Sunday, 6 October 2013

Itsu, Cornmarket

On a working day, finding lunch can create challenges. Of course, those of us who don't have access to a canteen would ideally be bringing in a healthy and interesting packed lunch every day, but life isn't always that simple. So that leaves the bought sandwich, but eating filled bread can seem monotonous after a while.
Enter Itsu, a London chain which specialises in 'bright salads, fields of crunchy vegetables, hot and nutritious brown rice and noodles, light soups, "low carb" bentos, fresh sushi, go go pots, skinny salad sandwiches, mayonnaise-free sauces and zero fat frozen yoghurt'. Not a sandwich in sight (apart from a handful of flatbreads). Now, when I was asked to review Oxford's new Itsu, I hesitated, as although I've reviewed the odd chain I try not to spend too much time in them. Still, when I'm looking for a lunchtime sandwich I very often find myself heading to Itsu's bigger and more established sibling Pret A Manger, simply because it's much better than most independent outlets at offering a tasty and varied selection of food 'to go' - I've had enough of greasy, cheese-encrusted panini - and it seemed hypocritical to avoid Itsu on that basis. Make of that what you will; with the tortured ethical reflections out of the way, let's proceed with the review.

As the above summary suggests, Itsu offers an impressively wide range of mainly Asian-inflected snack food, which was still looking very fresh when we visited one evening: Itsu is open until 10pm Monday to Saturday, and 9 on Sundays. That, incidentally, means that its major evening competitors in Cornmarket are McDonald's, KFC and Burger King (and I genuinely hope that the staff don't encounter any drunk people who can't tell the difference), but self-service is probably all they have in common. I went for the 'Best of Itsu' sushi selection (£7.69: that's the takeaway price, and the website doesn't have the eat-in one), which offered tuna, prawn and salmon sushi and various different maki. A small card in the container reminding me of the contents might have been handy but the sushi was very good sushi of its kind: it didn't taste 'homemade', but the fish was plump and tender and the maki fillings generous enough not to make me feel as if the main component of my meal was rice. I wouldn't spend that much for lunch every day but it would make a tasty and satisfying treat.
The Photographer had one of the drolly-named 'potsu' options: chicken and rice in a vegetable broth with Thai sauce (£4.69). This was another large helping that did look and taste close to homemade, with plenty of chopped vegetables and chicken; the Thai sauce gave it quite a strong lemongrass flavour. Definitely good comfort food.
Alongside some fruit teas (which came in little cafetière-style teapots) we tried Itsu's famous frozen yoghurt, which can come with several different toppings. I really liked it: it has a pleasant tang that makes it dangerously moreish, and honeyed cashews were a nicely contrasting topping. The Photographer was a bit more ambivalent and felt that a more even ratio of caramel sauce to yoghurt would have improved the dessert.
(so now you know)
Itsu proved to be a good place for a quick and tasty evening meal: as the top photo shows, the seating isn't really comfortable enough to make you want to linger, but I suspect that's the point. It clearly has the capacity to make a lot of people's lunchtimes more interesting as well.

I was invited  to review Itsu. Other takeaway outlets (including but not limited to Pret) are available...

36 Cornmarket Street, OX1 3EZ
01865 793965

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