… that I love about family Christmas in Amsterdam.
Except unlike two years ago this time my 12 things are all food-related. We all know that gluttony is the true meaning of Christmas.
Warm crusty apple cake and Chocomelk from Café Winkel 43, eaten huddled outside six-to-a-bench with a 1:1 ratio of heavy whipped cream.
A table creaking with cheeses lugged from York, from the lauded Comté to the maligned smoked goat. The apple of everyone’s eye is the cake of stilton, which we scrape onto Bath Ovals, smear across bread layered with crystallized salted butter, and melt into turkey stock for soup so rich it is served it only by the teacup.
Christmas morning smoked salmon posted all the way from Scotland, with steaming peppery scrambled eggs, toasted loaves and a glass of bitty Bucksfizz.
Brussel sprouts with outer leaves haphazardly peeled by the younger generation, with many sacrificed beneath kitchen cabinets in Brussel Sprout Basketball. Made palatable to the vegetable-averse by a favourable ratio of fried pancetta and flaked glazed chestnuts.
My mother’s incomparable bread sauce. Dripped over turkey, mashed into crispy potatoes and furtively consumed by the teaspoon straight from the jug.
Flaming brandy-soaked Christmas pud, moist and flavoursome and, best of all, microwavable.
Spoonfuls of wibbly wobbly pink jelly with double cream and much debate over structural integrity. (Does it stay in the dish when you turn it upside down? How is the wobble to firmness ratio? Did you eat too many jelly pieces at the watering stage?)
Tiny(ish) tumblers of Irish Bailies tinkling with arrow-shaped ice cubes and accompanied by thick peppermint creams and hard-won segments of Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
Home-made pork pie with a thick, asymmetrical crust and ornamental pastry pig, filled with fistfuls of herbs and a generous amounts of jelly.
A deep bowl of trifle with creamy custard from the Dutch dairy shop and a welcome upper crunch of crushed almonds – as well as a less welcome one at the bottom born from our impatience to wait long enough for the sponge lady fingers to soften in madeira. Gone within five ladlefuls.
A Boxing Day dish of baked red peppers, swimming in oil and stuffed with a garlic clove each.
Fruity Christmas cake cloaked in the softest whitest marzipan icing of any year yet.
Mason jar cocktails and exposed brick walls mark this place out as a hipster haven from the get-go, and its sanded wooden tables and farm-to-table menu seal the deal. As does its edgy bearded owner, keen to tell us all about making his son’s baby food from scratch and their seasonal dessert changes. Sneer as I might, it is he who is laughing because this affected approach clearly works – The Whiskey Jar is just great. Located in a shady, pedestrianised walkway in the student town of Charlottesville, it rocks sun-drenched tables near its French windows and booths cloaked in shadow the further you advance into its depths. A well-stocked bar occupies a pleasing middle ground, and produces even pleasinger concoctions with a speciality in moonshine based delights. Yes, moonshine is marketed as a spirit in the south, and it’s great.
The food, however, may well surpass the alcohols on offer. We sat down to a smorgasbord of fancy yet wholesome dishes like one big hungry family whose father figure gets the first bite of everything before the kids fight over the remains. A glassy-eyed trout served whole with the bones looked amazing on the plate and the camera screen, and tasted even better. Stewed ochre and tomato soup, slightly spiced and perfectly warmed. And the greatest tomato sandwich I have ever consumed. I don’t even like tomatoes. This sandwich was out of this world, I cannot even describe it (some food critic I am). But the crowning glory of the whole meal was a cobbler that has taken resident baker Rachel Pennington three years to perfect, and disappeared within minutes of first taste. Filled with in-season peaches, bathed in vanilla ice-cream, and topped with a crust that was literally a giant cookie, I have never seen such aggressive fork-work on this trip before or since. That thing was phenomenal, and she was persuaded to share her closely guarded recipe so we can all take turns in failing to replicate it.
The staff at The Whiskey Jar are friendly if reserved, and one of them sports a fab little mason jar tat that graced Morgan’s Instagram (courtesy of your’s truly’s overactive iPhone). Owner Will was more than happy to point us towards the best bars in town – one of which is conveniently owned by him – and we spent the rest of the golden hour wandering through Charlottesville’s twee little shops and sipping margaritas. Very civilised.
I used to know Big Soc as that hipster American bar with over-priced cocktails and a ping pong table in the back room – and yes, it does have both of those things, but it also has a pulled pork bun to die for and some of the best fried chicken this side of Tennessee. Big Soc has prime Cowley Road positioning to attract both the Oxford and the Brookes crowds, and does so by attempting to rock that Deep South vibe; milkshakes and hot dogs and mason jars are ubiquitous, as well as trendy IPAs from micro-breweries and weird graffiti across the walls. And it’s not doing badly. The food is incredibly reasonably-priced for the quality, even if the drinks prices make it nigh on impossible to drown one’s sorrows of an evening (unless it’s in a milkshake). They soak their chicken in buttermilk overnight before deep-frying, and their chips may well be double cooked because they’re crispy as heck – and will admit that I a great deal of time for an establishment that provides you with a whole roll of paper towels before you chow down. There’s a patio and a conservatory, as well as a main bar area that gets pretty buzzing of an evening, and many tables of mixed heights and sizes – as well as, of course, the ping pong and foozeball variety.
There are downsides; it’s a bit of a carnivore’s paradise and there aren’t many options for the rabbit-minded among us aside from their enormous (and delicious) haloumi salad. And arguably the disadvantage to hiring only good-looking hipsters to work the bar is perhaps a less friendly and accommodating service than you can find elsewhere. But it remains a go-to for comfort food that doesn’t break the bank, and a sweet taste of summer for someone who spent her’s between Alabama and Virginia.
Tick Tock Café
Oh Tick Tock. Bastion of Cowley Road brunch. Haven for the hungover. Restaurant for the regretful. I can’t imagine ever visiting Tick Tock for anything except revival after a horrible/amazing night at the Wahoo/Purple Turtle/drinking too many little beers with your housemates. The owner always stares at you with the same utmost disdain and pity that you’re feeling towards yourself. If you don’t choose to pocket your breakfast bap and shuffle home to eat it alone with your hazy non-memories then you’ll spend most of the time shunted from booth to booth as the waitresses make their best efforts to show that neither you nor anyone else is welcome to stay more than fifteen minutes. Old men taking up whole tables with a newspaper and a cup of builders’ is obviously included in this greasy spoon package deal. The ticking of the thousand mismatched clocks across the wall is deafening, although only about two of them work. The hash browns are always great.
This is the ultimate morning-after-the-night-before hang, and the full English is obligatory.
Oxfork is run by the same crew as the Turl Street Kitchen, an Oxford coffee fave, and has only recently started serving evening food. And it’s gr8. It’s nestled in deepest Cowley and produces local earth-to-table fare, served by attractive young men with interesting accents in a kitsch candle-lit setting. There’s a chandelier made of forks. The menu is rotating and delicious, consisting of a variety of dishes in a Tapas crossed with comfort food format where everything comes out in small portions served in tea cups or on slates. There’s a decent student discount and all sorts of perks for ordering extensively – a free dessert with every three dishes ordered et cetera cetera. I can particularly recommend the walnut/squash/goat’s cheese salad, and the cheesy potatoes, and the fig and cream yoghurt pot. And the brownie. In fact I recommend everything, but most of all I recommend heading there for a hungover brunch because their charming waiters serve the best Blood Marys in the city. Really lovely eats and atmosphere, one of my top picks.
An institution of the Cowley Road, you’ll rarely meet an Oxonian that doesn’t praise Atomic Burger. Having recently moved from a narrow little enclave in between Sushi Corner and a hairdresser’s, its new larger location explodes out of the Cowley Road line-up with its comicstrip facade and is beloved by townies and students alike. Burgers are listed on the menu by film character – my favourite is the Toy Story-themed Messy Jessie that boasts a killer pile-up of goat’s cheese and red peppers and other such deliciousnesses – and there’s a free side with every main. And though the burgers and hot dogs are pretty banging, it’s the fries that are the real stars of the show; the Sophie’s Choice between sweet potato fries and onion rings, or upgrading to the impossibly delicious mass of pulled pork, cheese and crispy onions that make up their heavenly Trailer Park fries is a regular dilemma. If spice is your thing then Atomic Burger’s signature (lethal) Fallout Sauce is worth a try – and if you’re really feeling brave, test your stomach against the Atomic Burger Fallout Challenge. Only three people have ever completed it, one of which I bore witness to. (I also bore witness to how he felt the next day, and I don’t think he’d recommend it.)
It’s a hot button debate, but I’d argue that Atomic Burger beats Big Soc, Byron and GSK to the title of best burger in the city; but, as with the true American Dining Experience, really it’s all about the sides.
I’m not sure I should really review Pomegranate, because I visited when I was so hungover I wanted to cry and/or die and the world seemed like it was going to end. Apparently the atmosphere here is delightful, but I was very hungover so all atmospheres seemed equally bleak and terrible. Apparently the food is delicious, but I was very hungover so it all filled me with nausea and despair. Apparently everything is reasonably priced, but I was very hungover so I registered nothing but the endless thumping in my brain. Apparently the staff are helpful and the tea lovely, but I was very hungover so everybody and everything seemed awful.
In short I hear it’s very nice, I should probably revisit some time.
Morgan tells us that the internet barely ever produces good eating spots; he bases his schedule on hearsay and restauranteurs’ recommendations, and, less predictably, the advice of “air stewardesses and antiques dealers who always seem to know where to eat”. Salt’s was the result of a frantic morning web search following the eponymous owner of Big Al’s Seafood failing to call us back, so we rolled up to its crossroad location with few expectations and a car full of unsettled stomachs from Virginia’s winding country lanes. And how pleasantly surprised we were. Two steampunk city gals from the DC political scene headed rural, to convert an old gas station near Thomas Jefferson’s estate into a cafe that serves the most amazing chicken salad sandwich imaginable. The place is tiny and incredibly twee, all checked tablecloths and wildflowers in mason jars, but the people that run it are down-to-earth and friendly as can be. Picnic tables look out over Virginia’s rolling hills and vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see, and a cluster of oaks provides gloriously dappled shade away from the brutal American summer.
Humble beginnings meant that half the furniture was either inherited from Salt’s previous incarnation or donated by its patrons, from the sanded down candy cabinet that displays home-made sauces and snacks to the painted stools on the porch left over from a barn dance. A rocking chair under the creaking farm sign was pulled from the boot of someone’s car. A bench is in fact an old pew from the pretty red-roofed church opposite. And although the location and the vibe are of course half the deal in a good place to eat, it’s the amazing sandwiches that seal the deal here – if Oxford has taught me anything it’s that a good sandwich can be a delight and a pleasure, and Salt serves GOOD sandwiches. The best (and only) tofu sandwiches I’ve ever tasted, as well as plates of cheese and cold cuts and perfect little blackberries that are no doubt organic and handpicked blah blah. And the most amazing cranberry-stuffed dark chocolate that melted across our hands and faces in the least dignified way possible.
We loved the food, and everything about the place down to Barrett’s exquisite belt buckle made by her chef and co-owner – best friends? lesbian lovers? – and it was unsurprisingly filling up for the lunch rush as we snaked away towards Monticello. A lovely little find – even if it was from the internet.
When I lived in Oxford, I drank a lot of coffee. (One had to.) In my last year I wrote an extensive catalogue of every coffee spot I visited and why it was nice and/or nasty. It’s over on Bonjournal if you want to read the full whammy of twenty eight spots, but here I have compiled my top five, because ranking all things in life is important whether it is your preferred coffee corner or your children.
Truck Store is a coffee cum vinyl shop, and the sort of absurdly trendy establishment that I outwardly decry but in whose sunlit corners I secretly while away entire afternoons. The pros of such a hip establishment are a constantly evolving soundtrack of ambient beats and staff who really “know” their coffee (as well as presumably their 90s neo pop bands and their purveyors of vintage moustache trimmers). I still hold the top floor of Waterstones as home to the best chai latte in Oxford, but Truck Store’s comes pretty close, and its prices certainly reflect the student market it’s catering to in a way that central Oxford cafes do not. And although it’s true that the clientele is predominantly early 20s based, on my last visit I did get into an interesting conversation about romantic poetry with a very old woman in a dressing gown and slippers; unfortunately it swiftly evolved into an attack on language-censoring that left myself and the two Brookes students listening in desperately trying to reverse out of. The price Cowley pays for being a ‘real’ city is that it has its fair share of real opinions.
Quarter Horse Coffee
I’m always won over by an attractive barista, and this place has at least five. It’s an artsy little cafe always bristling with MacBooks, tortoiseshell spectacles, and hushed philosophical conversation. If you’re into caffeine products for the taste as well as the buzz, then this place is the dream; they have a constant rotation of exotic blends (this week’s is deathly strong and Ethiopian), and sell various fancy coffee-making products that resemble alien possibly-sexual accessories to the tea-drinking proletariat. There’s also a great selection of toast and pastries for the breakfast market, which you can eat perched on stools against the window and stare/be stared at by Cowley Road’s 9am zombies. It’s also not just a coffee place; there a host of events that go on in this space in the evenings, from wine and cheese and conversation to talks from big dog writers and artists – although I’m not sure I’m cool enough to attend any of them.
Zappi’s is a recent discovery – mainly because of it’s in-the-know location so sneakily hidden away above one of the myriad bike shops of central Oxford. Always littered with laptops and men in very form-fitting gear, Zappi’s attracts both the trendy student crowd and the edgier end of town. As well as plenty of extremely keen old cyclists – late morning on a Saturday you cannot move for lycra, if that’s what you’re into. The service is delightful, if slow, and the quality of coffee and conversation is always top notch. A nice little coffee nook for when TSK and the Missing Bean are just unbearable.
Turl Street Kitchen
A go-to. Ideally placed in centre-town and opposite a bank of that rare Oxford breed of the ATM, TSK is a favourite amongst undergrads and professors alike. It’s got squishy armchairs and oak tables, great coffee and tattooed staff, and there’s an upstairs lounge full of sofas and sunlight for quiet contemplation – or surreptitious gossiping. I
don’t know, you do you. A long-established favourite for those who eschew the Rad Cam for the coffee-shop-studying experience, this cafe is a hub for constant charity and social events; fundraising and music-making evenings galore, and a varied selection of artwork and photography can be found gracing the walls of the dining area. On writing, the front room is taken up with an installation for the Oxford Photography Festival, and Student Minds have their HQ in the upper storeys.
The culinary credentials are just as impressive as the caffeine side of things, and the kitchen flaunts its delicious and regularly changing selection of home-cooked food and varied wines on giant chalkboards – but that’s all beside the point. Because if you want a quiet coffee in the centre of town, whether it’s for a date with a dishy dude or a date with your essay on postmodernism, TSK is the place.
The Missing Bean
The Missing Bean is a tiny one room cafe in the heart of Oxford – a hipster’s dream that on your average weekday is furnished with two MacBooks a table and almost as many horn-rimmed specs. You’ll also find it packed with middle-aged tutors discussing romantic poetry, business types on their lunch break, and everyone else you can imagine because the coffee here is absolutely divine. There’s not too much to say beyond that; the hygiene rating is dire, so don’t try the food, but the atmosphere is always buzzing and you will be too after caffeinating here.
Mighty Quinn’s boasts some of the best BBQ in town, as evidenced by a fifteen minute queue to get to the counter. Its Lower East Side facade was almost obscured by a fire-engine belonging to four burly customers chowing down on ribs, and a rowdy group of creatives took up half the interior making the most of the lunchtime beer pitchers. The place is light and airy, like so many New York eateries, with a minimalist and industrial vibe, a giant counter of meats and barrels and a diverse customer body; policewomen and suited business sorts joined the fire brigade and the motley crew of assorted student hipsters that made up the queue snaking down the side of the building.
I will not lie. I was indeed tempted by the brontosaurus rib – a pound of beef served on the bone and slow-smoked in their famous BBQ sauce. Everything is hacked up on the hot plate before your eyes by a competent and helpful staff of beautiful young men who are no doubt all struggling actors and models – who in this town isn’t? We begrudgingly settled for the pulled pork sandwich with sides of buttermilk and bacon broccoli and the sweetcorn and edamame salad, and it was all bloody delicious. Even my lunch companion lasting out a meat-free diet couldn’t resist multiple bites of my pulled pork delight, and we washed it all down with McKenzie’s “hard cider”, the only cider worth drinking in this country of luke-warm apple juices. A mighty find indeed, and barbecue that Texas might be proud of.