Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Big Bang

(Updated August 2015: The Big Bang has now closed.)

One might be forgiven for assuming that all the restaurants in the Oxford Castle Quarter are chains – after all, many well-known names are housed in this restored and reinvigorated ancient castle and prison. But The Big Bang (42 Oxford Castle Quarter, OX1 1AY) is a staunchly independent British restaurant that uses locally sourced ingredients, and is Oxford’s only sausage-and-mash specialist. In addition to boasting a huge selection of sausages, it also hosts jazz evenings and art exhibitions, and is helmed by a most effervescent owner, Max, who greets you personally and even sits down at your table with you to chat. Perhaps I am easily pleased, but when someone calls this soon-to-be-40, permanently-exhausted mommy a ‘young lady’ she is tickled pink. I loved the place as soon as I walked in.

The obvious decision in terms of food is the Big Bang trio (£12.49), which lets you mix and match from the extensive sausage repertoire. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I selected the wild boar and pigeon sausage (‘Don’t even ask, just be brave and try them out’, says the menu), the smoked bacon sausage, and the pork and apple sausage, with spring onion mash and apple cider gravy (£1 extra). The smoked bacon was my favourite, but the wild boar and pigeon came close. I goofed when I ordered the pork and apple sausage, which was more subtle and therefore overpowered by the other two; I should have gone for the garlicky Toulouse instead. Ah well, next time.

The Big Bang trio

I thoroughly enjoyed my meal, and am kicking myself for not trying The Big Bang earlier – especially during the summer, when they built a beach outside the restaurant, using 36 tonnes of sand and 12 palm trees, and had a Stay-and-Play session for children twice a week all summer long. I don’t know how I missed this, and I will be first in line next year if it happens again.

Here’s how The Big Bang rates for baby-friendliness according to my five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (for more on these, see my About page).

Menu: Since nearly everything on the menu is sausage, you’ll have to be adept at using one hand to eat a banger if you need to hold a baby in the other arm. But this is easily done (best technique: spear the sausage directly in the middle and eat from the ends to the centre – no cutting required as long as you can keep it on the fork!) Mash is easy to eat with one hand, and so are the peas and cabbage that come with each meal.

Space: The best space for anyone with a baby carriage is somewhere near the entrance to the restaurant; there are a few individual tables, which are your best choice, and there are also tables with benches, which could work in a pinch. Further into the restaurant, the tables are quite close together and there isn’t much space for a stroller. When the restaurant is full I doubt you could get one between tables very easily.

The Big Bang seating

Ambiance: The ambiance at The Big Bang is truly wonderful and service is stellar. As I approached the door, one of the Sausageers (yes, that’s what they call the staff!) ran to open it for me. The Baberoo received many compliments, and hilariously, my Sausageer and I were both instructed in Max’s foolproof method to tell a girl baby from a boy baby (it’s all in the eyes, apparently). When we went to visit the baby-changing facilities the doors were also opened for us without my needing to ask. And the homey way that the staff sit down with you (iPads in hand to take your order) while you choose your meal is very appealing. They have truly cracked how to be helpful and personable, and it’s obvious that they love what they’re doing.

Facilities: The baby-changing facility is light and clean and has enough space to move your baby carriage around. There is a slight odour of clogged drain; I’m going to put this down to the fact that the Oxford Castle surroundings are over a thousand years old. The changing table is a pull-down one of the narrower type and there’s no shelf for your changing bag.

The Big Bang baby-changing facilities

Feeding: We were offered a high chair right away, and my Sausageer also brought a plate and spoon for me to use for the Baberoo’s lunch without my even asking. The Baberoo ate her meal (brought from home) with gusto and tried my peas, which she loved. I didn’t breastfeed her on this occasion but if you are breastfeeding you can choose either a table with regular chairs or a table with benches, whichever suits you better. There are also a few squishy, cushy armchairs near the entrance, if you can snag one.

In total, The Big Bang gets a 7.75 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. Go during a weekday lunchtime to ensure that there’s enough space for your baby carriage, and revel in the fun and friendly atmosphere.

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Byron

I’ll never be known as the world’s biggest meat eater, but from time to time I feel like I simply must have a big, juicy hamburger RIGHT AWAY. This was one of those days, so the Baberoo and I headed to Byron (33-35 George Street, OX1 2AY) so I could treat myself while she napped.

I ordered the limited-time-only Le Smokey (£9.75, available until 31 October), which comes with basically everything I most want on a burger: crispy bacon, smoked Cheddar, crispy fried onions, pickles, and smoked chilli barbecue sauce. I waited a while to get it (the restaurant was not particularly full but it still took 20 minutes to get to my table), but then again, you can’t rush a good burger and Byron is not a fast-food joint. It was also cooked truly medium-rare, exactly as I had requested. It was delicious in every way. I gobbled it down like there was no tomorrow.

Byron Le Smokey burger

Even though I already had crispy onions on my burger, I made the gluttonous decision to order a side of onion rings (£3.25). I am a huge fan of onion rings and I already know that Byron does them the way I like: huge pieces of onion in with a nicely spiced batter that’s crispy but not overdone. Having practically inhaled the burger before the Baberoo woke up, I took my time with the rings while feeding her. I washed it all down with an A&W root beer (£2.95); oh, the memories of high school that beverage invokes! I haven’t found it served anywhere else in Oxford yet, so for me it is a rare treat.

Byron onion rings

I truly enjoyed my meal and will always go back to Byron, which I’ve loved since my London days. Now, how does Byron rate on the baby-friendliness scale? My five criteria (which are explained further on my About page) are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: Byron’s hamburgers are big and messy and that’s the way it should be. But they aren’t easy to eat with one hand while holding a squealing baby, as I can attest from today’s experience. The Baberoo woke up from her nap and absolutely refused to sit anywhere but my lap, so I had to hold her while eating. Luckily I had devoured most of the burger already, which meant I could use a fork for the rest, but there is no way you could start on one of these without the use of both hands. There are salads on the menu. The salads look good. But come on, who goes to a place that makes such good burgers and then orders the salad? Do yourself a favour and go when your baby is either napping or in a good enough mood to sit in a high chair so you can use both hands to pick up your burger.

Space: There’s a fair amount of space in the restaurant at lunchtime; you can definitely fit a baby carriage next to a table with no problem. The staff were helpful in selecting a table for me close to the baby-changing facilities and in a location where I wouldn’t be blocking anyone’s way with the buggy. It wouldn’t be suitable for more than one pram at a table, though, and if there are more people in the restaurant it could begin to be a tight squeeze.

Byron restaurant interior

Ambiance: The staff were extremely friendly and helpful with both the baby-changing and the high chair. The restaurant itself is open and welcoming. There are skylights but the general ambiance, especially in the back, is slightly dim, which is great if your baby is napping. There is catchy music playing in the background but not loud enough to wake a sleeping baby.

Facilities: The baby-changing facility requires a key to get in, but the staff will let you know where that is so you can use the room at any time. It’s clean and large enough to manoeuvre your stroller inside. There’s a pull-down changing table, although no shelf for your bag.

Byron baby-changing facilities

Feeding: Byron has several types of chairs at its tables so you can request a table that has chairs that look comfy to you. There’s also bench seating and padded booth seats. I was in a booth but the table was a little close to the seat so it might have been difficult to hold the Baberoo while breastfeeding; however, I didn’t breastfeed her on this occasion so I can’t say for sure. There are high chairs for babies who are eating food, although the Baberoo rejected the chair and made me sit her on my lap while she dropped mango and rice cakes all over me. We did not look elegant while we ate; thank goodness Byron isn’t the kind of place where that’s necessary.

In total, Byron rates a 7.0 out of 10 on the baby-friendliness scale. Because of the messiness of burgers in general, make sure you will have both hands free or go with someone else so you can swap the baby back and forth while you enjoy your meal.

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Fishers Restaurant

The Baberoo’s Gran took us out for lunch this week at Fishers Restaurant (36/37 St Clements Street, OX4 1AB). Oxford is a landlocked city so it’s not the first place you’d think of for a fish restaurant, but Fishers has its own carriage company which delivers fish from Cornwall on the day of catch. The lunch and early evening menu is served from 12-2:30 and 6-7 pm every day of the week and is £8.95 for two courses or £11.50 for three, which is cheap as chips (or should I say fish and chips?).

I had two courses because I can never manage three, although I wished I could have because the starters looked lovely. My mother-in-law enjoyed her starter of crispy squid with roasted garlic mayonnaise. For our mains we both ordered the hake fillet with roasted root vegetables and basil pesto. The fish was succulent and moist and paired well with the pesto.

Fishers Restaurant hake

My choice for dessert was the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce. The pudding was light and spongy, all the better with which to soak up the deliciously sticky sauce. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and would certainly go back again.

Fishers Restaurant sticky toffee pudding

Rated against my scoring system for baby-friendliness, which encompasses the five elements of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more details about each of these are available on my About page), here’s how Fishers fares:

Menu: The lunch and early evening menu has three options for each course; it’s a constantly changing menu so there’s no guarantee of which dishes you’ll get to choose from, but the starters and desserts on the day we went would all have been easy to eat with one hand while holding a baby in the other arm. One of the mains will always be fish, so it’s likely that it can be eaten using only one hand as well. Other mains may include a seafood or meat dish that might not be as easily eaten with one hand. But given the tight menu, it’s got quite a lot to choose from with regards to ease of eating while holding a baby.

Space: One of the reasons I’d never ventured into Fishers before was because of the revolving door. I needn’t have worried, because as soon as they saw me trying to get in the staff were very helpful and pushed the door slowly so I could navigate the space. Even my very large baby carriage fit through just fine, although there wouldn’t be enough space for a twin pushchair. The interior of the restaurant has plenty of tables with regular chairs and bench seating; there’s enough space in most areas to put a pram at a table, although I don’t think a group of parents with baby carriages would be able to fit comfortably.

Fishers Restaurant interior

Ambiance: Cheerily nautical: fishing ropes, lifebuoys, nets, and other fish-related paraphernalia adorn the restaurant; the kitchen even has portholes for windows. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly with the Baberoo and service was top-notch. We were offered the choice of two different kinds of high chairs and the Baberoo enjoyed sitting in hers and ripping up the paper tablecloth covers. There are also crayons available so toddlers and older children can amuse themselves.

Facilities: Fishers doesn’t have any baby-changing facilities, but staff did offer me a space on a bench to change the Baberoo (although we waited until we got home). They are currently looking into installing a changing table in one of the bathrooms, but – as with many Oxford buildings of a certain age – the toilets are extremely small and there aren’t many changing tables that can fit into the space. Still, it’s great that they are looking into it. If they manage to find one that fits into the space, you still won’t be able to bring your baby carriage in with you because of the size of the entry to the toilets, so you’ll have to leave it at your table.

Fishers Restaurant toilets

Feeding: The Baberoo ate a meal sitting in her high chair and had a whale of a time throwing oatcakes and peaches on the floor. If I had wanted to breastfeed her I would have been able to choose between a regular chair or a bench. Both would have been fine, although they are unpadded so they wouldn’t be as comfortable as in some other places.

Fishers Restaurant scores a 6.75 out of 10 for baby-friendliness and would have scored higher if they’d had baby-changing facilities. This number is no reflection on the food, which I rate much more highly. If you are a fish lover this is a great place to visit, and the lunch deal simply can’t be beat.

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Ashmolean Dining Room

I am a museum lover. I’ve worked in the sector for 12 years (although I’m currently on hiatus while I work as a stay-at-home mom) and I have always thought bringing children to museums is a great thing to do from even the earliest age. The Baberoo has enjoyed several visits to the Ashmolean already, and on our last visit I decided to try out the Dining Room while she napped.

The Ashmolean Dining Room (Beaumont Street, OX1 2PH) is the swankier of the two eateries at the museum; I’ll review the downstairs café separately sometime in the future. The Dining Room is on the top floor of the museum and boasts an outdoor terrace with views of Oxford’s dreaming spires. It has a menu of fresh seasonal ingredients, using local suppliers where possible. I ordered the guinea fowl with cavolo nero (black cabbage) and sauteed potatoes (£14.50) along with a Fentiman’s Lemonade (£2.95). The guinea fowl was moist and tender, as were the vegetables. Sitting on the rooftop was a thrilling experience – not necessarily for the views, which were partially obscured by potted plants, but because it’s October and it was still warm enough to sit outside and enjoy the sun.

Ashmolean Dining Room guinea fowl

For dessert I ordered the chilli and caramel roasted pineapple with sweet ginger crème anglaise (£5). While the pineapple was nice, it didn’t have the truly caramelized flavour I was hoping for, and the caramel sauce itself was too thin. The chilli, caramel, and ginger were competing rather than complementing each other. I should have gone for the salted caramel cheesecake instead. Still, I had an enjoyable meal and the Baberoo only woke up as I was finishing my dessert, so I had a little time to myself.

Ashmolean Dining Room roasted pineapple

Let me digress a little and talk about the museum in regards to babies for a moment before I get down to reviewing the baby-friendliness of the Dining Room. The Ashmolean has quite a comprehensive family programme, encompassing downloadable museum trails, free summer activities for kids, an Activity Station near the entrance to the museum, and free year-round drop-in creative sessions, as well as free entry to special exhibitions for kids under 18. More information is available on the Family Events page. There are several choices for under-5s (so it’s great if you’re bringing a toddler or pre-schooler along with your babe-in-arms), although I don’t think babies would be old enough to enjoy any of the activities. I would say the museum is mainly kid-friendly rather than baby-friendly. Still, even babies can enjoy the spectacular art and archaeology collections if you take them round the museum.

Now, how does the Ashmolean Dining Room rate on the baby-friendliness scale? In my reviews of eateries I look at five elements: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding, all of which are explained in detail on my About page.

Menu: The menu is quite small and changes regularly, so I can’t predict how many dishes will be available for you to eat with one hand while you hold a baby in the other arm – but going by the menu on the day I visited, there were a few options (charcuterie platter, fish, soup, salad) that could be eaten with one hand. The mains, however, generally require both hands to be free.

Space: The terrace is quite large and has lots of space between tables. The dining room itself has less space, although certainly you could fit a baby carriage at a table. More than one parent with a baby carriage, though, and you’re probably out of luck. This is not necessarily because of the amount of space in the restaurant, but because of the inconvenience of getting in and out. Unfortunately, only one lift in the museum goes to the fourth floor where the restaurant is located, and this lift is in constant use. I got off on the wrong floor on the way down and then had to wait – I kid you not – 10 minutes for the lift to come back again without having too many people or trolleys in it. There was a wheelchair user waiting behind me and luckily we both managed to squeeze in, otherwise she’d have been waiting even longer. The museum is accessible, but it’s not necessarily easily accessible.

Ashmolean Dining Room terrace

Ambiance: The Ashmolean Dining Room has beautiful tables and seating; it’s a very pleasant place to be, as is the rooftop terrace. The staff are friendly and offer high chairs for babies. I didn’t see any other babies or children there during my visit; I think probably parents who bring their kids to the museum choose the downstairs cafe instead because it’s cheaper and easier to get to. That said, there is a kid-friendly menu at the Dining Room.

Ashmolean Dining Room interior

Facilities: There’s a baby-changing facility in the disabled toilet right outside the entrance to the Dining Room. The room is clean and bright and the pull-down changing table is a good size. There’s no shelf to put your changing bag near the changing table, but there’s a low ledge behind you which might do for a place to set your bag down.

Ashmolean Dining Room baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I didn’t do any feeding on this occasion because the Baberoo was napping for most of it. I would have felt more comfortable on an indoor seat than an outdoor one if I’d been breastfeeding, but if I had been using a high chair for her it wouldn’t have mattered whether it was inside or outside. There are regular chairs and bench seating (and a few comfy chairs right at the entrance to the restaurant) so there are different choices for breastfeeding in comfort.

In my book the Ashmolean Dining Room gets a 7.25 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. It’s not necessarily easy to get to, and it’s not inexpensive, but if you’re feeling like treating yourself to something fancy you’ll enjoy yourself here.

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Las Iguanas

Now that the Baberoo is over her two-week cold (it was her first one, and it was a doozy!), we’ve resumed our usual schedule of going out, having fun, and generally swanning around town. Our first stop today was Las Iguanas (40-41 Park End Street, OX1 1JD) for a Latin-inspired lunch.

The Baberoo ate rice cakes from home (while sitting in a restaurant high chair for the very first time! I don’t know why I waited so long to try her in one; it worked great!) and I ordered the Gringas, a bean and cheese quesadilla with smoked chicken topping (£5.50). It was spicy and cheesy, and paired well with my Apple Mojo-less (£3.10), a sweet and refreshing version of a mojito. Those of you who have read my reviews so far know that I’m an aficionado of the virgin mojito, so I order it everywhere I can. The one at Las Iguanas is quite sweet compared to others, but I like it that way. It was a very satisfying lunch.

Las Iguanas Chicken Gringas

But I didn’t stop there, because I saw the Creamy Caramel Cake (£5) on the menu. Even more than I love a mojito I love a Tres Leches cake, so I ordered it. Reader, I gobbled it down so fast that I forgot to take a picture! Many apologies. It was a lovely and delicious cake, steeped in creamy, milky sauce, and it didn’t go overboard on sweetness, which this type of cake sometimes does. I think it was gone in 20 seconds.

So, I definitely enjoyed my meal – but how did Las Iguanas rate on the baby-friendliness scale? I rate eateries on five points: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (for more details about my system please see my About page.)

Menu: A lot of Latin American food is somewhat messy to eat and requires both hands (enchiladas and burritos, for example), but there are several things on the lunch menu that can be eaten one-handed if you’re holding a baby. Salads and starters are good choices, but the meatballs and chilli would also work. Now that the Baberoo is big enough and less fussy than she was when she was an infant, I’ll be seating her in a high chair so I have both hands free – but for those with younger babies or those who need a parent’s comforting arms, there’s enough here for you to be able to order something.

Space: Las Iguanas is a large restaurant with many sections, including an outdoor terrace overlooking Castle Mill Stream. We arrived just after it opened so there was plenty of space between tables to manoeuvre the baby carriage; when it’s fuller I think it would still have enough space to manage getting through without any problems. However, I think that at lunchtimes there’s generally a lot of space available; it’s much more crowded on evenings and weekends. I’ve been here before on a weekday with my NCT friends and we sat four strollers around an area with sofas and had plenty of room to ourselves.

Las Iguanas interior

Ambiance: We had a wonderful staff member serve us – she immediately offered a high chair for the Baberoo and chatted to her every time she came to our table. Staff were also considerate enough to come warn us that they were going to test the fire alarm system. It ended up making no difference to the Baberoo; she hardly registered it at all, perhaps because it was masked by the restaurant’s cheery stream of Latin music, which we were both happily bopping along to during our lunch. (Don’t expect your baby to nap – the volume isn’t deafening but the music is catchy!)

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities at Las Iguanas are clean and tidy, and the bright red walls make for a change from the usual dull white bathroom. The lighting is too dim, though, and makes it difficult to see what you’re doing. There’s a pull-down changing table, but no counter to put your bag on. The room is narrow, so although there’s a lot of space it might be tricky to manoeuvre a bigger pram.

Las Iguanas baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I didn’t breastfeed the Baberoo this time but I have in the past and it was fine. There are many types of seating to choose from: regular chairs, higher stools, bench seating, and sofas, so if you’re breastfeeding you can take your pick of what would be most comfortable for you.

All in all, Las Iguanas scores an 8.0 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. It’s a good choice for an inexpensive weekday lunch with Latin American flavour, and you’ll have plenty of room for your stroller.

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