Review: Thaikhun

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With a couple of hours to kill between watching two films at Odeon, Jamie and I decided to visit Thaikhun, the Thai restaurant on George Street, for date night. Tuesday is their student night and, while they do a pretty decent student discount all week long, a handful of main meals are on offer for the amazing value of £7. I like Thaikhun because it feels so distinctive from all the very samey ‘Italian’ chain restaurants, despite also being a national chain, with it’s interesting decor and authentic feeling food (though I’ve not been to Thailand so I can’t claim to speak on that with much degree of knowledge).

 

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Sorry for appalling photos… It’s very dark in here!

We were seated downstairs straight away and the waiter provided me with the allergen menu on request. I had to spend a bit of time navigating it, as on the student deal menu the names of the dishes are written in Thai, but everything is written only in English on the allergen menu. I was also a bit concerned that the Pad Thai was described as having egg in, but on the allergen menu the egg box wasn’t ticked – didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the rest of the list would be 100% accurate, and obviously this would be far more important if you actually had an allergy to something. I decided on the Tofu Geang Kiew Wan (green curry) because I’ve ordered this before and had confirmation that it’s definitely vegan. The staff here seem very happy to answer questions and be as helpful as they can if you are unsure about anything in any case.

 

IMG_4679I could always have remembered it wrong, but I believe they were a bit more generous with the tofu when I ordered this dish previously – so potentially they give you slightly less when you’re ordering off the student deal menu, or it could depend on who dishes you up your portion, which can be the case in many restaurants anyway I think. They don’t hold back on the spice here, but this is one of the milder options on the menu. The sauce has a bit of heat but is creamy too (I left the visible chunks of chilli on the side of my plate, I love the flavour my stomach is not too keen on me eating the larger bits). We also ordered some veggie spring rolls to share as a side, which were crispy and delicious – you could be forgiven for thinking there can’t be much special or different about a spring roll, but we both said these ones were particularly good, stuffed with rice noodles as well as crunchy veg. The sweetcorn cakes here are vegan and having tried these before I’d definitely order them again too.

Our food came out quickly and the service was great, up until it was time for us to ask for the bill, at which point our waiter seemed to disappear from existence. He may well have been allowing us some time to rest for a bit and let our food go down, but if you have somewhere to be, as we did, I think it would’ve been nice if they came and checked up on us a bit sooner. Overall though, this was a really enjoyable experience. The fact that there are multiple vegan starter and main course options on the student deal menu is great, and I believe there’s a sorbet if you’re keen on that sort of thing. Our tasty and filling meal for two came to around £20. Thaikhun is definitely another good option for those times you might have meat-eaters, veggies, and vegans, all in the same party, and want a relaxed tasty meal.

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Review: The Handle Bar Cafe & Kitchen

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So breakfast club is officially a thing, which I’m very happy about. This is the second month I’ve visited a local independent café with some girls from work for breakfast, an event which I love having in the calendar to look forward to. This time we decided to visit The Handle Bar Cafe in the city centre. Above the Bike Zone on St Michael’s Street, we were seated at a lovely spot by the window, and got to enjoy the morning sun as we ate (this does mean that my photos have a few more unfortunate shadows than usual, but hopefully you get the idea).

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Coconut pancakes with berries

Although the café opened at 8am and we arrived pretty much dead on, we weren’t the only ones with a table, and it got progressively busier as the hour went on, which I was surprised about (why aren’t all these students still in bed?!). Anna also mentioned that whenever she’s tried to come here for lunch, it has been hard to get a table, so the fact that it’s so popular can only be testament to the food. There were multiple vegan breakfast options on the menu, including the obligatory smashed avocado on toast, pancakes, and a chia overnight oats pot. I noticed that the latter was labelled vegan on the menu, but the description said it was served with honey, which is not SFV. I looked at the menu on their website however and the honey was omitted from the description, so perhaps they just haven’t updated their printed copies yet. Certainly worth checking with the waiter either way if you’re planning on ordering this.

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Pancakes with banana

We all ended up going for the vegan coconut pancakes which came with maple syrup and either banana or berries. I was really impressed by the size of this pancake stack – I’ve previously quite often found that ordering pancakes out can leave you feeling a bit hungry, but these were really substantial. There was a very decent amount of fruit, easily three quarters of a banana with mine, and with a generous drizzle of maple syrup, this was a really delicious start to the day. I didn’t need to snack the whole morning. I’d be keen to know how these pancakes were made so I could recreate them at home. Very coconutty and no doubt very calorific, but every bite was totally worth it.

I ordered a pot of breakfast tea to go along with my food, and there was a choice of various different dairy free milks for a 50p supplement. I got about three cups out of my pot so can’t complain about that at all. In total my meal came to £10, and I think that was very reasonably for the tasty food and friendly service provided. I’ll be coming back!

And in case you’re waiting for a reason/excuse to go out for a pancake breakfast, may I introduce the new breakfast club motto…

“You don’t need a reason to celebrate, just celebrate life!” – Rebecca Parker

Review: Loungers

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I was introduced to this chain by a friend very recently, and despite having never heard of them before, discovered that they have dozens of bar/restaurant establishments round the country. In the handful of weeks since discovering their existence, I’ve visited them in three different locations, and which hopefully indicates that the experience they provide is good wherever you go.

I’d probably compare Loungers to an upmarket Wetherspoons, but I don’t mean that as a bad thing. It is a casual dining, take your table number and order at the bar type affair, but equally the food is consistently good quality, reasonably priced, and brought out quickly with good service. They have a separate vegan menu which is placed on the table alongside the regular menu – no need to worry about having to sheepishly ask to see the allergen menu here. The vegan tapas options are slightly limited but decent enough value, and the other choices are plentiful, so I don’t think many could be disappointed. There is even a vegan option on their ‘specials board’ (which I must admit, I don’t think they rotate that often, as it was the same three dishes all the times I’ve been).

IMG_4636On my most recent visit this weekend with family, I decided to order the courgette, pea, and edamame bean risotto from the specials menu. I was expecting it to be a smaller sized dish as it was about two-thirds of the price of everything else on the menu, but when it came out, it was huge! Perhaps I’ve found one of the few places who actually set their prices according to what the meal costs to make. As it was so cheap, I ordered a side of sweet potato fries, which were perfectly crispy and moreish. The risotto was deliciously creamy, and seasoned well. The rocket added a freshness and the peppers were still a little crunchy, which gave a nice texture to the dish. They were generous with the amount of veggies, unlike many places where you find yourself served up a stodgy bowl of 95% rice. There is nothing super fancy about it, but this comforting meal was actually even better than I expected, and it’s one of the few times I haven’t regretted ordering a burger when I had the option!

IMG_4629My sister ordered the butternut squash curry, which I’d tried before and thought it was really tasty, but we both agreed that sadly they haven’t got the ratio of sauce and rice right. It’s a big bowl of food but with a large portion of bread on the side as well, the dish could really do with a lot more sauce. It’s a very mild, sweet curry, so if you prefer something spicy this dish might not be for you, but it’s certainly something I’d quite like to try and replicate at home. I would definitely recommend trying the vegan falafel burger here too. It’s massive and took me a long time to eat (usually unheard of) and every mouthful was enjoyable. It’s served with the thin and crispy kind of fries that I love, and a house slaw – which is nice, but packed with onion, just as a heads up…

IMG_3901Vegans have a choice between two cakes for dessert, a fruity flapjack, or a dark chocolate and ginger torte here. I have yet to try the flapjack, but the torte is something pretty special, certainly the best vegan dessert I’ve tried out at a chain restaurant. It’s rich and creamy and very indulgent, with the flavours being spot on. I only wish other places would cotton on to how fab vegan desserts can be and start replacing the sorbet currently wasting space on their menus.

With lots of crowd-pleasing options for omnis and vegetarians too, this is a good one for keeping everyone in your party happy. Como Lounge is in Witney, so would be a nice place to recommend if you’re a student and your family are coming to visit, or if you have access to a car (although, it’s not at all tricky to get there by bus from Oxford city centre either). There are other branches all round the country though (I’ve visited in Northampton, Rugby, and Bury St Edmunds), so even if you’re not Oxfordshire based, I’d suggest checking out their website as there could well be one near you.

Review: Spurtle and Spoon at Barefoot Oxford

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I need to make a retraction. I wrote only a handful of posts ago that reviewing a bowl of oatmeal would be ‘a bit much’. I was wrong. This week I went for breakfast with some friends from work at the newly launched Spurtle and Spoon pop-up breakfast bar, hosted at Barefoot Oxford in Jericho, and the experience was definitely good enough to share.

The kitchen opened at 8am, and mostly due to being at the mercy of the timings of public transport, we were those super keen people waiting outside the shop front before they were quite ready. In any case, it gave us some time to consider what we were going to order – on offer from Spurtle and Spoon was a variety of overnight oat bowls, homemade granola, or sourdough toast with a couple of choices of toppings. Barefoot also have an absolutely beautiful display of freshly baked cakes, and when is cake for breakfast not a great idea? So that was an option too, and I believe they always have at least one vegan option, that morning’s being a very pretty looking courgette cake (see, it would’ve even almost been healthy!).

IMG_4480After a little deliberation, I went for an overnight oats bowl made with dairy-free milk, topped with raspberries, toasted coconut and a spoonful of nut butter. It said on the menu that it came with cashews, but I had an epiphany about four hours later when looking at my photos, that the cashews were in fact nowhere to be found. However, they were pretty generous with the toppings and as it completely passed me by at the time, I think I can let them off. The bowls were particularly Instagram-worthy, coming with a sprinkle of freeze dried raspberries and rose petals too.

IMG_4478It was a really tasty and comforting bowl of food, perfect for these spring/summer days when the weather isn’t quite sure what it’s doing. The oats themselves tasted like they weren’t sweetened, and when I make overnight oats myself I usually grate an apple or add a bit of dairy-free yoghurt, so it tasted slightly different from what I’m used to. The ample toppings mixed in gave it plenty of flavour though, and Becky said that hers topped with banana and cacao was really tasty too. These were huge bowls of oatmeal, enough to keep me going until 2pm (apart from a handful of strawberries as a mid-morning office snack, which I ate because they were there, despite feeling ridiculously full). I have a pretty fast metabolism, also known as greediness, so that’s quite unheard of for me.

With the oats and a pot of breakfast tea, my order came to a very reasonable £6.50. We all said we’d like to go back again as the food was great and we’d like to try some of the other options on the menu. I think we might make going out for breakfast a more regular occurrence, because it’s the best meal of the day in my opinion, and what nicer way to start off a day that has to be spent in the office?

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Review: Zizzi

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After my less than positive review of Prezzo last week, I wanted to show that it is possible to get decent quality vegan food from a chain restaurant. My family came to visit Oxford at the weekend on a beautifully sunny day, and I booked a table for lunch at Zizzi on George Street. My boyfriend and mum both eat meat, my brother is vegetarian, and my sister and I are vegans, and Zizzi is one place that we’ve found that has loads of choice and everyone is happy with their meal every time we go. I had suggested a couple of different places prior to my family’s visit, but my sister was really keen to go to Zizzi as she is in love with their vegan lentil ragu.

IMG_4445One of the great things about going to Zizzi is how easy it is, you don’t have to feel remotely awkward when asking for their vegan menu as they’re working hard to promote it and are regularly changing/adding things to the menu. To start, we all ordered one vegan garlic bread, which came with at least a whole head of garlic to the happiness of my sister, and another with cheese. They were a very generous size so two were easily shared by the five of us, and everyone equally enjoyed the vegan one. When our mains came, our very enthusiastic waiter offered the non-vegans cheese, adding ‘and it’s vegetarian parmesan’ which was thoughtful and shows again how they are aware of their customers’ different needs.

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I ordered the vegan classic pizza, which comes with Mozzarisella and ample choice of toppings – I went for mushrooms, spinach, and artichokes, which until very recently I’d never tried, and have now discovered a love for (if you haven’t tried them either I urge you to go for it, they’re great). I just love Zizzi’s pizza. Although the vegan mozzarella is a bit less stringy and doesn’t quite taste the same as dairy cheese, it’s just as delicious in my opinion (and more so if you consider the fact that no living creature was mistreated in order to produce it). My sister, Lucy, ordered her favourite dairy-free ragu. It wasn’t as mind-blowing this time as she remembered it, but I couldn’t tell you if that was down to the individual chef or how she’d remembered the dish, but she still said it was very enjoyable. It definitely looked tasty so I might have a go at recreating it at home. I’m inspired to make some homemade pizzas this week too, especially with the huge new range of cheeses that Tesco has just brought out which are begging to be tried.

IMG_44691Lucy had also been desperate to try their new vegan dessert since they announced it recently, a sticky chocolate and praline torte. Shortly after she’d ordered, a waiter came over to say unfortunately they’d just run out of the chocolate and coconut ripple ice cream it was supposed to be served with, so offered strawberry sorbet instead, which was fine. I had half expected him to tell us that the torte had sold out, because I’ve seen that happening quite often to people on vegan Facebook groups when they’ve visited; obviously the demand for this vegan menu is even higher than Zizzi anticipated, which is great. The portion size was generous and the torte was very rich, so Lucy had a little help from Jamie to finish it off. I think she was happy she finally got to try it and it didn’t disappoint!

Zizzi always have discount codes you can download from their website, and they also offer a student discount with NUS – 25% on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, and 30% on Mondays and Tuesdays, which makes it really amazing value. Our whole bill came to under £60 for two starters, five mains, and a dessert. The service was great and it was just a really nice eating experience. If you want a safe bet for decent quality food, or you have a party with a mixture of dietary requirements, I think Zizzi is a pretty good choice.

Review: Prezzo

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My boyfriend, Jamie, had a £20 voucher for Prezzo which was due to run out, and I’d found a code on their website for 25% off food, so we decided to visit their Oxford Castle Quarter branch for dinner last weekend after listening to a conversation with Toby Jones at the Oxford Literary Festival (which is fantastic, by the way, I encourage everyone to have a look at the line up when the time comes again next year, because it is a great event in our city’s calendar)!

I wasn’t actually planning on reviewing a chain restaurant so soon, but sadly I was pretty disappointed with my meal here, so I wanted to share my experience. There are many chain restaurants in town that offer fairly decent vegan options (Bella Italia, Ask, Zizzi, to name a few), so if that’s the kind of food you’re looking for, I’d probably suggest to steer clear of Prezzo unfortunately. Although Jamie didn’t order vegan food, he said he felt the same, so perhaps it’s the overall Prezzo experience that isn’t that great, rather than their vegan offering alone. I’ve been to other Prezzo locations and I don’t remember thinking it was quite this bad so maybe it’s not all branches, but certainly the Oxford one is probably one to avoid.

IMG_4300We arrived just before 5.30pm so the restaurant was extremely quiet. It was definitely partly the fact it was so early, but the atmosphere was uncomfortable, and having looked at the menu beforehand to find all of the main meals at £12+, we were kind of surprised that it felt pretty much the same inside as a cheap Pizza Hut – even though technically we weren’t really paying for the meal as it was on a gift card, it still somehow felt like a rip off. There were two other tables in the restaurant occupied and everyone was very subdued, it was just a bit weird.

I already knew I was going to order the vegan pappardelle, described on the menu as being served with ‘our mix of chargrilled vegetables, roasted red pepper tapenade, parsley, rocket and smoked balsamic dressing’. I can only guess that the couple of specks of grey grease on top of my rocket was supposed to be the smoked dressing! At the time I was concerned some sauce had dripped onto my dish from something else. I couldn’t really taste it. I didn’t get much flavour from the tapenade either. The pasta tasted and felt like it had been submerged for some time in a neutral flavoured oil. The ‘mix’ of chargrilled veg was in fact just aubergine and two slices of sweet potato, the latter which I’ve never had with pasta before and probably never will again. On paper the dish sounded really nice, so it’s a shame the execution left so much to be desired. I was still a bit hungry but we decided not to get dessert, as everything seemed overpriced for the quality of the food, so I ended up snacking when I got home!

I do want to say that the service was great – the servers were very friendly, attentive, and as you might expect at this time of day, the food came out really quickly. That being said, the food is definitely the most important thing for me, so the good service probably isn’t quite enough for me to give Prezzo a second chance 😦

I’d be really interested to know if anyone has visited the Oxford Castle Quarter Prezzo, or any other, and maybe had a different experience though – let me know in the comments what you think!

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Review: Brunch at GAF

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Going out for a proper brunch was a new experience for me. I love to cook and enjoy taking the time on a weekend to create something like waffles or pancakes at home, which I just don’t have the time to make during the week. I’m also a big fan of having (at least) three meals a day. Who are these crazy people who are choosing to forego a precious meal?! So I may have snuck in a small breakfast before going to meet my friend Lucy in East Oxford at 11.30 which, let’s face it, is almost lunch time anyway…

I’d thought about going to GAF since it opened, but was a little put off by a couple of reviews I’d read which suggested the place tries to be a bit upmarket and subsequently the portion sizes are quite small. However, the menu certainly looked pretty vegan friendly, so we decided to meet there. Lucy arrived before me and got us a table at the back; it was pretty busy when we arrived, and only seemed to get busier while we ate. The staff were very friendly and attentive. Our drinks order was taken as soon as I sat down, and literally seconds later, a second waitress came to ask if we’d like any drinks, and we explained we’d just ordered. When we finished our meal, the exact same thing happened again! It was kind of funny, but you can’t really fault them for making sure we had everything we needed 🙂

“Clearly it’s really important to them that we stay hydrated” – Lucy

I really liked the sound of a few things on their menu, particularly the porridge, smashed avocado on toast, and the GAF breakfast. Ultimately I decided that it would be a bit much to dedicate a whole blog post to reviewing a bowl of oatmeal, however nice that oatmeal might be, and I was feeling something hearty so I went for the vegan GAF breakfast, at £9. It was labelled ‘vegetarian with a vegan alternative’ on the menu, as it came with an egg. I suggested to Lucy (rather hopefully) that maybe they would put a bit of avocado on my plate instead. Alas, when I ordered the breakfast, the waitress confirmed my suspicions: “so you want the vegan breakfast – with no egg, yes?” Ah, that well-known ‘vegan alternative’ of paying the same price for less food on the plate.

img_4065When the food arrived, the initial sight of lots of white space on my plate kind of played up to my assumptions that this was the sort of place where you pay a lot for a little, but actually it was a really nice amount of food. Let’s actually get to it: I loved it. I will definitely go back here again, the food was delicious and well worth spending a little more than I usually would for lunch. The juicy field mushroom and diced tomatoes were cooked exactly how I would have them. There was a mound of rocket on top of the dish which wasn’t mentioned on the menu description, which was a welcome addition for me, but I know not everyone is a fan of its strong flavour. I didn’t miss the greasy hash brown that usually comes with an English breakfast at all and only wished there could’ve been a few more of the gorgeous caramelised sweet potato chunks this came with, but that’s just me being greedy I think. I could really tell that the smokey baked beans were homemade, and the flavour pulled the dish together. I saved the compote which came with the toast, incredibly sweet and aromatic (kind of reminded me of a Christmas candle…), for once I was done with everything else, and it was actually a very nice way to finish off the meal, kind of like having a pudding!

I would recommend GAF for a great vegan brunch. The menu is labelled really clearly and caters for different diets, making it a good choice for those with vegans, veggies, and meat-eaters in their group (sadly they had steak on the brunch menu, which seems bizarre to me). The cafe is open for dinner too and Lucy mentioned that they change up their evening menu every month or so as they like to use seasonal produce, so I definitely plan on paying another visit in the near future! Watch this space…