Friday, 24 February 2012

Edamame, Holywell Street

I nearly didn't publish last week's review on the grounds that, although I wasn't too keen on the restaurant, the reasons for this weren't especially interesting. This week I hesitated for a different reason. In the years that I've spent in Oxford I've never heard a bad word said about Edamame, I've eaten well there before, and it's always popular. You can tell it's open (their location on a residential street means that the hours are quite restricted - check before you go) because the queue for seats is generally snaking out of the door into Holywell Street. What could I add to this?

Still, it would be unfair to exclude Edamame on the grounds that it's good, and I think that enough can be said about our experience there to make a decent review. For a start, arriving always feels like entering someone's front room, as you duck through the tiny hallway into the light, wooden-floored, low-ceilinged dining room, and sit on benches at one of half a dozen shared tables. The atmosphere is cosy, and friendly, without the cramped sharp-elbowedness of a proper canteen restaurant. As you'd expect, there's a high turnover (payment is taken when you order), but you don't feel rushed.

 The lunchtime menu is simple, with about eight main choices, some side dishes and a special or two (the evening one is slightly different, and on Thursdays is the much-fĂȘted sushi night). A glimpse of the tiny kitchen makes this entirely understandable. As an appetiser we had some kaiso sarada (£3: this was a special), a seaweed and cabbage salad with a hot horseradish (I think) dressing. As far as I could tell the seaweed was real, and the contrast of textures, between dry-ish cabbage and rubbery, salty seaweed was quite addictive.

Most of the main dishes come with rice and/or miso soup. These were perfectly done: the soup savoury without being too salty, and the rice beautifully light and slightly sticky. The Photographer had chicken katsu (£8.50: chicken breast coated in 'Japanese breadcrumbs' and deep fried, with a fruity sauce for dipping). No spectre of KFC loomed here: the tender chicken was offset by its crispy, greaseless covering.

I chose the day's special, a salmon hot pot (£8). Billed as a comforting winter warmer, this was a rich broth generously filled with flaky chunks of salmon and vegetables - carrots, tomatoes, onions and more - cooked until tender. It had a pleasant but not overwhelming spiciness, and soaked into the rice when it was added, making for a very satisfying bowlful. So it might be churlish to complain that I didn't feel that it was distinctively Japanese. Maybe this isn't surprising - none of the other dishes is much more exotic, and in any case Edamame serves 'Japanese home cooking', about which I can't say I know very much, though I suspect that it's simpler than some accounts of Japanese cuisine would have us believe. But although I'm not demanding weird and wonderful food for the sake of it, put it this way: I couldn't help wishing there had been something to make this thick, spicy vegetable soup with fish stand out a bit.

However, perhaps on a different day, with a different special, I would have been properly impressed (I should point out that once they served my favourite Japanese dish ever, oyako don; I don't think you can get that anywhere else in Oxford). In general, Edamame clearly deserves its success, and even though it will still be busy if you don't, you should go.

15 Holywell Street, OX1 3SA


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Square Meal


  1. This sounds like a sort of alternative to Wagamamas? I don't live too far from Oxford so I'll have to remember it, it seems pretty reasonably priced too and your descriptions make it really clear what to expect!

  2. Thanks! I suppose you could say that it's a smaller and homelier version, and obviously much more personal - I've only tried Wagamama a couple of times but it felt a bit 'by numbers'.