Champagne & strawberries before an Oxford Commemoration Ball.

For those who both read this blog and know Oxford, you will have noticed this spring brought two things: the glories of Pimms and silence here on Oxford’s Omnivore. My apologies for that; I had a dissertation to write and jobs to court.

Now, like many students here who have taken their final exams, we’re in the mild mannered halcyon days. The days pass to the soundtrack of Commemoration Balls, of plays and of the Joycean “crick, crack” of cricket in the park.

As life has improved, so has my appetite. Beyond the glories of Pimms and backyard BBQs there is much to discuss. I plan on writing regularly now, so check back.

On the docket: Oxford’s best gastropubs, food-focused trips outside Oxford, good new beers, cocktails and, yes, more restaurant reviews.

Let us know here at OO where you’re eating and what you’re drinking. We’d love to know and would be happy to share.

The Omnviore has learned that Gluttons — the Walton Street delicatessen — has plans for expansion. According to one store worker, Gluttons’s owner has been planning the expansion for months. Due to the recession, however, the plans been delayed.

The idea is an interesting one. As described, Gluttons would knock down the back wall to open onto a court-yard space with seating. A coffee machine would be installed for a cafe atmosphere. And — here’s the kicker — it would somehow become more integrated with its neighbor, and sister restaurant, Branca.

Bother Branca and Gluttons are owned by the same person. You’ll often see Branca’s chefs dart out of Branca empty handed only to emerge from Gluttons moments later clutching parsley, olive oil or vegetables. I’ve seen it many times myself.

Done well, it could expand both, making more of Gluttons than a mere deli and expanding the profile of Branca from sheen and chic to slightly more rusticated. Done poorly, and it could be an unpleasant pastiche.

What do you think of the idea?

 

Renovated Ashmolean by Rick Mather Architects

Pictures have emerged of the Ashmolean Museum following its £61m renovation by Rick Mather Architects. As a recent Wallpaper article says, “The Ashmolean museum in Oxford, once a dusty old labyrinth of higgledy piggledy rooms and illogical corridors, has been transformed almost beyond recognition.” It’s true — the pictures are stunning. (Click here for a slideshow.)

Good news for those who seek shelter in museum cafe’s was buried in the final paragraph of the article:

The renovation has also brought the city of dreaming spires its first rooftop restaurant, reached via a cascading staircase that runs up through the new atrium.

No more details are available. We’ll try to find out. In the meantime, we may simply have to wait until November 7th, when the museum opens to the public.

 

Good news — the organic kebab van is back!

Having not seen it yet this Michaelmas, I was fearful it wasn’t to return. Friends shared  with me a collective sense of loss.

But walking up St. Giles last night, there it was. The menu has changed, as have the men working it, but the location is the same. I stopped to ask, and it is still owned by Will Pouget, the 33 year old food entrepreneur behind Alpha Bar and the Vaults & Gardens. The food, no doubt, is still of the same extraordinarily high quality for a kebab van.

For those who are new to Oxford or who aren’t familiar with it, the organic kebab van — known as “The Diner” — serves organic and vegetarian burgers. They have tofu and risotto burgers, as well as organic lamb and organic hamburgers. Everything is served on a thick ciabata, with the options of quacamole, mesculun and other sauces and sides.

It was, in my opinion, so good as no longer to be a kebab. (See here for a post about this.) It was better than many burgers I’ve had in restaurants — GBK and the over-priced Quod included.

I’ll plan a dinner there soon, and report back. In the meantime, has anyone tried the new menu? Tell us how it is!

Horchata in winter? Only in the lyrical landscapes of a Vampire Weekend winter.

Though composed of Americans who met while attending Columbia University, there is, as a friend recently commented, something about the indie rock band Vampire Weekend that distinctly suits Oxford.  Perhaps it is their exceptional diction, their light step or their wit. In listening to lyrics from such songs as “Mansard Roof,” “Campus” and “Oxford Comma” could easily have been written to suit Oxford’s neighborhoods, colleges and students. When you hear someone listening to their music in the library, or walking down Turl, you may well think, as my friend does: Yeah. This person is doing this right.

And so it was that I heard the new song “Horchata” from their forthcoming album with a sense of delight. The setting is winter, the subject: food. The lyrics are typically quirky, the rhythm immensely catchy and the subject dear to my heart.

Horchata, or orxata, is a traditional drink commonly drunk but made of uncommon ingredients including almonds sesame seeds, rice, barely or tigernuts. In and of themselves, these are not unusual; but each region has their own recipe. Some call for milk, others cinamon, nutmeg and vanilla.

According to drinking myth (a most unreliable category) the drink originates in an exclamation by King Jaume who, on frist drinking it, said, “”Això és or, xata!” (“That’s gold, darling!”) More likely than darling is the translation of barley from the Latin hordeata into the Valencian ordiata, but then a drinker must be able to dream, and the mythology of a king fills the imagination more than the etymology of a word. Long live the king.

What is lost in the translation — from Latin to Valencian to Vampire Weekend — is why this summer drink is drunk in a Vampire winter. The setting is intentionally inverted; the hortchataa trigger to warmer times. It’s somehow self-consciously Proustian, but not posing, merely playful.

As the same friend said — we need only now to find a place here in Oxford that sells horchata. To then drink, listen and walk would be to pose self-consciously — a deliberate irony.

Anyone know where to get horchata in this town?

Restaurant: Jamal’s

107-108 Walton Street

Telephone: 01865 554905

http://www.jamals.co.uk

In leaving the restaurant last night, I squeezed past a pirate and a sea wench, danced with a fairy and held my friend steady as he lost his dinner to the trash bin on the street. We left topless rugby players at the table next to us, and a line of people waiting to chunder in the bathroom.

To those who haven’t been to Jamal’s — the Indian restaurant on Walton Street — this may seem like an exceptional story. But it’s not. Jamal’s is a scene every weekend, and many weeknights.  So much so that to call it a restaurant is would be disingenuous. For Oxford’s sports teams, for graduate and undergraduate clubs, Jamal’s is the de facto venue for any bacchanal. Food here is only a pretext to drunkeness. That, at least, partially explains why the food is so exceptionally poor. (In a damning report, it recently received a zero star rating from Oxford City Council.) Anything of a higher quality would be wasted; the food is prepared to be as easy coming up as it was going down. Welcome to the House of Chunder.

At the House of Chunder, the rules are actually quite simple. They were explained to us the other night as a friend climbed  — nay, nearly danced — over the table: Bring your own alcohol, do anything you want, don’t break anything. Fine. But judging from the behavior around us, there is also a set of tacit codes by which Jamal’s operates: Be loud, and when loud, start shouting; all men are to remove their shirts, if not their trousers, at least once over the course of the meal; all drinks are to be mixed, beginning with a base of beer and combining other hard alcohols. It is a messy, messy affair.

In the end, Jamal’s tries to pass as a restaurant. There is always the unsuspecting couple that walks in and is placed in the corner, she wild eyed, he embarrassed. This was certainly true the other night. But again, the food is not simply poor, it’s terrible. Perhaps that explains why, with large groups, they don’t offer you a menu. The experience of ordering is more like negotiating with an experienced auctioneer — the list of items is long, the impression of wealth great, the rhythm fast, the tone clipped and the price barely mentioned. When the food does arrive, it barely alights on the table before its whisked off again. Perhaps, I suspect, to prevent you from realizing how much you’ve just paid for what you’ve eaten. I am not alone in my opinion, either. Visit the reviews section of Daily Info and you’ll find dubious positive reviews next to the most scathing of reviews. I would suggest you heed the latter.

These, then, are the Chunder House Rules: Eat at Jamals. But be ware that it will likely be your last, unless you’re too drunk to remember. These, I suspect, are Jamal’s most loyal customers.

While at my house the other night, my housemate asked fellow Oxford Omnivore Hungry Horace  a question.

“I know you may not want to live with me after I ask this, but — which is the white wine glass?”

He held up two glasses, one smaller than the other.

“The smaller is for white,” Horace responded, “but you should never drink from it deliberately. It’s like admitting defeat at the start.”

Brown’s Bar & Brasserie

Opening hours: 9am – 11 pm, 11:30 pm Fri & Sat, 10:30 Sun

Location: 5-11 Woodstock Road (Just north of Little Clarendon)

Telephone: 01865511995

Here at the Omnivore we’re not professionals and, as any of our previous reviews show, we’re not impartial. (But then, who wants to read impartial?) We do, however, base our reviews on multiple visits to a restaurant, preferably carried out over an extended time period of 6 months or more.  Whilst this doesn’t guarantee you’ll share our views, at least you know that a duff review was not the consequence of a single “off day” at the establishment or a particularly strong hangover. Likewise, you know a good review does not mean that we think the waitress fancies us. After a few visits we KNOW she does…

Of course, the restaurant business being what it is, some places may not even make it to 6 months.  Whilst this is a cruel state of affairs, it is scrupulously fair — give the customer what they want or you’re doomed.  Surely, then, places that are still going after years and years and years must be doing something right?

Well, maybe.  Browns restaurant has been with us since forever, occupying a large site on Woodstock Road a few paces from Little Clarendon Street.  This reviewer’s first experience of the restaurant was in 1991, when pasta dishes were sold on the basis that, if you cleaned your plate, you got another plateful for free.  Ah, happy times for a nutritionally challenged student!

I was reminded of these days when sat enduring a frankly woeful lunch at Browns last month, hot on the heels of another poor food experience there a few weeks before.  Was it always this bad, I was asked?  Well, I don’t know, I replied: the thing is, Browns has never really been about the food.  For example, the chicken schnitzel I had just eaten tasted of nothing and had a processed, spongy texture that made turkey twizzlers seem like haute cuisine; a swordfish special was a good cut of fish but with absolutely no seasoning and a dressing that consisted of just olive oil, a combination described as “strangely unpleasant” by the lucky recipient; vegetables were nothing special, although sides of chips were OK.  But did we have a good time?  Yes, we did.

This wasn’t because the service was any good either — our waiter had a sort of passive aggressive thing going on, resulting in all requests being met with equivocal responses that frustrated or offended.  For example, after he had cleared away a baby spoon that belonged to us, the waiter announced that he must have thrown it in the bin and asked us accusingly whether we wanted him to go “fishing through the rubbish”.  My response that that was exactly what he should do was drowned out by my embarrassed companions.

More baby related fun was had when an 8 month old (admittedly, the fattest baby in Oxford) was put in a baby chair that collapsed, eliciting a lightning save from her typically un-agile father and no apology whatsoever from the staff who had provided the death trap.  Really, as I write this, I wonder what they could have done to make the experience less comfortable. Electric shocks in the chairs perhaps?  Cavity searches?

So why would you visit Browns?  I’m genuinely not sure but, when organising to meet someone a few days later, I was amazed to find myself suggesting Browns.  Why?  Well, despite the poor food and service, I can’t help but like it.  It is surely one of the most welcoming dining rooms in Oxford, airy and light and full of people who, against the odds, seem to be happy to be there.  It’s easy to find and, for out-of-towners, it’s as much a part of the Oxford experience as the Randolph and overcharging.  You see, we love Browns despite what it sells.  Go there and be disappointed — you’ll enjoy it.

~ Hungry Horace

Cities have long been subject to plagues real and imagined. London, you might say, has had more than its fair share. A number of fires, including the great fire of 1666, have razed it streets. There was the cholera epidemic of 1854, famously chronicled by John Snow. The great plague of 1665. And then, in 1814, came the flood of beer.

On this day in 1814, more than 1 million litres of beer flowed through the streets of the London parish 0f St. Giles. What has become known as the London beer flood, in which people drowned in that which otherwise brings them pleasure, may be matched only by the Boston Molasses Disaster.

The incident began atop the Horse Shoe Brewery on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, where part of the present day Dominion Theater now stands.  On the roof of the brewery stood huge vats of beer — wooden barrels containing over 600,000 liters of beer and held together by iron hoops. At about 6pm, one of these vats burst, causing a domino effect in which the other vats on the building burst as well. As a result, its estimated that slightly more than 1 million liters of beer burst from its container, toppling the brewery’s 25 foot tall brick wall and flowing out into the street.

According to Garrison Keillor on today’s The Writer’s Almanac, the result was part pleasure, part pain:

People came out onto the streets of St. Giles with mugs and buckets and pots and pans to collect the free beer; others leaned over and drank directly from the streams gushing down the streets. But many people were injured by the torrent and sent to the hospital, where inpatients smelled the beer and nearly rioted to get their share.

St. Giles was a poor parish; the brewery was located amongst tenements and poor houses. It was into the basements of these houses, where families lived, that the beer flooded and quickly filled. As a result, the wave of beer left nine people dead. Most of these were children who died from drowning, one was a bar maid trapped under a collapsed bar. One, a man tried to prevent a lot of the beer from going to waste, drank voluminously, and died a few days later of alcohol poisoning.

In the end, the brewery was taken to court, but the judge and jury ruled the disaster an Act of God.

Today is the final day of the twelfth annual Oxford beer festival. It’s time to raise a glass — or 140, to be precise.

Located at the Town Hall on St. Aldates, prices of admission is £2 with a £2 deposit for a glass, refunded to you if your glass is returned unbroken (no smashing of skulls, please). Beer is bought with beer tokens. This is a dangerous currency, as the perceived value of the tokens is inversely proportional to the duration of drinking. At the beginning of the day the beer seems cheap; by the end of the day you can’t recall having bought the tokens at all, and so the beer seems free. It’s a good situation, for everyone involved but your health the following day.

That said — go and sample the real ales, ciders and food. Then report back. Any favorites?