectrum. I enjoyed tantalisingly labelled 1953 or the Vesper (yes I do think I’m James Bond) gin, vodka and aromatised wine with a lemon twist, shaken not stirred. I could easily come back just for the view and another martini. The Atmosphere gets a 9 from me, the food a solid 7, the drinks push up to an 8 and the company is always a 10.