Saturday 31 July 2010

Som Tam

Som tam is one spicy mother of a salad. Memorably, I once visited the Thai Food Festival in Greenwich Park after a heavy girls' night on the ciders (and Campari - bleurgh). I needed fresh clean reviving flavours. Staggering around in the blinding sun, I made my way over to a stall selling som tam; a lady with an enormous mortar and pestle was pounding away, creating this salad. She'd hold up various ingredients - 1 birds eye chilli? Two? Salted crab? - and with a nod or a shake she'd throw them in, and within minutes I had myself a tray of the stuff. Settling down, I took my first bite. My face was engulfed with fiery chilli flames, and I legged it over to the nearest stall, hopping on each foot until I got my hands on a watermelon juice to soothe the pain. Despite all this, it was addictive; salty, spicy, sour and sweet with a hint of fish.

Som tam is Thai, and it is translated literally to 'sour pounded'. Typical ingredients include shredded unripe green papaya, chilli, palm sugar, salted crabs or dried shrimp and fish sauce. I used a green mango for this instead, as I like the fragance it gives and it's easier to find than papaya. You should keep tasting and tasting as you add ingredients to get that perfect balance of sweet, salty and heat.

Som Tam

Serves 2

1 large green unripe mango
2 birds eye chillis (or to taste)
A small handul of dried shrimps
1/2 a lime
1/2 a clove of garlic
1 tsp palm sugar
5 cherry tomatoes
2 tbsp fish sauce

Peel your mango and grate it on the large grater, place it in a bowl. In a mortar & pestle, throw in the clove of garlic and pound to a paste. Add the dried shrimp and give them a pounding. Add the sugar, juice of the lime and the birds eye chillis (whole) and give it a quick bash. Add half the shredded mango and 1 tbsp of the fish sauce. Give it a good bashing, then mix it together with the rest of the shredded mango. At this point, taste it to see if it needs any more fish sauce or sugar. It should be face-crunchingly spicy. Smash the cherry tomatoes (shield yourself for squirtage) in the mortar, and then add to the mango. Leave to sit for half an hour, and then serve with some sticky rice.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Aubergine & Tomato Galette

I always thought a galette was a pancake made out of buckwheat flour, but like many terms in food, it also means something else. Wikipedia says it's a general French term for any kind of flat, round or freeform cakes. This one is very freeform indeed.

I first saw the galette on this blog and knew I had to try it immediately, and of course with my favourite vegetable with the aubergine. The crust, made with sour cream was flaky, crumbly and light; the cream is definitely an inspired addition. Soft melting vegetables, fresh aniseedy flavours of basil and with a nice cheesy hit, a slice of this with a dressed green bean salad made a filling but summery dinner.

Aubergine and Tomato Galette

Feeds 4

1 large or two medium aubergines
6 large ripe tomatoes
A handful of basil leaves
1 tub of ricotta
1 ball of mozzerella
50gr Parmesan
2 cloves of garlic

200gr plain flour
115gr butter, very cold cut into a dice
4 tbsp water
4 tbsp sour cream
A large pinch of salt
A squeeze of lemon juice
1 egg yolk

Slice the aubergine to about a finger's thickness and fry in hot oil on both sides until browned. Set to one side. Slice the tomatoes to a similar thickness, drizzle with oil. Mince the two cloves of garlic and scatter on top, seasoning with salt and pepper. Place under a medium grill for about 15 minutes.

Drain the mozerella ball and place in a sieve with a plate on top, and a tin of beans on the plate to squeeze some water out. Add the flour and salt to a big bowl. Add the butter and rub into the flour, working quickly. In a separate bowl, mix the water, sour cream and lemon juice until it's all incorporated and add it to the flour. Mix with your hands until it forms a dough and then stop immediately. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Grease a large sheet of greaseproof paper and place on a baking tray. Roll the pastry out into a rectangle to a half inch thickness. Leaving about a 3 inch gap, spread the ricotta over the pastry. Place a row of tomato slices (these should be thick, messy and gloopy), then a row of aubergine slices, slightly overlapping until you get to the other side. Scatter the basil leaves on top, reserving about 3 or 4. Slice the mozerella ball roughly and place the slices evenly on top, then repeat with the tomato and aubergine. Grate the Parmesan on top.

Glaze the pastry with the egg yolk and place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until it's all bubbly and lovely and the pastry is browned. Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then slice the remaining basil leaves into slivers and scatter on top before serving.

Monday 26 July 2010

Beef Rendang

Beef rendang has been on my to-make list for ages. I was tempted and teased by these blog posts, and last Sunday I finally got my arse into gear and was well rewarded for my efforts. Rich, thick, unctuous and intensely beefy, the meat is cooked in various spices and coconut milk, with the liquid finally reducing so that it then fries in all the leftover oils.

It's not for the faint-hearted - literally, the amount of fat in there almost makes my heart stop - but, you know, you could eat salad for a week after or something. Scooped up with a hot flaky roti, pepped up with the sweetness and crunch of an onion salad, it's no wonder this dish is so popular.

I left mine overnight for the flavours to properly intensify; it was addictive in all its spicy, tender glory. I gorged on it so much I felt a bit sick afterwards. Don't eat two portions in one go.

Beef Rendang

Serves 4

1kg beef shin
5 shallots
1 inch of galangal
5 cloves of garlic
2 inches of ginger
10 dried red chillis (or 5, if you're a wimp)
3 green cardamom pods
2 dried bay leaves
2 star anise
3 cloves
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 stalks of lemon grass
6 kaffir lime leaves
1 coconut
1 tin of coconut milk
1 tbsp palm sugar or dark brown sugar
5 tbsp cooking oil
1 tsp salt

Chop the meat up into chunks. Soak the chillis in hot water. Meanwhile, chop the shallots, the whites of the lemongrass, ginger, galangal and garlic and pound to a paste. Chop the softened chillis finely and add to the paste.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the shallot paste until fragrant, on a low heat. Throw in the cloves, star anise, cardamom pods (you may want a muslin bag for this - I don't mind pulling spices out of mouthfuls), ground coriander and cinnamon and stir well. Add the meat and the coconut milk, and then a tinful of water. Set to simmer.

While this is simmering, open your coconut by smacking it hard with the blunt end of a knife across its equator between the three eyes and the other side. It will take about 5 minutes of headache-inducing bashing. It should split neatly open. Catch the coconut water in a bowl, drink it, chuck it away, whatever. Extract the flesh, grate it and then toast it on a very low heated dry frying pan. This is a right pain in the arse, so if you can find unsweetened dessicated coconut, toast that instead - about 6 tbsp.

Add the sugar, coconut, bay and the lime leaves, sliced thinly. Simmer for an hour and a half, and then turn the heat up to a vigorous simmer for at least half an hour, stirring it frequently. The liquid should have almost evaporated off. When it has done so and the oil has separated, fry the beef in this oil, stirring so that it doesn't stick. It should be thick and very dark brown.

Serve with this onion and pomegranate salad and some fresh, fluffy roti. Eat with your hands. If, like me, you leave it overnight then when you come to reheat it, add a splash or 5 of water to loosen it up a bit, simmering it until it's all gone.

Thursday 22 July 2010

The Squidgiest Brownies You Ever Did Taste

Last weekend saw me helping my good friend Helen out with her Big Lunch. It was a completely mammoth task, pulled off brilliantly; we figured that we'd be cooking for around 30 people, and donations flooded in left right and centre from generous producers and lovely pub people. For a full list and a video of all the shenanigans, have a look at Helen's excellent post here.

The Beast and Gilberta, ready for action

A particular item we made garnered lots of compliments and many requests for the recipe, so I thought it best I post it here. These brownies are properly squidgy; oozy, gooey centres, crisp shiny tops and studded with nuts. I spied more than two people slathering Rodda's Clotted Cream on top of them which is seriously indulgent, and seriously wonderful.

I used to post on the BBC Messageboards, which is where I got this recipe from, specifically a user called Sue_L. She was amazing for all things baked, and though this is the only brownie recipe I've tried, it's so good I haven't bothered trying any others. There's just no need. I have, of course, made a couple of teeny weeny tweaks.

Squidgy Brownies

200gr butter
1 large pinch of salt (it works...)
600gr caster sugar (yes, really 600gr)
200gr chocolate - use at least 70% cocoa; we used Green & Blacks' 72%
250gr strong white flour (makes them chewier)
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp cocoa
1 handful each of hazelnuts and walnuts

Break up the chocolate and add to a bowl with the butter. Set over a bain marie, ensuring that no water gets into the bowl or you'll have a big seized mess.

Once melted, take the bowl off the heat and leave to cool for 10 mins. Add the sugar in and then the eggs, 1 at a time, beating them in well as you go. Add the vanilla extract and the sift in the flour. Sift in the cocoa and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Chop the nuts and mix them in.

Pour the mixture into a lined deep square tin or roasting dish and bake at 180 degrees C. After 40 minutes, give it a skewering to check its doneness. It should still have a little chocolate stick to the pokey but not so it's sloppy. Remove and leave to cool in the tin, and then remove and cut into squares.

Serve with clotted cream if you dare.

Thanks to Helen for letting me use her photos.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Sushi Ga Ga

It was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to review Sushi Ga Ga. Located on Lisle Street, Chinatown isn't particularly known for its good Japanese (or otherwise) restaurants. Fears were strengthened when we walked into the packed restaurant and were studiously ignored for a good 10 minutes. I noted that all the staff there were Cantonese, as were most of the customers, save the two teenagers sulkily queuing who decided to tastelessly mimick everyone around them.

The waitress would do anything at all but to approach us. In the end I marched to the counter at the back of the restaurant to explain I was booked in and they had no idea about it. A few minutes later, and with an apology from the what looked like the head waitress or manager, we were seated. The same lady served us, and when I asked what she would recommend or what her favourites were, she was stumped. Eventually she led us to the specials page, and to the most expensive dishes. We ordered our selection, and she retreated back to the counter to eyeball us for the majority of our meal.

House sake was served hot - an oddity for summer, especially as we weren't asked how we wanted it. It was mostly tasteless. A bizarre platter of sushi and sashimi arrived first; garnished with mint, a leaf of lollo rosso and a sad little pile of cress, it was rather pitiful. Nigiri were skinny and flacid.

Nasu den, miso grilled aubergine was soft, silky and sweet. This was to be the best thing we'd eat at this meal.

Agedashi tofu was made with firm rubbery tofu, no silkiness within it and none of that gorgeous jelly-like texture you get through the crunch of the crispy shell.

Seaweed salad was served with a thin, watery sesame sauce on the side. It tasted of nothing. Oh no wait, the sesame sauce gave it a faint hint of the seed and the tang of vinegar. At £6.50, it seemed a whopping rip-off. We didn't finish it.

Speaking of whopping rip-offs, this black cod miso was a sorry affair. At £17, the plate was enormous, making the portion size look small. Deep fried aubergine on the side drizzled with some sort of sauce tasted like air freshener. The fish had obviously been a corpse for longer than is good; its skin was tough and I spent my entire journey home with the stale taste of fishiness in my mouth from it. Extremely unpleasant.

On par with unpleasantness was the tempura scallops with a wasabi dressing. The dressing tasted of mayonnaise with a dab of mustard in it. The scallops tasted of old oil.

The list goes on, really. A side of rice had a hard crust on it, as if it had been hanging around for a while. Miso soup was pedestrian. The dessert menu was comprised mainly of ice cream and I was excited to see mochi on there, but alas, we were told the ice cream machine was broken. I didn't really fancy a plate of mixed fruit, so we called it quits.

We left feeling despondent, the whiff of disappointment about us. If we had paid we would have easily hit the huge £70 mark though it's currently running 50% off on it's menu to celebrate it's opening. I shan't be returning; unfortunately, Sushi Ga Ga was just blah blah.

Sushi Ga Ga (they don't seem to have a website)

16 Lisle Street,

Tel: 020 7287 6606

Sushi Ga Ga on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Haddock with Braised Lettuce

A common Chinese dish is cooked lettuce; it has a great juicy and crunchy, yet soft quality to it. The Chinese rarely eat raw vegetables, and an early memory of mine is of my dad serving my grandmother a tuna salad he'd made - she promptly headed off to the kitchen to give it a good stir-frying.

The Chinese aren't the only ones to cook lettuce though. Typically a French dish, it reminds me of rustic country farm houses, sun shining in the garden, a big bowlful with a crusty hunk of bread to dunk in the sauce while chugging back a glass of the palest pink rosé. When I shut my eyes (and possibly my ears) as I sat on my balcony bang smack in the middle of New Cross Gate, I could almost imagine I was there. Until the police sirens wailed and the buses honked their horns.

Haddock with Braised Lettuce

Serves 2

2 heads of Little Gem lettuce
1 large haddock fillet
2 eggs
200gr frozen peas
100gr pancetta or bacon lardons
2 cloves of garlic
200 ml chicken stock
4 spring onions
4 tbsp plain flour
1 large knob of butter

Halve the lettuces lengthways, so that they still hold their shape. In a large pan, add the butter and the bacon lardons. Mince the garlic and throw that in too. Next, fry the lettuce on both sides, cut side down first, until they are browned on each side. Add in the stock until it comes up to half way up the lettuces, and with the cut side down, place the lid on and turn the heat down low.

Meanwhile, place the eggs in a cold pan of water, bring to the boil and then take off the heat. Leave them in there for 3 minutes and then remove and run under cold water.

Heat up another non-stick pan with plenty of vegetable oil. Shake the flour out onto a plate and season well with salt and pepper. Take the haddock fillet and dredge in the flour, and fry skin side down first and then turn them over. Remove from the heat.

By now the lettuces should have been braising for at least 10 minutes. Cut the spring onions on the diagonal and throw them in along with the peas into the stock and simmer vigorously for 3 minutes or so, until the peas are tender. To serve, place 2 halves of the lettuce in a deep bowl, and spoon the peas and cooking liqour around it. Peel the egg, halve it and then place chunks of the fried fish on top. Serve with bread, though I found it filling enough as it is.

Friday 16 July 2010

Sushi of Shiori

Sushi of Shiori is tiny. If you walk past it you would think it's just a takeaway. There are 3 seats at the bar, 6 seats by the window looking out into the street. Since it's not likely I would walk past since it's in a back street near Euston, I was lucky to have seen the reviews on London Eating, because once I did, I wanted to go immediately. I persuaded a regular dining companion to come with me, specifically for the omakase menu. Apparently the word means 'it's up to you', so what you get is a surprise menu of whatever the chef wants to make you. I can't think of a better, more exciting way to dine. "Er.." he said. "When I booked they asked me how much we wanted to spend per head. I panicked and said £50". Right then. Thank god for credit cards.

We sat at our seats, elbow to elbow, feeling a bit awkward with the lone lady dining next to us. The restaurant was very quiet. Breathing a sigh of relief, she left soon after we sat down. The chef was at work behind the counter, crouched over working diligently. Like a good girl I stuck with Sencha tea, and we were soon served this by our sweet waitress. Crab wrapped in nori in a light, fishy vinegar sauce, it was served cold (like all our dishes). It awakened the palate and left us hungry for more.

Our waitress told us that this course would normally be miso soup, but as it's summer, this cooler dish is served instead. Cold noodles in a beautifully clear dashi broth was topped with a slice of shittake, shards of some sort of ginger and wafer-thin rings of spring onion. The sweetest little sweet prawn sat atop the noodles, its flesh succelent. With such beautiful presentation in gorgeous little dishes, our already enormous excitement grew.

Slices of fatty yellowtail from the belly sat on top of baby spinach and rocket leaves. I'm afraid I missed what that orangey sauce was on top, but the fish was well seasoned from it. The longer the fish warmed in your mouth, the more the fat melted, and I savoured every mouthful.

In between devouring each course, we watched the chef at work attentively. The amount of detail he went to and the care and delicacy he took in constructing each dish was absolutely mesmerising. Little dabs were dotted here and there, shards of vegetable painstakingly balanced on top.

When our waitress was explaining each item, she told us the scallop had 'something special' in it. It was very special indeed; the sweet, melting scallop flesh was the best I've had sashimi'd, and within lay a little black truffle paste. It was a heavenly match, and made me go "ughhhhaaaaaa!" out loud in glee. Tuna chunks were topped with very finely chopped yam and seasoned seaweed that had a pleasantly slimy quality. Another sweet prawn, with a dab of shiso pesto sang with freshness. A gorgeous almost-creamy minced fatty tuna was wrapped into a roll with nori and a layer of yuba (tofu skin); amazing textures of chewiness from the wrapping and the mouth-coating quality of the tuna. These little additions raised the plate from good to jaw-droppingly brilliant.

By no means unpleasant but least favourite of the plate was the tomato stuffed with diced skate and spring onion. Visually it was adorable; the tomato had its lid removed with the little stem hat, and the tomato peeled entirely but on the flavour stake the fish was unremarkable.

The sushi plate arrived next. By now conversation was at stand still and we gazed wide-eyed at the chef's rhythmic workflow. Every time we tried to talk about something interesting my gaze trailed back to what was going on in front of me. Probably best not to take a date here.

Rice was at room temperature and was of a perfect consistency. Salmon and avocado rolls were excellent examples. Squid, with a tiny criss cross cut into it, was chewy and perked up with a small pile of grated ginger. The chef marinates his own fish roe in citrus, and this piece, a huge mouthful was indecently satisfying, citrussy fish roe bursting in the mouth. Sea bass was topped with a glob of sweet plum sauce and had the additional surprise of a hidden slice of shiso leaf beneath the fish. Fatty tuna and fatty salmon were damn tasty. Eel had sancho pepper hidden within it and gave my tongue a good tingle, while the slice of shiitake mushroom nigiri was sweet, sour and salty all at the same time. This is no ordinary plate of sushi, not by a long way.

At this point, our waitress asked us if we were full. "No! I'm fine!" I blurted out, feeling pretty full but incapable of admitting our experience was nearly over. The chef looked over alarmed, and they swapped concerned looks. My friend did the right thing and disagreed with me, so I retracted my words.

The final savoury course was the meat nigiri. Iberican pork, cooked shabu shabu was pearly white in colour, topped with a sesame sauce. But the real show stopper was the wagyu beef, topped with ponzu jelly. I think I chewed it until there was nothing left to chew, wanting to savour every delicious meaty bit of it. Flamed on the outside, raw on the inside, the ponzu jelly gave it that lift.

Finally, we were asked to choose dessert from the list of home-made ice creams. Black sesame was impossibly smooth and creamy, dramatically grey against the white of the bowl. Plum wine sorbet was tart, plummy and palate cleansing. The perfect end to the meal.

Sushi of Shiori isn't cheap, but so much work goes into it. The attention to detail throughout is truly amazing, from the chef slightly hunched to his work station, gently insisting which angle the dishes were to be presented, to the toilet roll in the loos folded in a neat triangle every time you visited. A beautifully sedate procession of a meal, one that I have vowed to return back to regularly. Perhaps on paydays.

Sushi of Shiori

144 Drummond Street,
Off Hamstead Road,
London NW1 2PA

Tel: 020 7388 9962

Omekase menu starts at £30 and must be booked in advance. Like other decent sushi places, Sushi of Shiori operates slightly odd opening hours; they close at 21:30 in the evening.

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

Thursday 15 July 2010


The ill-fated evening that we visited Cantina Laredo, we popped in to Dishoom, a new Bombay-style café for a cheeky cocktail and a couple of snacks. They open officially today, and so when we visited the food was 50% off as part of their soft launch. The first thing I noticed was the exposed lightbulbs and dipped lamps that hung low over the tables and I immediately warmed to it. From a short list of cocktails I picked the house punch which was fruity and refreshing.

Café crisps were just as described on the menu; tangy. With a little bit of kick, they were light and crispy.

Calamari was heavily but pleasantly spiced, a sweetness to the sticky sauce and a pleasing whack of lime. Tentacles were crispy and crunchy, just the way I like them. I was a bit sad to leave, especially as other tables filled up with delicious-looking and smelling dishes. After our disastrous meal two doors down, I was even more annoyed that we had.

I love a good bargain, me. I decided to come back instead for breakfast while it was still in the soft launch and dragged my arse into town at the ungodly hour of 8:30am.

I had spotted 'sausage naan roll' on their online menu and vowed to order it. Between us, my companion and I got one of each of the bacon and sossidge variety. It's great value at £3.50 and wrapped in a light, pliable roti, the meat was stuffed inside along with a good handful of coriander. Spicy and sweet chutney was slathered inside. I am unsure I can go back to a normal bacon or sossidge sarnie after this; it was gorgeous. I am told by their Twitter account they they will be doing this to take away soon. I know it'll save me on many a hungover morning. Hurry up please.

I've never liked chai - it always reminded me of crusty old hippies at festivals clutching a mugful of steaming hot liquid that whiffed vaguely of cloves and cinnamon. I still ordered it though and I'm glad I did; it was liquid revivement. Warm spices, strong tea with a rich milk flavour, I slurped it up as soon as it was cool enough to do so. Mango with vanilla yoghurt and honey (background) was the right balance of creamy yoghurt with the sweetness of the mango accentuated by the honey, though I wondered if there should be more of it since it was around the £5 mark.

Bombay omelette was much like my own masala omelette. Served with intensely sweet roasted cherry tomatoes, I'd have liked the egg to be a bit wibblier within.

My companion also ordered the 'Hot Toast Dipped in Chai'. I presumed this would be a dish of toast with a glass of chai to dip said toast in - it's not that weird a concept given that I often see my housemate dipping her toast into her tea - but I got it completely wrong, it was toast dipped in chai before it was brought to us. It tasted just like normal toast to me, but my friend enjoyed it.

Staff were really sweet and our server looked agape at us when we ordered and worried we'd gone for too much. I decided not to tell him we once polished off 2.8kg of steak between us for fear his eyes might pop out. At around what would have been £24, we breakfasted like kings, rendering me only able to sup a bowl of vegetable broth for lunch later that day. I'm not one that frequents Covent Garden much, but I will be now.

Dishoom opens at 8am and serves breakfast until 11am.


12 Upper St Martins Lane
London WC2H 9FB

Tel: 020 7420 9320

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Smoked Mackerel & Broad Bean Salad

Broad beans. Lovely green little beauties, but my god what a pain in the arse they are. I tend to buy them frozen now, as it's one less step in the process. It's nice and summery to sit in the sun, podding the beans and then shelling them of their tough skins, but sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day.

Is a salad still a salad if it's loaded with bacon and dressed with cream? Of course it is.

This recipe is Nigel Slater's and it first caught my eye in The Observer's magazine; the picture drove me to drool and I knew I had to make it. I couldn't help but have a mess around, though; there are some salty elements in the salad in the smoked mackerel and lardons, so I added a squeeze of lemon and a splodge of horseradish to pep it up a bit. The inclusion of chicory for a bitter edge offset by creaminess was ideal, and a few tangled leaves and some cooked new potatoes that needed using up made this salad into a hearty yet summery dish.

I imagine that once the broad bean season is over and we edge into autumn, replacing the beans with beetroot would work nicely to create a vivid and earthy salad. Watch this space.

Smoked Mackerel & Broad Bean Salad

Serves 2, adapted from Nigel Slater

200gr smoked mackerel
200gr bacon lardons or pancetta
400gr frozen broad beans
6 spring onions
2 sprigs of tarragon
175ml double cream
Half a lemon
1 tsp horseradish
A few leftover potatoes (optional)
1 head of chicory
A handful of peppery leaves, such as rocket or watercress

Bring a pan of water to the boil and simmer the broad beans until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and run under cold water. Peel the tough outer skins off them - you might want to get an extra pair of hands to help you out.

Fry the bacon lardons in a pan until browned and crispy. Drain off the oil and return to the heat. Chop the spring onions roughly and throw them in, frying for a minute or two. Add the cream and simmer for a minute until thickened slightly. Add the lemon juice, horseradish and throw in the broad beans. Remove from the heat, add the tarragon, chopped, and set to one side.

To assemble, take apart the chicory leaves and distribute evenly on two plates. Scatter slices of the potato over it and then the leaves. Add the bacon, then spoon the creamy broad beans over it, topping it with large chunks of the smoked mackerel. Eat immediately; it's far better warm than cold.

Monday 12 July 2010

The Magdalen Arms, Oxford

I think it's perfectly reasonable to travel miles and miles for a decent feed. When you can incorporate it into a day trip, then it's even better. The Magdalen Arms has been on my list of places to visit since Matthew Norman wrote about it, followed by Dos Hermanos. The owners were from the Anchor and Hope, and you can really tell from the menu; short, well priced and very seasonal.

Four of us jumped on a train at the ungodly hour of 9:30am (on a Saturday!) and an hour later, we were on the streets of Oxford in the balmy summer morning's sun. Having an alumni in our midst meant we could wander around the beautiful colleges, stopping off for some liquid refreshment on the way. We arrived at the pub, slightly sweating and starving. Seated in the back garden, we kicked off with a pear and elderflower prosecco, some excellent bread, and a bottle of light blush-tinged rosé.

I wanted everything off the menu. I could feel the panic rising, that fear of indecision and the terror of picking something inferior to my companions' dishes. It sounds melodramatic but food envy really does suck. Happily, we all agreed to order most of the menu to share and my fears were dispelled.

Brawn appeared terrine-style sliced thinly, fanned across the plate and it was meaty, wobbly goodness. Capers, parsley and shallots added tang, crunch and freshness while a mustardy dressing suited it perfectly.

Baked artichoke with goats cheese and herbed breadcrumbs drew admiring gasps from the table. Leaves slid off with the gentlest of tugs and each morsel was satisfyingly delicious. Definitely something I'd like to recreate at home, it made a change from simply steamed and dipped in vinaigrette. The heart was sweet and it was scooped up greedily.

Cheddar soufflé was divided into four studiously. Fluffy and with a generous cheesy hit, it was rich yet light. The salad was dill-heavy which pleased me and was an interesting twist to the salad. The people in the kitchen at The Magdelen Arms know how to dress their leaves.

After the excellence of the starters, we awaited the main courses eagerly. An enormous veal schnizel with a rocket and tomato salad arrived. The meat was beautifully breadcrumbed and was moist and tender. Tomatoes were sweet, juicy and actually tasted of tomatoes - something I haven't said in a long time.

Rabbit with bacon, mustard and shallots was gorgeous and I wanted it all to myself. I almost didn't let go of the plate. The braised shallots added sweetness, the bacon sharp hits of saltiness. The rabbit was tender, juicy and fell off the bone. Wilted chard beneath gave that luscious green mineral element to the dish. Top marks.

Whole crab with mayonnaise was perfect simplicity. At just under a tenner it was bargainous too. Crab viscera sprayed us as we extracted the sweet meat from its shell, attracting the flies in the garden to swarm around the detritus. The mayonnaise was abandoned for a purer flavour.

The only dud of the meal was the roasted pigeon with semolina gnocchi and braised radishes. The pigeon was over-cooked and tough. When I hacked off a piece to put in my mouth I was quite repulsed; livery in texture, and overtly gamey. It was abandoned. The rectangle of gnocchi, however, was delicious; pillowy in texture and shot through with sage. I'd never have thought to cook radishes either but will in the future. These were slightly crisp, warm and flavoursome.

All in all, a lovely meal. Although the pigeon was pretty unappetising, I am confident that it was a one-off mistake from the kitchen as the rest of the meal was outstanding. Service was sweet and friendly, and our total bill came to £102 including 2 bottles of wine and 3 coffees before service. A total bargain and I couldn't figure out why the place wasn't packed out to the rafters.

After a lazy punt and a sit in the meadows, we headed back to London, some 11 hours after we arrived. All in all, a perfect day really.

The Magdalen Arms

243 Iffley Road,

Tel: 01865 243 159

When booked in advance we managed to get return tickets for £10 each as part of the Groupsave scheme as there were 4 of us. Oxford is about an hour away.