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Review: Arbequina

Full disclosure: this is actually going to be less of a review, and more of a love letter. We went to Arbequina over the weekend to celebrate the restaurant’s one year anniversary, and I realised it was ridiculous that I’d never written about it on the blog before. Granted, they have absolutely no need of another positive review. With people singing the place’s praises from the Oxford Mail to the Guardian, it’s not been short of attention. Every time I’ve been there, the compact room has been full of lively customers. But I’m going to write about it anyway, because I love it.

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We went on a squally evening in October, when Storm Brian was still at play, and the vicious wind was whipping cold rain at us as we trudged up Cowley Road. Arbequina was a little haven of fluttering candles and the enticing smells of good food to come. We were greeted warmly by the staff – as we always are, because they’re lovely there – and settled down to the menu, with which I am intimately familiar. Eased along our way by exemplary Rebujitos and Negronis, we settled in for the kind of meal that you don’t have to worry about because you know everything will be done well.

Crisp toasts topped with warming, punchy Nduja, with the sweetness of honey and the earth of thyme. A tortilla just as a tortilla should be, with its bronzed exterior and its oozing, collapsing interior, with that depth of flavour only achieved when proper time and attention is paid. A pile of gloriously charred cauliflower, sharp with lemon and jewelled with pomegranate seeds, atop ethereally smooth and rich puree. Chicken, crisp on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside. A salad that was so much more than a token or an afterthought, with crispy chickpeas as addictive and delicious as anything I’ve eaten, piled high with bright fresh vegetables, creamy yoghurt, the finishing flavour of Nigella seeds. Meatballs, plump and juicy, finished with a crisp hazelnut crumb.

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And the desserts: the rich, clean flan with the burnish of perfect caramel; the exquisite scoop of chocolate mousse; the final satisfaction of the chocolate salami. All washed down with an excellent Moscatel and a perfect espresso.

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And, joy of joys, they take bookings. You can call them! You can email them! Even chat to them on Twitter! I long ago gave up trying to get a table at Oli’s Thai (it’s not literally impossible, but it’s very difficult, and they make it very difficult in a way that annoys me because it seems unnecessary, so I stopped trying). But you can reserve a table easily at Arbequina, and if you walk in without a booking they’ll usually find you a corner anyway. or you can sit at the bar, which is actually a delight because you get to watch the chefs working their magic.

I have recommended Arbequina to many people over the last year, and no one has been less than delighted at what they found when they visited. Yes, it’s true it’s not entirely unique, and yes, there are restaurants like this in London. But that doesn’t make Arbequina any less than wonderful, and there’s certainly nowhere else like it in Oxford. I hope to be celebrating anniversaries with them for years to come.

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Review: Turl Street Kitchen (Oxford)

I used to live at TSK. I mean, not literally, but almost. I spent a few weeks studying there pretty much constantly. They’re open from 8am, and so I’d rock up at 7:59am, grab my favourite table (about which I became dangerously possessive, liable to hiss and snarl at anyone who looked vaguely as though they might be thinking of taking my seat), and hunker down. The staff all knew me, and I’d chat with the same guy every morning while he made up my order without me having to tell him what it was. I knew the breakfast menu far better than the material on Jacobean revenge tragedy I was suppose to be working on. The manager once gave me dinner for free.

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Then I moved into full-time employment, which cut into my hanging-out-in-cafés/bars/restaurants time severely. Life is cruel. All the staff gradually moved along, and soon I didn’t know anyone there any more. So, now that I am freelancing in cafés once again, I think it’s high time I muscled people off my old table.

TSK definitely doesn’t need to be reviewed by me, or by anyone really, because it’s been around since 2011 and it’s thriving. Everyone in Oxford already knows about it and its almost too successful: good luck trying to get a table there on a Friday night. Pretty much all the Oxford-based food bloggers I know about have written about it somewhere, and then there was the whole Giles Coren thing. And yet, I am writing about it anyway, because it deserves attention, and I’d rather be a tiny voice shouting in a crowd than sitting here silently.

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One of the best things about the place is that the staff will politely leave you alone. If you go to the restaurant side of the building then you will get good restaurant service, but if you are in the front room, the bar, or the upstairs lounge, no one is going to hassle you if you get a cup of tea and then sit there to work for four hours. It is one of the very few places in Oxford that caters to people who prefer to use cafés as offices rather than actually go into a real office. This is good news for me, because I work far better in TSK than at a desk. I think it has something to do with the bacon sandwiches and gin on tap. That said, TSK is full of the beautiful people, and I am always the only person there working on a PC rather than a Mac. Luckily, no one has yet noticed and slung me out.

It’s almost a secondary concern, but the food is great. Delicious, unpretentious, sustainably and ethically sourced, and affordably priced. Lunch and dinner menus change daily, reflecting what’s in season and what happens to be in the kitchen, so it’s hard to get bored. This, again, is good news for me, because I go there too much and am bored easily.

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Duck and potato hash with poached egg, radishes, and watercress.
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French toast with bacon and maple syrup.
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Wye Valley smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast.
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Strawberry and raspberry cheesecake trifle.

Above all, TSK is independent. Oxford is full of mediocre restaurants, and is being choked by chains. We are very lucky to have, among the Pizza Expresses and the GBKs, gems like the Turl Street Kitchen. A place with its own atmosphere and style, with a clear vision and an ever-changing menu.

Just don’t take my table.