Restaurant Review: Folly Bridge Brasserie

The Folly Bridge Brasserie is an easy place to overlook. I’ve been in Oxford for six years now and never been there, or even heard it suggested as a place to go for dinner. Formerly an Indian restaurant, it is hard to imagine that somewhere with such a great riverside location would not be much more popular than it was. Perhaps because The Head Of The River is just across the way, or the fact that it’s a bit of a walk to get there, or that it is not particularly easy to spot just walking around- the Folly Bridge Brasserie is just hard to find. Recently, though, I got the chance to discover it when a friend suggested that our research group go there for our Christmas dinner.

FollyBridge_StarterSpecialising in French cuisine, The Folly Bridge Brasserie has a varied menu, with dishes like ‘Escargots de Bourgogne’, ‘Game Terrine’, ‘Rabbit and wild mushroom tagliatelle’, and ‘Chocolate and chestnut yule log’. We had our meal from the Christmas party menu, which required us to order in advance, given there were so many of us. To start, I had a goats’ cheese salad- goats’ cheese, chutney, toast, and salad- well presented and good quality cheese. For the main, Calvados 
pheasant, which came with 
the usual Christmas dinner fixings, all cooked well and delicious. In particular, the roast potatoes were some of the best I have had. To finish, an apricot tart, sprinkled with almonds and blueberries. At £20 a head, very good value, and I would be happy to eat there again.

FollyBridge_PuddingWe started the drinks off with a complimentary glass of prosecco- not quite as fruity as some of the other prosecco I’ve had, but light and delicate, so fine for an aperitif. With the meal, we bought bottles to share around the table. The house white was Sicilian, which seemed strange, given the restaurant was French, and it wasn’t particularly good either. I’ve often said the mark of a good wine list is that the house wine is of good quality, so a little disappointing here. The red we ordered was a Bordeaux, a much better (but more expensive) bottle, which I like, and the wine worked with the pheasant well. Overall though, it looks like the wine list is a little generic, trying to cater to popular wine styles. I’d much rather see a solid French list, for a French Brasserie, designed to go with their food.

Although we were the only people earlier in the evening, the restaurant became very busy later on. With the river right out the window, and low lighting (hence the dark photos), even for a winter’s night it was very pleasant. The staff were very friendly and helpful. It felt like a relaxed restaurant, but without loads of personality- perhaps it is just not established enough to have put its mark on the place. Overall, a nice place to eat, with very good food, but just missing a little something. I would be very happy to come back, but is it my new favourite restaurant? Possibly not.


Restaurant Review: St. Aldate’s Tavern

In my undergraduate days, St. Aldate’s Tavern was our college pub. I’d meet up with our rowing crew there for a pint before a rowing dinner or crew date, or just head down there in the evening with friends. It was never the most glamourous pub, never the most upper-class clientèle, but it was our pub.

But times changed. The Royal Blenheim re-invented itself a few years ago and in the process became the college pub for a new generation of students. The college bar was re-done so more students stayed in college for the evening pint. With The Old Tom serving great Thai food, or pubs like The Chequers nearby having a better selection of beers, it was no surprise that St. Aldates had to find a new image to stay alive in Oxford. But find a new image it did.

Returning for the first time in years for lunch this week, I was pleasantly surprised at the transformation of the once-grimy pub. Clean crisp decor, chic bar stools, and jazz playing in the background, you could now order your drink from a nice wood-backed bar. The building was just a lot brighter, and the toilets were now somewhere you might want to visit. Really a different place.

The food and drink served were notably different too. Now with daily menus printed, the bar snacks looked genuinely interesting- salted pig’s ears, or home-made scotch eggs, for example- rather than the usual boring fare. For lunch, I ordered a parsnip, apple, and sage soup, which came with a freshly cooked bread roll, and a pork and apple sauce roll, which came with chips or salad. The soup was filling and flavourful, with the sage really coming through- just the thing after walking through Oxford in the cold. The bread was well made, and the pork well cooked. Coming in at £4.50 for the soup and roll, and £5 for the pork roll, my lunch was good value for money, and I was nicely full. A friend I was with had some meatballs which were also well rated.

At the time, St Aldate’s Tavern was having a real ale festival, and there was a good selection of beers. After sampling one or two beers to help choose, I enjoyed a Henley dark ale, which was fruity with tastes of caramel. Also available was a German wheat beer on tap, as well as the usual pub fare. Similarly, they served Stowford Press cider by Weston’s, one of the better ciders out there, in my opinion. The wine list was nothing special, but there were one or two nice choices at the more expensive end. I imagine that most discerning drinkers would find something they like here.

Overall, I was impressed at the turnaround, and would definitely come back. It’s not the pub that it was in my undergraduate days, but maybe the pub it is now is a better one.

Restaurant Review: The Magdalen Arms

In Oxford, it’s pretty rare to come across a jewel of a place to eat that isn’t massively busy, expensive, or hard to get a table at. The Magdalen Arms, situated a little way down the Iffley Road, somehow has managed to slip through the cracks. Perhaps because it is still very much a pub rather than a restaurant, or because the website has been “coming soon” for some time now, so that you can’t see the menu unless you actually go there, The Magdalen Arms hasn’t been as ‘discovered’ as it should be. With a varied menu, fantastic food, and an enjoyable atmosphere, I would highly recommend it. Just make sure you find it out before everybody else does.

Food 10/10: Using local, seasonal food, the menu changes regularly and sometimes various items are not available- as it should be, in my opinion. I recently had some wild rabbit with chorizo, fennel, lentils and aioli for the main, and vanilla ice cream with Pedro Ximenez sherry for pudding. The rabbit was brilliant, perfectly cooked, and the chorizo and aioli provided a really interesting contrast. Bulked up by the lentils, the portion sizes here are generous, and experience told me I wouldn’t want a starter, despite many interesting things on the menu. The sherry ice cream finished off the meal well, with delicious aged sticky sherry flavours complementing the real vanilla and fresh creaminess. I had a bite of some others’ food as well- lamb shoulder, dauphinoise potatoes… all lovely. Some of the menu options are for two or more though- like the lamb shoulder- so it worked out that we came as a group. However, for the price of the food- around £5 for a starter or pudding and £10-£15 for a main- it is very hard to fault anything here.

Drinks 9/10: I’ve always thought that it is the sign of a good restaurant to have high quality house wines. The house wines here are French country wines- which is where all house wines should come from- as this is where the best value for money can be found. Very palatable, stood up well to the food, and well priced too at around £12 a bottle, you don’t have to delve into the rest of the well thought out wine list. Otherwise, there are a few specialty drinks like sloe gin fizz and home-made lemonade, and the beers and ciders seemed like standard good pub fare.

Atmosphere and Service 7/10: Not much here that would separate it from the standard pub- the place is decorated nicely, and the service was as expected. The furniture is all wooden, which adds a nice feel to the place, but it can be a little hard to sit on over the course of a long evening. Particularly nice that they haven’t gone for the gastropub-style decor, with fancy crockery, the plates you’ll get given here will vary from person to person, really highlighting the gastronomic focus that surrounds everything they do at the Magdalen Arms.

Here, restaurants are reviewed based on some idea of restaurant expectation, not objective quality. If the latter was used, anywhere moderately affordable would look like an undesirable place to eat, given it would have much lower numbers than hugely more expensive restaurants. So if a hamburger restaurant was being looked at, 10/10 would represent a top hamburger restaurant, and 5/10 might represent a poor one. So a top class French restaurant could have lower numbers than a hamburger restaurant, but be more desirable to eat at, as it is held to higher standards. It makes sense, trust me.

Restaurant Review: The Royal Oak

I’m not a fan of the concept “gastropub”. Stuck in limbo between “pub” and “restaurant”, it doesn’t have the relaxed cosy feel of a pub, nor the sophistication of a restaurant. The food can be more about style than substance, and rarely is there a real ale in sight. There are many exceptions, of course, but if I hear a place I like has turned into a gastropub, it’s usually a place I won’t like for long.

What I am a fan of, though, is pubs with great food, which is where I would put The Royal Oak. Situated neat the split of Woodstock and Banbury roads in the city centre of Oxford, it used to just be another ordinary pub. Recently, though, it’s come under new management and they’ve gone to town on the food menu, and the results have really shown. This new menu, the chilled out atmosphere, and the fact it is open until midnight, mean it has become an attractive place to spend the evening, as many now do.

Food 9/10: I’ve now been here enough to try a few different things on the menu. My favourite has been an ox cheek pie, but since the menu changes frequently, I imagine to make use of food that is in season, the ox cheek pie wasn’t available when we visited recently. Instead we ordered from the set menu- two courses for £8.50 or three for £11.50- and between us settled on chicken and chorizo skewers, pea and watercress risotto, hake fishfingers and chips, and chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. The results were very good, the risotto being creamy and fresh and the skewers crispy and flavoursome. Superb value for money, particularly.

Drinks 8/10: A great selection of real ales, including a particular favourite of mine, Doombar. They’ve also got a couple of proper ciders on tap, Aspall’s and Addlestone’s, with the latter being a cloudy cider, a nice touch for cider fans. The whisky shelf is well stocked as well, with many regulars and a few irregulars.

A look at the wine side of things suggests The Royal Oak is more “pub” than “gastropub” though. Hard to find a wine list around the place, most are usual pub fare for wines. This isn’t necessarily a problem, given the great selection of other drinks here and the atmosphere, but don’t expect anything great.

Atmosphere and Service 7/10: The Royal Oak is a little in the mould of a country pub, with wooden pillars and old comfy chairs abound. With many smaller rooms and lower ceilings, there is a cosy feel to wherever you are. The few picnic tables make for nice sitting outside, if the sun ever returns to Oxford.

The staff there are friendly as well. Checking that everything was fine with our food was a nice touch. Not serving our meals with our request, though, was not. We wanted the starter to come out with one main, and the other main to come out with the pudding, as we were in a little bit of a rush, and when they came out as you might expect- starters, mains, puddings- we became pushed for time. Otherwise though, not a problem with the service. It is still a pub, after all.

Here, restaurants are reviewed based on some idea of restaurant expectation, not objective quality. If the latter was used, anywhere moderately affordable would look like an undesirable place to eat, given it would have much lower numbers than hugely more expensive restaurants. So if a hamburger restaurant was being looked at, 10/10 would represent a top hamburger restaurant, and 5/10 might represent a poor one. So a top class French restaurant could have lower numbers than a hamburger restaurant, but be more desirable to eat at, as it is held to higher standards. It makes sense, trust me.

Restaurant Review: Mission Burrito

One week last year, I was in the Mission District in San Francisco, eating a burrito, on the way to play bridge. The next week, back in Oxford, I was in Mission Burrito, eating a burrito, on the way to play bridge. So I’d like to think I have some base for comparison when looking at a place that is named after this Californian hot-spot for Mexican cuisine.

With the busy student life in Oxford, burritos from Mission Burrito have become key to me for getting a meal in around afternoon and evening activities. Reasonably priced at just under £6 for a burrito, prices are student friendly, and a few minutes is all you’ll need to wait for your burrito to be made. But for me, the biggest attraction is that burritos here will keep you going through those evening commitments- you won’t be hungry for a while after eating one of these.

Food 9/10: Much like Subway, in the sense that you choose your basic meal then customise it, you can start with a burrito (rice and pinto or black beans), fajita burrito (rice, peppers, and onions), tacos, or a salad or rice box. You filling is then steak, chicken, vegetarian, or carnitas (slow roasted pork). Finish it off with salady bits, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, and salsa, and you’re good to go.

I’ve never had the vegetarian, but everything else has been more than up to scratch. The carnitas is particularly soft and flavoursome, and the pinto beans are cooked to just the right texture, so these two end up being my usual burrito combination. I rarely order the cheese- I find it gets drowned out with all the other flavours- and the chipotle salsa, while at the right heat, could have a bit more of a smoky flavour, given that chipotles are just smoked jalapeños. All in all, though, the food is excellent, you can tell all the ingredients are fresh and well sourced, and that a lot of effort has gone into making sure the product is a good one.

Drinks 9/10: Not a significant part of the experience for me- in fact, I rarely order a drink. However, if you do want to sit down and enjoy a drink with your meal, the drinks selection complement the food and atmosphere well. In addition to the usual fare like Coke, they have a few of Mexican beers, like Corona, and frozen margeritas. Also, they’ve recently started importing American root beer, which has been tricky to find in Oxford otherwise. Hard to ask for much more from drinks, I feel.

Atmosphere and Service 8/10: There are many nice touches to make it seem like Mission Burrito came right out of California: the red baskets your burrito is placed in, the nice wooden tables, or the pictures of the Mission District on the walls. The staff are friendly; I’ve often seen them giving helpful suggestions to people in front of me who don’t know quite what they want to order. There can be quite a lot of variation in the size of the burrito, however- some servers are more generous than others- so it can be sad if you end up with a smaller burrito. But overall, it’s relaxed environment, which is just right for that quick evening meal.

Mission Burrito. There are two branches in Oxford, one on King Edward Street, one on St. Michael’s Street.

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.