Review: The Porterhouse, Oxford

When my husband and I dropped into The Porterhouse for a Saturday lunch, I wasn’t intending to review the place. But we decided pretty immediately that the pub was worthy of a full write-up. Oxford has been in need of a great steak spot, and I’m pretty sure this is it. The Porterhouse has been put together with thought and attention to detail, and deserves to thrive.

We visited on a Saturday lunchtime, when the pub was quiet. It’s only been open for a few months, and they’re obviously still building up their customer base. As they’re tucked away down a residential side-street, you’d be unlikely to notice The Porterhouse unless you went looking for it on purpose. Once you make it there, though, you’ll be happy with what you find. The building has been renovated, and decorated with a careful eye: the dark blue walls, buttery leather banquettes, and  alternating warm wood and gleaming chrome tables all work together to give a warm and welcoming impression.


There’s a dining room area, which is slightly more formal, and the main pub room, which has a beautiful bar and is dog-friendly. We settled into a cosy leather booth in the dining room and got stuck in to the menu.

The pub has an extensive drinks selection. There’s beer, obviously, but also a carefully curated wine list, a selection of decent whiskeys, and (to my delight) some really excellent cocktails. I don’t drink beer, so it’s always a disappointment to me when a pub doesn’t really offer anything beyond beer and mediocre wine. Since cocktails were on offer, James had a Bloody Mary (he was feeling delicate), and I had a Campari Spritz and, later, and Old Fashioned.  The drinks were all well-balanced and made with quality ingredients, and were enjoyed rather too quickly by us both.



Obviously, with a name like The Porterhouse, you can expect steak to feature fairly heavily on the menu here, and they don’t disappoint. A comprehensive steak menu board features the changing cuts on offer depending on what’s best from their supplier at Smithfield Market. All are served with chips and salad with options of varying sauces and additional sides. That said, if you were dining in a mixed group where not everyone was a steak eater, you’d still be grand as they offer some fish and vegetarian options, as well as some non-steak meat dishes such as poussin or a mixed grill. We were also told that, with a little notice, they’ll do vegan food. Top marks from me: I eat everything, but I do have plenty of vegan friends and it’s good to know you could feed a varied crowd here too.

That being said, we were not there for vegan food. We were there for steak.


James had a medium ribeye with the requisite chips and salad, and a pepper sauce. I went for a rare fillet, with a bearnaise sauce. The meat at The Porterhouse is dry aged for 42 days, then cooked in a charcoal-fuelled Bertha oven that can reach 350C, and wow, does it pay off. The steaks delivered to our table smelled incredible and looked very tempting: plump and juicy with a gorgeous outer char. Both of our steaks were cooked very well.

I am picky about steak, because it’s so easy to do wrong and so delicious when it’s done right, and I was totally happy here. The meat had a real depth of flavour and a meltingly tender texture. The salads were simple yet considered – fresh, and lightly dressed – and the sauces were bang on. The chips, while definitely good, were not the best I’ve ever had – but this is a minor quibble on what was a fantastic plate of food. Everything was seasoned to perfection and it really made the simple flavours shine.


James (lightweight) couldn’t manage pudding, but I have never turned down a dessert menu and I wasn’t about to start just because I’d eaten a steak the size of my face. The list was short but sweet (see what I did there?) and I would have happily devoured any of the options. My usual M.O. is to go for whatever the chocolate option is (in this case, a fig and bourbon brownie), but there were other tempting things on offer.

Lovely Chris, who was serving us, noticed my quandary, and very kindly brought me a little portion of the brownie to try while I made my decision, so that I was free to pick another option, having sampled ‘the chocolate thing’. I know brownies, and believe me, this was an excellent brownie. Rich, dark, fudgy, and full of flavour and texture from the bourbon and fig. I’ll definitely order it again when I go back. The dessert I actually got, in the end, was the rhubarb and ginger crumble, which was served with a perfect custard and was also exemplary.


The Verdict – The Porterhouse

I am fairly particular about restaurant food these days – especially simple dishes where there is no room to hide – and I thought that the food at The Porterhouse was top-notch. The service also deserves a mention: Chris was friendly, knowledgeable, generous, and attentive without crowding us. They also have rooms on the upper floors, which we got a sneaky peak into, and they’re lovely – tasteful, comfortable, and immaculate. It’s exactly the sort of place I’d recommend to anyone coming to Oxford to stay. In essence, The Porterhouse provides classic British grill fare, but it does it very, very well. If you’ve not tried it yet, get a move on.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 5

Halfway, somehow. Week 5 of the Intermediate Term marks the halfway point of the course. We’ve done this much, and now we’ll do it all again.

I really feel like I should know what I’m doing by now.

Week 5 was brought in by the charming Storm Imogen, which caused chaos across the rail network and made me seriously grumpy about trudging towards my car through a vicious downpour in the pitch black on Monday morning. It didn’t seem like a particularly auspicious start to a day of all day cooking, but I was cheered by the thought of Chelsea buns and steak, as any reasonable person would be.

We’re required to cook our steaks medium-rare at school, and I am terrible at it. This is because I like my steaks blue, and it goes against every instinct I have to take them further, thus I always end up pulling them out of the pan too early by mistake. My first triumph of Monday, then, was accurately cooking my steak to medium-rare for the first time. Then I made my béarnaise too thin. Can’t win them all.


The day fell apart a bit after the steak, I must admit. My problems started when another student accidentally took my pastry from the fridge and used it, meaning I had to make another batch, leaving me way behind and playing catch-up for the rest of the session. Then we had a fire drill just as everyone was putting their pastry cases in the oven. Like anywhere else, when the fire alarm goes at Leiths you have to stop what you’re doing and leave the building, even if you’ve just put your delicate pastry cases on to bake. The whole school arrayed on the street – half of us in full whites – was quite a sight for the passers-by. My arms are crossed and my smile is forced because it was absolutely freezing outside.


I did feel like I was rather limping to the finish line, but I managed to serve my tarts and Chelsea buns in the end. My pastry was over-baked and my Chelsea buns were over-glazed (according to Leiths – I love them ‘over-glazed’ and would ideally add even more glaze than shown in the photo below), but I got everything up for service, which felt like a small victory in and of itself. I am in no way artistic, and arranging delicate fruit prettily on patisserie is not my main strength, as you can see. Some of my fellow students produced absolutely beautiful tarts though, and it was lovely to have a nosey around the kitchen and see what everyone else had come up with.


I was a bundle of tiredness by the time I headed home on Monday – being on your feet and cooking from 9am-5pm will do that to you – but unfortunately Storm Imogen was still out to play, and my train home to Oxford got cancelled due to debris on the line. I ended up having to take a couple of different trains on different lines to wend my way through deepest, darkest, windy-est Oxfordshire on the little local stopping services, and became very grateful for the Chelsea buns in my backpack.

I am pretty used to commuting at this stage and am largely blind to the foibles of my fellow travellers, but on Tuesday morning the man sitting opposite me on the train took out a toothbrush and toothpaste and started brushing his teeth. Just sitting in his seat. Using a coffee cup as a makeshift sink. My look of absolute incredulity went unnoticed and he proceeded to take off his shoes and put on huge, fluffy socks.


Nothing else as odd as that happened during the rest of the day. We started off with another wine lecture, this time on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and then moved on to ‘the liver day’, which seemed a shame because to everyone else it was Pancake Day and I think it could have been an excellent excuse to get some crêpe practice done. Instead we made chicken liver pâté and liver with bacon, onions, and cabbage. As mentioned in previous posts, I am all about the offal, so I was fine with this in principle. Unfortunately. I completely messed it up. The chicken liver pâté was for later in the week, but in the dish pictured above apparently my liver, bacon, and cabbage were all undercooked. At least I was wrong in consistent way.

We got a break from the kitchens on Wednesday when Peter and Graham came back for our second Meat Appreciation session. Once again, it was all about the offal. Well, at least mostly about the offal – it seems to be one of the themes from this term. A pig’s head made a brief appearance, and another very large chunk of cow was dismantled. I love watching all this and find it fascinating, so it was a happy day. I also purchased some feather blade steak and some duck legs, and journeyed home with a backpack full of meat, something which seems to be happening with increasing regularity.


We knew Thursday morning’s dem would be good when we walked into the dem room and were embraced by the warm smell of lots and lots of pastry. Hannah and Jane were treating us to flaky and hot water crust pastry in many guises. I must admit, I’m a bit nervous about making flaky and puff pastry for myself when the time comes, but they made it look simple and everything we tasted – including palmiers, a red onion and goats’ cheese tart, a steak and Guinness pie, pork pies, and duck pies, and probably some more stuff that’s been lost in the buttery haze of memories – was incredible. The making of flaky pastry requires you to be patient and precise, neither of which skills comes naturally to me, but the results are undeniably impressive, and I must admit that I kind of want to become the sort of terrible person who can say they make their own puff pastry in a vaguely smug way.


The afternoon cooking session was a bit of an odd one because, aside from making a quick soda bread, we were all doing different things to practice various skills and techniques we needed to work on. It was a lovely, relaxed few hours in the kitchen, free from the pressure of service times and harsh marking. I was turning vegetables – can you tell I’ve been having some issues with that? – and cooking some guinea fowl with a pan sauce. My sauce was too thin, but finally, finally, I did something right with meat cooking and my guinea fowl was pronounced perfect.


I spent Friday morning’s train ride becoming progressively more annoyed as two American tourists sitting in front of me in the quiet carriage talked loudly and took selfies for the entire hour-long journey. I wish I had the nerve to confront people who are behaving unreasonably on public transport but I never quite muster up the courage. Seriously though: it’s an eight-carriage train with ONE quiet carriage covered in bright pink signs denoting its status, and there must be some special kind of retribution for people that pick that carriage to have loud conversations about sports.

Sorry, I’m done.

Friday morning’s dem was on gateaux. Cake on a Friday morning: excellent timetabling decision. We’ll be making our own gateaux in class – more on that next week, I imagine – so it seemed a good idea to pay attention while Ansobe showed us how to make the perfect Genoise sponge, how to divide it into layers with cotton, how to make meringue-based buttercream, and other such crucial life skills. Obviously the best bit was at the end when we got to eat everything.

The afternoon was less gentle and less Friday-ish. We had to do a short order prawn dish – the less said the better, really, as it appears I am awful at short order – and a duck with cherry almond sauce dish with accompaniments of our choice. I went for potato and celeriac dauphinoise and kale, and as you can see, my presentation seriously let me down again. I did eat it all, though, and even if it looked a mess it did taste pretty great. Mind you, I was so hungry that I definitely wasn’t being picky. This session was also where I got my most ridiculous injury yet. In the rush to service, a fellow student and I half-collided, and her chef’s knife fell off her chopping board and onto my leg. The tip of the knife cut me through my trousers and my very thick kitchen socks: I barely acknowledged it at the time, bar a brief yelp of pain and surprise, but after the rush of service I discovered blood running down my leg. I was quite lucky it was not worse and also quite lucky that I am always freezing cold so wear huge hiking socks all the time.


And here we are, waving a goodbye to Week 5 which is, if not quite fond, tinged with weary affection. In lieu of half term we are being treated to a glorious four day weekend, so I’m off to, er, do some more school work. Culinary school: loads of fun; definitely not glamorous.


Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 6

Before I started at Leiths, I basically hadn’t done any sustained exercise since being on the netball B team in primary school in 1999. I have attempted several different sports – running, swimming, cycling, walking, yoga, badminton, pilates, lifting weights, dancing, roller derby, ice skating, working out at the gym – and every time I try to exercise, the universe steers me away by making horrible things happen to me. You think I am exaggerating, but I’m not. This is neither the time nor the place, but I could tell you many harrowing stories that end with me in tears, disgrace, and/or hospital.

So, six weeks ago when I started at Leiths, I wasn’t in great physical shape. However, what I lack in core strength and lung volume I make up for in wilful, blind, stubborn determination. I essentially thought I could force my body to cycle ten miles a day while carrying heavy loads, on top of being on my feet all the time and never quite having enough sleep, by just… not giving up. This sounds stupid and naive, but up until this week it was actually going pretty well.

Unfortunately, I have now crashed. Previously unable to sleep in public places, I have now become one of those people who is instantly unconscious on the morning train and has to be politely prodded awake by wary fellow commuters when we reach London, whereupon I smush my face into the train window and moan ‘Nooooo, five more minutes.’ If I sit on the sofa when I get home, I fall asleep. I find my eyes sliding closed while waiting at traffic lights on my bike. I frequently come to a complete standstill in the school kitchens, unable to remember what I am supposed to be doing. Luckily, my name is written on all my aprons, right over the school logo, or I’d probably forget who and where I am all the time too.


Correspondingly, my cooking this week started out pretty mediocre. On Monday we had a day of delicious joy, cooking chocolate mousse, blackberry pavlova, and sirloin steak. I love all of these things. However, I managed to over-fold my mouse and over-cook my steak. This last was particularly galling as I like my meat blue, and think over-cooking steak is a very sad thing indeed. However, we were instructed to cook the steaks medium-rare, and I cooked mine for two minutes per side, which turned out to be a massive over-shoot. The picture below shows stages of steak cooking, starting off with blue and progressing up to incinerated. I like my steak at a 1 one this scale, but for class was trying to cook it to a 3, but ended up at a 4. This is sort of like the unhelpful pain scale in hospitals, yes? But more delicious.


Tuesday was another disaster day. Due to general exhaustion and my brain not being in gear, I cut the lamb for my spiced stew into pieces which were too small. That’s a mistake you can’t really undo once it’s done, so I had to get on with the long process of assembling and cooking the stew (which carried on into the next day), knowing that I’d done something fundamentally wrong at the start. We then had to make fresh marzipan for scratch to cover our Christmas cakes, which was surprisingly tricky. Actually, not ‘surprisingly’, more like ‘expectedly’. I thought it would be hard, and it was. Marzipan is delicate and prone to cracking, and so when I tried to cover my cake with it the whole sheet started to fall apart and I had to madly seal up cracks as quickly as possible, without over-working it. It was not a pretty sight. Still, the Christmas cake has been drowned in Calvados, so how bad can it really be?

On Wednesday, I slightly redeemed myself. I finished off the stew and it actually, against all the odds, tasted good. I also made autumn crumble with my table partner, which was pretty delicious. I know this because I wolfed the whole thing down cold for lunch in the dem room out of tupperware with a plastic fork, because I missed my lunch break while trying to adjust a costings spreadsheet. My life: all glamour.


I was reliably informed that the fruit juices bubbling up from under a crumble topping make it look ‘more real’, and thus they are acceptable.


Our Thursday session began with us being reprimanded for how slow we’d been in our Wednesday session. Correspondingly, in our Thursday session we worked so quickly that we were done by 11.30am rather than 1pm, and ended up making choux pastry for Friday a day in advance so that we had something to do. That came after pork tenderloin in Marsala sauce with kale, and pizzaiola sauce for Friday. I surprised myself by making a good Marsala sauce and cooking my pork well. The pork-cooking was a complete fluke and I had no idea it was cooked well until Ansobe cut into it, but shh, they will never know. (I am seriously assuming that Leiths staff will never read this blog and realise what an incompetent fool I am).


By Friday, I was not the only one rendered insensible by exhaustion. Sensing this, perhaps, Leiths gave us what I thought of as the ‘children’s birthday party day’: cooking pizza and profiteroles in the morning, followed by a jelly and ice cream dem in the afternoon. Now, please don’t hate me, but I tend to be a bit lukewarm about pizza. I worked in a travelling food van with a wood-fired pizza oven over the summer, and that produced absolutely amazing pizza which was a joy to eat. As a general rule, though, pizza doesn’t particularly excite me. I tend to think that unless you are getting the absolute best stuff available, it doesn’t taste that amazing. Takeaway pizza and restaurant pizza is usually disappointing, and I’d always go for Thai, Indian, Chinese, or pretty much any other option over ordering a pizza delivery. Unfortunately, making my own pizza didn’t change my mind. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I totally ate it all, but without a proper pizza oven and the authentic techniques, it did not even slightly rock my world. Profiteroles, on the other hand, will always be a source of delight.


The jelly and ice cream dem with Hélène was a lovely, gentle way to ease out of the week. I haven’t done a huge amount of work with setting agents and I found the theory portion of the dem really interesting – learning about powdered and leaf gelatine, what the different gradings mean, what agar agar and rennet actually are, how vegetarian setting agents are made and so on – and it definitely inspired me to be less afraid of making things like panna cotta and made me lust after an ice cream machine all over again. We got to taste lots of things, my favourite of which was a completely delicious Perry jelly with caramelised pears. And I don’t even like cider. I might even make it at home and post the recipe on here if I ever get an hour free (perhaps in 2018).

I have now decided to work through the dems backwards to Monday in a completely chronologically illogical way. Thursday’s dem was shellfish, which was brilliant for me because I love all fish. Phil slightly scared me by warning us that having shellfish poisoning feels a lot like dying and thus it is vital to make sure your gastropods, cephalopods, and bivalves (little bit of mollusc definition lingo for you there) are very fresh and of good quality, lest you kill someone. Sadly, Oxford is incredibly bloody landlocked and I don’t know any good fishmongers around here, but if I ever find one then I will be making the mussel recipe we tasted in the dem because it was great.

Wednesday’s dem was delivered by Angela Malik, who came to visit us at Leiths to teach us about Indian cooking. I knew that Indian cooking is very regional, but I hadn’t understood before what the classic hallmarks of northern, southern, and eastern Indian food are, and it was incredibly interesting to learn about how different the cuisine is in various areas of the country and why. Tuesday’s dem was delivered by Michael and was on meat preparation and cooking. Against really stiff competition, I think it was one of my favourite dems so far in terms of the food we got to taste. Everything was delicious and I wanted to go home and try every single recipe, particularly the chicken with forty cloves of garlic. Although, really, I don’t have the patience for such things and would probably end up doing seventeen and calling it a day. Finally, we began the week (still with me?) with a dem on sugar syrups with Ansobe. I’ve done a bit of sugar work before, but nothing very technical – I tend to make dry caramel by simply dumping a pile of caster sugar into a pan, whacking it on a really high heat and hoping for the best. Unsurprisingly, this approach has given me mixed results in the past. On Monday we learned about the nine stages of sugar syrup, and how to make caramel safely without sustaining extensive and hideously painful sugar syrup burns. Always useful.

Week 7 approacheth, and I have blistered feet, burned knuckles, and lots of choux pastry in tupperware. Onwards.


Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 5

In one of our many introductory talks, I distinctly remember someone saying that by the end of Week 5, everything would have started to fall into place. We’d be used to the routine of Leiths, we’d have built up some stamina, we’d have the basic skills to be able to navigate most of the recipes… we’d be amazing, basically. That last bit’s not what they said, but you know.

I don’t feel amazing, exactly, but I’ve settled into the routine. It now seems like a completely normal thing for me to get up at ridiculous o’clock and trek to London to cook daily. So much so that the clocks going back has thrown me off a bit. I’m used to leaving the flat in the dark: the new cold light of morning is not kind to my 6.30am face. Nevertheless, I now know exactly where to stand on the train platform so that the door of my favourite carriage judders to a halt directly in front of me: it’s the small satisfactions that get me through the commute.

Looking at our timetable this week, it initially seemed like Leiths was going easy on us Monday-Wednesday in order to make up for the fact that Thursday was our first all-day cooking marathon. More on that in a moment. Monday was fairly lovely as cooking sessions go – brownies, scones, tartare sauce, and feeding our Christmas cakes. We were delighted to find that we had been provided with a substantial vat of clotted cream and gigantic jars of jam for scone-garnishing purposes (cream then jam, obviously, you heathens) and spent a happy afternoon melting chocolate, shaping scone dough, and sampling the booze we’d brought to feed our Christmas cakes, in the name of science.


Things were slightly less relaxing on Tuesday, when we made pastry and chilli. Because we’ve made pastry four times now, we were expected to know what we were doing… and it turns out that I don’t. I messed up the shaping of my pastry in the flan ring, and even after I’d spent a good fifteen minutes perfecting the edges, it still ultimately came out of the oven ugly and misshapen. The chilli, while a relatively simple recipe, did involve sixteen people browning mince over high heat at the same time. Such was the heat of the oil that things occasionally went up in flames, and not on purpose. We later finished our chilli – mine came out incredibly spicy – and developed our little pastry cases into lemon meringue pies. My meringue was a bit of a mess, but my lemon filling was tasty and held well, so I’m calling that a draw.

My slightly dodgy pie, on the left, and my partner’s much neater meringue, on the right.

Thursday, our first all-day cooking extravaganza, saw us making slow-cooked beef stew with caramelised baby onions and a potato and celeriac mash, individual loaves of white bread, goujons of plaice with tartare sauce, and fish stock. When I list it like that, it doesn’t actually sound like much. The thing is that at Leiths you can’t cut corners. If I was at home, for example, I’d whack my meat for browning in the pan all at once, and sort of vaguely get some colour on it whilst half watching 90s music videos on YouTube in the background and call it a day. At Leiths, we season and brown the meat in batches – being sure not to crowd the pan – lovingly turn each perfectly-sized piece in rotation to ensure all the meat is coloured evenly on all sides, and deglaze the pan after each batch and taste the juices. Obviously, doing everything properly takes much longer. Who knew? You can’t even have Mint Royale on in the background, and if you absent-mindedly start singing or whistling to yourself you get reprimanded, so you know they mean business.


Anyway, everything all went swimmingly. No, really. The day was absolutely fine, stress levels were pretty low, and the only real problem I had was that at the end of it I was so tired from being on my feet for eight hours that I had to sit on the floor while I waited for my bread to be marked because they could no longer carry me. And then I cycled 4.5 miles back to the station in the dark. And in the evening I went to bed at 9pm because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. But other than that.


Our Tuesday morning dem was with Belinda, who is a lovely, calming presence. She demonstrated many wonderful things that can be done with choux pastry (we demonstrated the eating of choux pastry – I always like to do my bit to be helpful), and we saw profiteroles, three types of éclairs, canapés, and savoury choux gougère. Wednesday was just as great, because it was steak day. Need I say more? Probably yes. Phil was technically demonstrating ‘tender cuts of meat and pan sauces’, but we all knew what that really meant: steak day. We got to sample bites of fillet, sirloin, rump, ribeye, and onglet, with various accompanying sauces and butters, and I felt quite spoiled. I don’t usually buy or order fillet steak because the price sort of scares me, so I’ve barely ever eaten it before, and it was gorgeous.

I know this is a rubbish picture, but I couldn’t get a proper view from where I was sitting and I wanted to demonstrate the abundance of steak.

The dem of the week, though, against very strong competition, was Friday’s buffet session with Hannah and Hélène. They prepared us a gorgeous array of delicious buffet food, and stood back to let us feast. I don’t know what would happen to me if I had to prepare eight or ten dishes to feed fifty people in a morning, but I imagine it would probably end with me crying in a corner and begging for mercy. We all had second helpings of everything, and then dessert, and then I don’t really know what happened for the next hour or so because I was in a happy food daze.


Also, chocolate roulade? Surprisingly amazing. I have had very dry and crumbly roulades in the past, but this was moist and chocolatey and completely lovely, and I will definitely be making it at some point.

The trouble is that now we have to work in groups to produce buffets for 32 people, and making a buffet doesn’t sound quite as relaxing as eating one was. In our teams, we have to come up with a theme, design a menu, work out costings to a strict budget, source all the ingredients, and, er, cook the whole thing in three hours and serve it beautifully to a jury of our peers and teachers before receiving feedback and being marked. I am sure I will panic more about this in a future blog.


So Week 5 is over, and we are officially halfway through Foundation. Everyone keeps telling me I look tired and pale, last night I was so exhausted that I got confused and walked into a wall, and next week I will continue to work with lots of knives and fire while practically sleepwalking. Still, on Monday we get to make chocolate mousse, blackberry pavlova, and steak, so that will definitely ease the pain a little if I end up losing a finger.