Friday, 30 December 2011

[Out of Oxford] Bluebells Café, Wootton, Isle of Wight

Normally, if you arrive at a restaurant and the first thing you notice is a noxious smell, you might want to change your plans and jump straight back in the car. However, if you've just parked in a farmyard with a huge pile of manure and a cowshed at one end, different standards apply. Another Christmas holiday excursion means another non-Oxonian review, this time of Bluebells Café, near Wootton on the Isle of Wight, which is attached to a working dairy farm.

(n.b. the giant mass of manure just visible behind the sign)

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

[Out of Oxford] Westover Hall Hotel, Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire

The back of the hotel. It could almost have been a summer's day (bitter December winds not shown).

If I ever spent Christmas in a hotel, it would have to be somewhere like Westover Hall, with its grand entrance hall overlooked by stained-glass windows, cosy wood-panelled rooms and spectacular views across to the Isle of Wight. This would be a good place for pretending that most of the twentieth century never happened (especially if Downton Abbey was booked up). But as my parents live a few minutes' drive away, I'll probably never get the chance. Still, for non-residents Westover offers two dining options: Vista Bistro, and the fine dining One Park Lane restaurant (the name isn't as pretentious as it sounds, as the hotel address is Park Lane). Fine dining seemed a bit much for a Wednesday lunchtime a few days after Christmas, so we went for the bistro, and its three courses for £20 menu, which included a strangely unadvertised glass of wine (it also turns out that you get one course free if you book in advance). Nevertheless, I thought that the influence of One Park Lane could be discerned in our meal - at least, in two of the three courses.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Red Lion, Gloucester Green

In the no-man's land between Gloucester Green, Beaumont Street and George Street, The Red Lion was until fairly recently The Goose, an establishment serving over-chilled Stella and food of the 'ten-item full English for £1.99' variety (its full history is here). But after a major refurbishment at the beginning of 2011, it was reborn as a more upmarket dining pub.
(photo from

Friday, 9 December 2011

Qumin's, St Clements

This week, back to curry - and back to Qumin's as well, as I've been here before. Quite a number of times, in fact, because the food it serves is consistently impressive, even to someone like me who doesn't quite know their bhuna from their balti. This time, however, I was armed with the proverbial notebook.
(all photos courtesy of The Photographer - though the poor lighting conditions weren't his fault. A warm yellowy glow is comforting, especially in December, but it doesn't make for good photography)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Royal Oak, Woodstock Road

There was a time, two or three years ago, when I ended up going for early evening drinks on a fairly regular basis. After the first pint, and once an hour or so had gone by, people's thoughts would turn to food, and soon burgers and ham and eggs and other pub staples would be ordered. After a few weeks of such meals, I started to feel bloated at the mere thought of a pale oven chip or a floury bap.
Still, there is pub food to be found in Oxford that is a bit more exciting than this and - some slightly dubious desserts aside - less stomach-distending. Recently I went to the labyrinthine Royal Oak (there are at least half a dozen rooms, and three beer gardens, apparently), opposite the old Radcliffe Infirmary. The range of beers and ciders there is extensive, but I was more interested in the dinner menu. I don't think the Royal Oak actually describes itself as a gastropub but it's clearly aiming a bit higher than your average Oxford establishment:
(I managed to leave the prices off, but the starters were all about £5, and the mains £8-10, except for the steak. Note the cunning ploy of putting the date on the menu. I checked the website the following day and the updated menu was exactly the same.)

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Ashmolean Café, Beaumont Street

The Ashmolean is looking pretty good at the moment, after its recent refurbishment. The interior sparkles and many of the dividing walls between rooms have disappeared, so that you can wander from one cluster of exhibits to the next and eventually come out into one of several light-filled stairwells.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Zappi's Bike Café, St Michael's Street

I've watched the Tour de France every July for the last twenty years, enjoying the blood and sweat, the shots of the French countryside, and the bone-dry humour of Gary Imlach, but it hasn't as yet inspired me to go very far on a bike. When I was younger I learnt to ride one in a straight line but I never mastered important things like hand signals. It's probably fair to say that I don't belong in a cycle shop.

 (This was the Tour de Picardie - I would have been very lucky to get this close to the finish of a Tour de France stage)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The spice of life? Rajasthan, Cowley Road

My mother is a very good cook. When I was growing up, of course, I took this for granted, which was one reason why in my pre-pubescent years polite adults would refer to me as 'well-built', and other children...well, I'm sure you can imagine. It was not until my first year at university that I realised that there was one area to which her culinary expertise does not stretch: apart from judicious additions of ginger and a touch of chilli powder to casseroles and gravy, she never cooks anything really spicy.

It was doubtless a visit to an Indian restaurant, probably as part of the 'organised fun' (I can think of few worse oxymorons) of Freshers' Week, which brought me to this realisation. Now, I don't want to speculate here about why I had never eaten a proper curry before the age of 19, although I'd like to make it clear that my family is not imprisoned in a mid-twentieth century timewarp, waiting for Elizabeth David to come and tell them that olive oil isn't just for clearing out blocked ears. Suffice it to say that I hadn't. And although I have consumed many fairly spicy oriental dishes since then, when I do so I always feel a certain regret alongside the physical effects that other people seem to relish.