Restaurant Review: Chang Mai Kitchen

Chang Mai Kitchen is one of my favourite Thai places in Oxford. Tucked away down a little alley on the High Street, we only found out about it when we went there for a friend’s birthday a few years ago. We’ve been back a good number of times since, most recently on Tuesday, and continue to enjoy it. I’d highly recommend it as a place to go and to bring friends to.

Food 9/10: Everything I’ve had here has been great. My usual fare at Chang Mai is the pad thai, a long-time favourite, but on Tuesday I thought I would branch out with the venison with jungle curry. I didn’t regret this, as the highlight of this was the broth, excellently flavoured and seasoned, with just the right amount of heat for my English sensibilities. The ho fun noodles accompanying it were cooked just right, and the satay I had as a started worked well too. I also tried some of the beef with oyster sauce another person had- also very well done- and the portion sizes are definitely big enough for a full meal.
Food here is not going to break the bank either- with mains usually coming in under £10. Adding some rice or noodles will of course put you over, but if you are paying just over £10 for this quality of food, you are doing very well.

Drinks 7/10: We had a bottle of house red, an unclassified French wine. A Grenache-Syrah blend, it was more fruity than I would have expected, and the finish was a little disappointing- but I’ve had a lot worse for house red. The rest of the wine list was uninspiring, but given that Thai cuisine doesn’t lend itself too well to wine, this isn’t a huge loss.
However, if you don’t want wine, there’s a nice selection. Sake, good beers for the food, teas (especially the Thai Ice Tea, which is delicious) are all available, and lend a nice authentic touch. In fact- I often have the Thai Ice Tea as a pudding by itself.

Atmosphere and Service 8/10: The building itself is lovely- with wooden beams all over, and well decorated. If you’ve got a big group though, it can be a problem, as being a small place means it’s tough to put a lot of tables together. Similarly, getting to the bathroom can be a bit of a squeeze if the place is busy. The staff are lovely (as I have usually found in Thai places), the service was timely, and the kitchen staff adjusted the spice level of the dish for one of our party. Never had a problem, and always felt welcome there.

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Homemade Pizzas

It’s very easy to buy great pizza, either takeaway, at restaurants. Even from the supermarket, there are nice pizzas available, and cooking them is often little more effort than simply putting them in the oven. They require little skill to get a good result, and thus they are usually one of the last things that get home-made. Additionally, they aren’t really something that you can serve guests, given how readily available they are.

However, when you make the pizzas yourself, it’s a bit of a different story. People appreciate the effort involved, and in my experience they are always happy to have something they know they will like. By preparing a selection of toppings you can please even fussy eaters like vegetarians, and it’s easy to do posher pizzas (like goat’s cheese, red pepper and sundried tomato) along with simple pizzas at the same time. They’re ideal for an evening where you have something planned, like a movie or games night. If you are entertaining kids, they’ll find it great fun to assemble their own pizza too.

The actual mechanics of making it are very easy too. Most good supermarkets will sell a dough mix (or even pre-made bases if you want to get something even simpler), but it is also straightforward to make the dough yourself. You can pre-bake the bases beforehand so that once the ingredients are on, it doesn’t take much time in the oven. It’s worth doing this with some of the ingredients as well- certainly make sure any meats you use are cooked- but roasting things like peppers or mushrooms will result in a better texture. Otherwise, it is just chopping up ingredients and setting them out.

Here’s a quick example- my favourite. Take a pre-cooked pizza base, and spread tomato puree and a little barbecue sauce on it. Add some chicken, parma ham, roasted red pepper, mushroom, red onion. Put on a few dollops of mascarpone and slices of a goat’s cheese log, a small amount of pesto, and finish off with sprinkling some grated mozzarella on it. But of course- don’t just do this- choosing your own ingredients is half the fun.

Book Review: Judgment of Paris

How much you enjoy Judgment of Paris depends a lot on what you want to get out of it. The book tells the story of a famous blind tasting in Paris of “California versus France”, as well as giving a good history on California wine making and effects the tasting had on New World wine. It’s well written, very readable, and surprisingly accessible for a book on wine- you don’t need to have a good knowledge of wine to get a lot out of this book, and there is much to learn about the history of wine in California.

What it isn’t, though, is a detailed analysis on the wines themselves and the reasons why some were rated higher than others. There are over 160 pages before you get to the wines that were actually included in the tasting- and even then, the stories about the people involved seem to take precedence over the wines and vineyards. There’s also a pretty clear New World bias throughout- so if you like French wine, it can make for tough reading at points. Definitely a “popular wine” book.

Even if you did want a more technical read, this is still a fun book. There are some great romantic stories about how poor immigrants came to California with wine-making skills and work their way up to be wine-makers beating the top French vineyards, and how people spent their life savings to get a chance to make wine. You really get a good sense of the way attitudes to wine-making and selling have changed over time, and the tasting itself is a pretty important one, so it is nice to have a book written on it. Overall: a fun, light read. 7/10.

Raymond Blanc in Oxford Playhouse

Raymond Blanc, founder of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, today gave a public lecture in the Oxford Playhouse. Blanc is one of my favourite chefs- not least because he produces cookbooks which are great to cook from, but because I share a lot of his thoughts about gastronomy and attitude to food.

It’s easy nowadays to feel good about buying organic, local, seasonal produce – and this is certainly very important – but to me they are very much only a means to creating a great meal. A salad is a lot more than the leaves you put in it, and you can still ruin a free-range corn-fed chicken by cooking it or preparing it poorly. When a chef pushes this kind of food, it is often hard to separate their efforts in putting forward sustainable food, and the cooking of it, as with Jamie Oliver and his efforts for school dinners. I really feel Raymond Blanc gets this balance right- food made in the best environment makes for the best eating- and that best environment is often the organic, local and seasonal one. The focus of food and gastronomy is, to me, about sharing great food with others, and having the right ingredients is going to further that in part.

As a speaker, he was fantastically enigmatic; I don’t think I have ever seen a speaker move around on the stage as much, or spend as much time gesticulating. Although he didn’t speak on many things which weren’t in his autobiography, it was easy to see his energy and convivial personality. The desire and passion he had to share food, his love of food, and how it brought his family and community together really came through in the talk, and it would be hard to go away from it without wanting to do the same. His knowledge of the sourcing of his food was impressive, just showing his commitment to the whole process, and his value of the local farmers and community. It was great to see him giving back to Oxford in this way, and his donation of all the proceeds to the theatre itself was a nice touch. Thanks to Raymond for putting on a great event.