That said, Cafe Opium has a few things to learn about service from its blander neighbours. The staff managed to be both brusque in a way that was almost rude and were very slow to take orders and clear plates (although the food itself came quickly). This might be acceptable in a cheap canteen-style establishment but jarred a bit in a place that, despite some other no-frills touches like plastic water glasses and mugs for jasmine tea, is fitted out as a proper restaurant and falls into the 'mid price' bracket. Accordingly I wasn't too happy to see a 10% service charge added to the bill: often I'm not keen on over-attentive waiting staff but I almost found myself missing that kind of attitude here.
(low yellowish lighting is not good for food photography)Luckily the food was of a higher standard, once we had negotiated the slightly confusing menu, which consisted of 'classic' and 'full' (i.e. slightly more exotic) sections with quite a lot of overlap between them. We didn't have starters and in any case the small and conventional selection (mainly things like prawn toasts and Peking duck) was dwarfed by a vast range of main courses, from standard takeway-style dishes to more gourmet and expensive seafood creations; there was also a selection of cook-it-yourself hot pots which looked rather good. As a lover of eggs and shellfish I was drawn to the stir-fried king prawns coated in salted egg yolk (£11.50; with jasmine rice, £2). My interest was rewarded: the prawns were juicy, the batter they had been cooked in light and crisp, and their salty-sticky coating broke down and mingled nicely with the rice. Still, after a while the sheer protein hit got a bit much; perhaps this would be better as a sharing dish. A portion of 'three roast meats soup' (£8.20) was slightly spoilt by an (unadvertised) saltiness. It was otherwise praised for being aromatic, with the duck and pork flavours mixing well, although it could have done with a more acidic element to contrast with the meat broth.
For the rest of the table spiciness was the order of the day. Shredded pork on a bed of rice (£8.90) looked innocuous but was in fact hot ('about the same as a Madras' was the expert verdict) and very fragrant, as was Ma Po tofu (£8.50). The final two dishes turned out to be similar: aubergine rice (about £8) and beef and aubergines (£8.90) both came in the same spicy sauce which did the usual thing of seeming mild at first but then becoming hotter and was dotted with some killer chillis. The rice version might have benefited from a wider variety of vegetables but the chewy strips of beef and smooth aubergines in its counterpart made for a pleasant combination of textures.
With the plastic glasses and so on and the service as it was Cafe Opium doesn't offer an especially memorable dining experience. However, the smart opium den-style interior is quite atmospheric and the food we had was expertly cooked and interesting (apparently there's also karaoke downstairs!). We only tried a small proportion of the many appetising dishes on the menu and if I was looking for dinner in George Street - which doesn't happen that often, admittedly - I'd be happy to return for more.
67-69 George Street OX1 2BG