When first contemplating my visit to the UK, I wasn’t too excited about the food prospects. Nothing really sprang to mind when considering British cuisine, other than fish and chips and meat pies. Now I realize I was being close-minded, and that reducing British food to those two items would be like summarizing Canadian food as maple syrup and poutine (which I’m sure happens often enough). Like any country with large and diverse immigrant populations, the UK offers a variety of different cuisines to be indulged in.
While in Oxford, we had dinner one night at The Old Tom. The Old Tom was particularly interesting to me because while it serves Thai food, it still somewhat functions as the classic British pub (which to me just comes down to whether or not they serve Pimm’s). We were seated in an outdoor area behind the actual restaurant, where we could enjoy the summer air, although this was somewhat marred by the cigarette smoke issuing from nearby tables.
We started off with an order of the Vegetable Tempura (£3.95), which consisted of an interesting assortment of vegetables: carrots, onions, and red and green peppers. I’m not sure why they called this “tempura” on the menu, because the batter was clearly something different altogether. Although the items came out warm, it felt like they had used old oil, or that the items had been fried too long. The homemade chili sauce was both sweet and spicy. As far as appetizers go, this wasn’t terrible, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. I suppose fried items are just a pub staple.
Shawarma indulged in a classic in the Pad Thai with Chicken (£7.95), complete with all the usual suspects: rice noodles, egg, bean sprouts, and ground peanuts. She was pleasantly surprised by this dish, as we honestly hadn’t expected anything great. Although the dish as a whole was slightly oily, it had that requisite tang from the tamarind. The noodles were slightly on the soft side, but the chicken was flavourless, although this was slightly ameliorated by the sauce. Pickles, who also had the pad thai, remarked that it was better than the version at Wagamama, although I guess that really isn’t saying much…
I opted for the Green Curry with Prawns (£8.95), with coconut milk, bamboo shoots, fresh chilies, sweet basil leaves, and peas, served with some steamed rice. The curry was on the sweet side, but still had a nice spicy kick. Like Shawarma, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this, as I hadn’t been expecting much from this small Oxford pub. In hindsight, I would have expected the curry itself to be a tad thicker, but it was nothing too troubling, and I was satisfied that they’d included five or six sizeable prawns. The rice was simple steamed rice and nothing too special, although it was clumped up a bit in places.
Overall, the food at the Old Tom wasn’t anything I would call exceptional, but it was more than acceptable, especially considering where we were. It’s necessary to have realistic expectations, right? I wouldn’t expect Oxford’s Asian restaurants to be on par with Vancouver’s. That being said, though, the Old Tom was a nice way to experience the quintessential British pub while having something other than conventional pub fare.
The Old Tom
101 Saint Aldate’s
Oxford, UK OX1 1BT
The last of the four novels we studied during our time in London was Angela Carter’s Wise Children. I’d previously read a few selected stories from The Bloody Chamber, so I was excited to delve into Carter’s curious world of magic realism. To be honest, I preferred The Bloody Chamber, as there’s something about reimagined fairy tales that really sparks my interest. Anyways, as part of our tour of the neighbourhood in which Wise Children takes place, we had lunch at Jamie Oliver’s Diner, a pop-up restaurant on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. It was a decent meal, but nothing memorable.
Then fast forward a couple weeks to one night in Oxford. The girls decided to try out Jamie’s Italian, another of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant ventures. Due to the size of our group, we were seated at two different tables, but served by the same waiter. I’m not sure how to describe the waiter, except to say that we honestly didn’t like him. He was quite awkward and seemed disappointed that some of us only ordered drinks or appetizers. Sure, I realize that you need your tips, but to overtly express disappointment isn’t going to help you, right?
Katy wasn’t too hungry, so she just had the Crab and Avocado Bruschetta (£6.50), grilled sourdough topped with Start Bay crab, avocado, and Yeo Valley yoghurt, with apple matchsticks, chili, mint, lemon, and olive oil. Despite the decadence of that description, Katy found her bruschetta a bit unappetizing, as it was served quite cold, which she didn’t enjoy.
Chantallyhoo and Shawarma both had the Tagliatelle Bolognese (£9.95), with a ragu of British beef and pork, with herbs, chianti, Parmesan, and crunchy, herby breadcrumbs. Again, a decadent description, but the dish didn’t live up to it. The pasta was undercooked, being quite clumpy and hard to chew, while the sauce was underwhelming and very bland. It needed a lot of pepper to be somewhat enjoyable. Also, we were all surprised by the small portions. The items mostly came in two sizes (a smaller “entree” size and a larger portion), but even the larger portions were quite small. I had no idea, but apparently outside of North America, “entree” means a small course served before the main course. Having spent most of my life on the West Coast, this was a rather strange concept to me, and one that actually impacted our enjoyment of our meal here overall. When some of us accidentally ordered entree-sized portions without realizing that “entree” doesn’t mean the same thing it does in North America, the waiter reacted by condescendingly informing us of the difference, as opposed to offering us the larger portions. Considering how awkwardly he recounted the specials, I think that he was relatively new at his job, but wouldn’t it be common sense to try and make a customer feel happy as opposed to stupid?
As for me, I had the Seaside Risotto (£12.50), with clams, mussels, prawns, cockles, gurnard, chili, and white wine. I found the risotto to be a tad undercooked, but I believe that’s personal preference, as I generally prefer my pasta to be softer than al dente as well (blasphemous, I know). The fish was well-prepared, being moist throughout, and the mussels were plump and briney, exactly the way they should be. However, I thought that the risotto itself could have been creamier; perhaps more cheese would have helped? I also was dissatisfied with the portion size, especially considering the price tag.
Madeline’s Fish Stew (£13.50), which was on special that night, was comprised of the same seafood as my risotto, although in a tomato-based broth. Although the seafood was well-prepared, with plump and juicy clams and mussels, she commented that she wished she’d ordered a pasta instead, which would have been much more filling. It was a pricey dish, probably due to the amount of seafood included. I feel like it would have worked well as a risotto, pretty much the same as mine above but with a tomato-based sauce.
Overall, we were all quite disappointed with our experience at Jamie’s Italian, especially considering its association with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. The food was mediocre, and the service was startlingly inept, awkward, and even condescending. Based on the two experiences I had with Jamie Oliver’s restaurants during my time in the UK, I probably would not return.
24-26 George Street
Oxford, United Kingdom OX1 2
After three eventful weeks in London, we all uprooted and relocated to Oxford. The journey itself was pleasant, as Oxford is only an hour and a half’s train ride away from London, and the countryside views are nothing if not picturesque.
To put it mildly, I loved Oxford. I was fortunate enough to stay in accommodations usually occupied by actual Oxford University students. Our apartment (or “flat”, as the Brits say) was quite spacious and homey. Our classes also took place in a classroom at Oxford’s Brasenose College, so although I didn’t actually learn from any Oxford professors, it was somewhat like getting the Oxford experience, especially since we also had access to the Bodleian Library.
Overall, though, I liked the small town vibe that Oxford had, especially compared to London. Everything was within walking distance, and I no longer had to suffer the mugginess and crampedness of traveling on the tube. As we now had a kitchen in our flat, we relied more on our own cooking than on eating out, but of course we still had to eat out sometimes. Our first group dinner in Oxford was at the famed Eagle and Child, a pub a few minutes’ walk from our accommodations.
The Eagle and Child is a tourist destination in Oxford in its own right, as it was famously the hang-out of a literary discussion group called the Inklings, whose most famous members included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Due to the size of our large group, we got the whole back room to ourselves, where, funnily enough, they’d labelled a random door as the entryway to Narnia. I mean, we all know that the entryway to Narnia is through a magical wardrobe in Professor Kirke’s house (or by the other methods shown in the other six books in the series), but it’s still a cute touch. There was also a map of the magical world of Narnia on the door, showing Narnia and its southern neighbours, Archenland and Calormen. I devoured the Narnia books as a child, and having dinner in the same place that C.S. Lewis regularly visited was quite exciting for me, in an admittedly geeky way. Other than that, though, the Eagle and Child was not unlike the other pubs I visited during my time in England. The decor was quaint and functional, while the food leaned towards the traditional rather than the imaginative.
Pickles had the Fish and Chips (£10.75), which was served alongside some mushy peas and tartar sauce. I was mostly impressed by the size of the piece of cod, as it was massive, especially considering the price. She found that the fish was a bit dry on the edges, which is quite standard for fish and chips. Still, she enjoyed how crispy the fish was, and that the batter was not too heavy or thick. The chips were the thick, starchy, potatoey kind, which I personally don’t prefer, but what’s a visit to the U.K. without trying some fish and chips?
I was lucky enough to be sitting beside Sim and she graciously allowed me to snap a photo of her dinner, which was the Vegetable Burger (£7.95). The menu stated that the veggie patty was composed of spiced aubergine, red pepper, sweetcorn, and chickpeas, but Sim commented that it mostly tasted like chickpeas. She enjoyed the burger as the patty was nice and crispy, as were the accompanying chips, which were again the thick variety. The burger also came with some coleslaw on the side.
Stacy and Catherine also shared a Tear and Share Cheesy Garlic Bread (£4.75). They were actually away from the table when it arrived, and it smelled so heavenly that we were all tempted to steal a bite. It reminded me of the clam chowder bread bowls I’d really liked as a child. I’m a sucker for anything that comes in an edible container. Anyways, this bread was filled with a thick, creamy garlic and cheddar sauce, and it was exactly what was expected, being warm and satisfying. Surprisingly, it also wasn’t messy at all, which I might have guessed from the look of the dish when it first arrived.
As for me, I had the Basket of Fish (£10.75), which included scampi, goujons (strips of fish), and calamari, as well as the requisite chips and tartar sauce. Everything was lightly fried, a bit oily as expected, but not too heavy, which I liked. The fish itself was light and flaky, while the calamari was quite tender. The chips were the same as the ones served above, but for some reason, I really liked the tartar sauce. I’m generally not a fan of tartar sauce, but the one here was light and tangy, which complemented the fish well. I usually find fish and chips to be a heavy meal, but I didn’t feel too bloated here, and I had plenty of room left for dessert. To add to the Britishness of my meal, I also indulged in a glass of Pimm’s.
Luckily enough, we still had room for dessert, so Sim and I shared a Warm Chocolate Brownie (£4.25), which was served with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. It’s not like this was anything special or unique, but it was certainly a nice way to end our meal. The brownie had a nice crust to it, with softer, chewier layers underneath, and the cool, sweet ice cream helped to provide a textural contrast. It was also of a decent size to share between two people after the meal we’d consumed above.
Overall, the food we sampled at The Eagle and Child was quite yummy, and of course it was exciting to eat at the favourite haunt of the Inklings. If you’re passing through Oxford, I’d definitely recommend having a meal here, if only to experience the vibe of the quintessential British pub. Oh, and don’t forget to have some Pimm’s as well!
The Eagle and Child
49 St. Giles
Oxford, United Kingdom OX1 3LU