Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cleaver

(Updated August 2015: Cleaver Restaurant has now closed.)

When the new Cleaver restaurant (36 George Street, OX1 2BJ) opened up last month just before we went on holiday, I made a mental note to visit soon after we got back. And visit we did, for lunch today.

Cleaver’s menu is probably the most pared-down, simple menu I’ve seen in a while: chicken, burgers, ribs. That’s it! (OK, there are a few salads and you have a choice of various sides, but basically it’s those three items, in various sizes). Nothing fancy, just straightforward meat.

Cleaver ribs and chicken

Of course, I got greedy and ordered the combo of half-rack of ribs plus quarter chicken (£10.95), along with a side of onion rings (£2.95) and some roasted vegetables (£2.95), reasoning that the Baberoo would be eating some of my lunch. She looked askance at the vegetables – more fool her, because they were delicious; full of caramelized flavour while retaining their shape rather than falling apart. I didn’t offer her any onion rings because, as you know if you read this blog regularly, I am an onion ring aficionado and will not share them under any circumstances. They were the big fat kind, surprisingly non-greasy (although I like greasy), and quite tasty, although not especially memorable. The chicken was fine. The ribs were very good indeed, although not the best I’ve ever had. The sauce was piquant but not too spicy, and the meat was tender and came easily off the bone. The Baberoo ate them so fast that I couldn’t keep up with her. She ate more than I did! If there had been any extra ribs she would have kept on devouring them.

So: the ribs are recommended by both mommy and baby. Now, how did Cleaver fare against my five criteria for baby-friendliness? (Menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding – more on these in my About section.)

Menu: Well, if you need to hold a baby in one arm while you eat with one hand, you’re pretty much out of luck here – you will need both hands to eat almost every main on the menu, with the exception of the chicken wings. You could try the salads and some of the sides, but the whole point of coming to Cleaver is to enjoy the meat. Wait until your baby is big enough (and in a good enough mood) to sit in a high chair and then you can order whatever you want.

Space: There’s a huge expanse of space at the entrance to Cleaver, and the tables closest to the door are also spaced pretty far apart. You could fit a few prams into the space if you wanted to come with an NCT group or a few friends with baby carriages. (In fact, two ladies with strollers were coming in together just as we left.) The tables further back are spaced closer together. There’s also a downstairs seating area and a bar on a mezzanine level five steps up. A huge leather couch, leather armchair, and low table form a sort of waiting area near the front of the restaurant, which I immediately co-opted as a play area for the Baberoo while we were waiting for our meal to arrive.

Baberoo playing on couch

Ambiance: Everything is wood or leather with plenty of salvaged-looking materials, and the space has a natural, warm and inviting aura, albeit with a whiff of chain-restaurant (it’s the fourth of the Cleaver restaurants, owned by the Prezzo empire). The staff couldn’t have been friendlier. Three of them snapped to attention the minute we walked in the door, and they were all absolutely charming. Our server asked the Baberoo’s name and then addressed her by name every time she came to our table. She was just fabulous. All the staff members were helpful and were obviously also having a good time working together.

Cleaver interior

Facilities: The disabled/baby-change toilet is up five stairs on the mezzanine level. I’m not sure how a wheelchair user would get up those stairs, but I left our baby carriage at the table and carried the Baberoo there. The pull-down table was brand-spanking-new and the bathroom was clean, although the lighting made it look a little dingy. The door lock was broken (I pointed it out to our server and she reported it to the manager). The space was on the small side, so it was just as well that I hadn’t brought the stroller in.

Cleaver baby-changing facilities

Feeding: There’s a children’s menu with pretty much the same meats as the regular menu, but at a cheaper price (£5.95 for three courses including main with fries or salad, dessert, and drink). If you’re breastfeeding, the leather couch or armchair at the front look eminently comfortable (although they are quite close to large windows so there’s not much privacy). There is also some bench seating as well as regular chairs; take your pick for what’s most comfortable for you.

For baby-friendliness, Cleaver gets a 7.75 out of 10. The staff were really great on our visit, and we’ll be back when the Baberoo gets her next craving for ribs.

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Branca

This past Saturday we had a family outing downtown to do some shopping, take care of some errands, and most importantly, go out to eat. We found ourselves in Jericho at the magic hour of noon, when – on weekends – one is faced with the delightful conundrum of whether one will go for brunch or for lunch. We chose Branca (111 Walton Street, OX2 6AJ), which had both brunch and lunch menus available simultaneously between 12 and 1.

I was in the mood for French toast with maple syrup and smoked bacon (£4.95). The husband ordered the full breakfast (£7.45). We looked briefly at the kids’ menu but decided to order the half-size penne with tomato and Tuscan sausage sauce (£7.65) for the Baberoo, since she has really been enjoying sausage lately (usually filching it from my plate).

The penne arrived along with the full breakfast, but there was no sign of the French toast so I continued sipping my tea (China pai mu tan white, £2.40). The Baberoo started in on her pasta, but unfortunately it was woefully underdone to the point of crunchiness. We pulled out the ol’ backup snack bag for her and gave her some food from home, supplementing it with some of the full breakfast – which, according to my husband, was fine but not exceptional.

Branca pasta

My French toast seemed to have been forgotten, so we asked for it again and it arrived a few minutes later with apologies from the staff. The bacon was very good; the toast was also tasty and, fortunately, not too eggy (too eggy always ruins it for me) but I wanted more maple syrup to pour over it. What can I say? As a Canadian I believe that whenever maple syrup is part of a dish there ought to be a giant vat of it available for extra helpings.

Branca french toast with bacon

The dining experience at Branca was all right, although undercooked pasta shouldn’t be happening at an Italian restaurant. Now, how does Branca stack up against my five criteria (menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding) for baby-friendliness? (You can find out more about my ratings system on my About page.)

Menu: If you have only one hand available to eat while you hold a baby, the brunch menu has more options for you than the regular lunch menu. About half of the brunch menu is easy to eat with one hand; the lunch menu has a few good starters, salads, risotti, and pasta, but you’d be hard pressed to eat any of the meat mains using only one hand.

Space: Branca is easy to get into with a pushchair, but there’s a bit of a bottleneck near the front where the bar juts out. Depending on how many people are waiting in that area, it may be hard to get past into the main dining space. The tables at the back of the restaurant are further apart than the ones near the front, so they’re definitely your best bet if you have a stroller. The first time I came to Branca there were five of us NCT buddies, all with prams, and we fit at the back just fine, and during this visit there were plenty of parents with strollers and/or young children. There’s a garden terrace with loads of space that is open in both colder and warmer months, if you prefer to sit outside.

Branca interior

Ambiance: Light and airy, the place gives off an aura of being simultaneously cool and welcoming. There’s a tree growing at the back, and a lovely view of the garden terrace. The staff are friendly, and although we had to ask for a high chair (they are the nice Stokke Tripp Trapp ones) and a children’s menu, they were helpful with our requests (which makes me kick myself for not asking for more maple syrup).

Facilities: The disabled/baby-change toilet at Branca is at the back of the ground floor, and although there are regular toilets downstairs sometimes customers use this one because it’s more conveniently located, so it’s quite busy. It is a lovely bathroom with a window giving lots of natural light, and it smells fresh and clean. The pull-down table is close to the door, where there is a hook to hang your diaper bag. The room is on the small side. I left the stroller at the table, but if I’d brought it in with us we’d have been rather cramped.

Branca baby-changing facilities

Feeding: Although the Baberoo didn’t enjoy her pasta, Branca gets marks for having a children’s menu (mains range from £3.45 to £5.25) with a selection that has plenty of kid appeal. They also apparently have a baby menu, but although I asked for this I got the children’s one instead. If you were breastfeeding at Branca (which I have done in the past) you might find the chairs small and awkward; they have arms that curve right around so that if your baby is larger than infant-sized it might be hard to get into a comfortable position. There are a few cushy armchairs and sofas right at the front of the restaurant, but be warned: the front façade of the building is entirely glass so you’d be on display for passers-by to see. Bring a shawl or cover-up if you want to retain some privacy (nothing wrong with baring it all, though!).

Overall Branca gets a 7.5 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. From the number of babies and children in the place, parents already know that this is a nice and spacious restaurant that is baby- and kid-friendly.

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The Magdalen Arms

From the reviews I’ve read of the Magdalen Arms (243 Iffley Road, OX4 1SJ), the foodies of Oxford (and beyond) think it’s either the best gastropub in the city or completely overrated. I had been looking forward to both trying the food and seeing whether it was a good place to take a baby. So the Baberoo, her Gran, and I recently dropped in for a weekday lunch.

We had the place nearly to ourselves – always nice when you have a baby carriage to manoeuvre, and also really handy when your baby is the impatient type and doesn’t like waiting too long for a meal to arrive. During the short wait I tried the homemade quinceade (£3); it had a nice sharp tang to it but tasted so much of lemon that I thought they might have misheard me and brought me a homemade lemonade by mistake. They hadn’t. Our server asked if I wanted more quince syrup added. I did, and the drink turned out sweeter and faintly quincey – but still tasted like (very good) lemonade.

For my meal I ordered the wild rabbit with chorizo, fennel, chickpeas, and aioli (£14), as well as a side of chips (£4.50). Although the chorizo/fennel sauce was flavourful it didn’t help tenderize the rabbit, which was too tough. The Baberoo was having none of it. She didn’t want the chips either, even though they were pleasingly fluffy on the inside with a delightful crispy exterior.

Magdalen Arms rabbit and chips

What, you say? You tried to feed your baby a dish containing wild rabbit and chorizo? Yes, we’ve done baby-led weaning with the Baberoo so she is a very adventurous eater; she will usually eat (or at least try) just about anything. That’s why I sometimes order a dish and share it with her – yes, even rabbit – rather than bring food from home for her or order from a baby menu (although I’m happy to do that too). If she doesn’t like it, we always have a back-up snack bag, which I had to pull out on this occasion. But when she does like a dish, it goes up in my estimation at having been pretty darn good. Unfortunately, I’d say the rabbit didn’t reach that level and I’d call it an OK but not great meal. I wished that I had saved room for dessert; their long list of offerings all looked fantastic.

So, now that I’ve come down somewhere in the middle (not loving it, not hating it) about the food, what did we think of the establishment’s baby-friendliness? I rate eateries against five factors: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. For more about these, please see my About page.

Menu: There’s a lot of meat on the menu and most of it comes in big hunks, so you’ll need both hands free for those dishes. On the day we visited there was a pasta dish and a few starters (soup and tapas) that could be eaten with one hand if your other arm needed to be free to hold a baby. The cod also would have worked. The menu changes daily and it’s not posted on the website, so you’ll have to go along and take your chances on there being something you can eat one-handed if that’s a necessity for you.

Space: The entrance to the pub isn’t terribly baby-friendly; there are three stone steps and then two sets of doors, so if you have a baby carriage you might need some help getting in. Once inside, you’ll have to manoeuvre through a space that’s quite full of (quaintly mismatched) tables and chairs. If the place had been full we might have had some trouble getting to a table.

Magdalen Arms interior

Ambiance: The walls are painted such a dark and sombre colour that the overall effect is somewhat dreary; I’m guessing it comes into its own and is much more animated in the evening. The staff, though, were very friendly and helpful, and enjoyed chatting to the Baberoo. Our server was happy to get us extra napkins and direct us to the baby-changing facility. They also have high chairs available (the Ikea kind, which I find more secure than the usual restaurant model).

Magdalen Arms interior

Facilities: The baby-changing facility is a pull-down table in the ladies’ loo, which is down a flight of four stairs. There’s a mini-lift for wheelchair users that I guess you could also use with a baby carriage if you wanted to bring it into the loo with you; I just held the Baberoo and left the carriage at our table. The pull-down table is in the main area of the loo, while toilets are in separate cubicles. Some chairs were set up underneath the pull-down table, which was really handy for putting the diaper bag down and organizing our things. The whole ladies’ room was clean and tidy.

Magdalen Arms baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding, choose a table that has comfortable-looking chairs. There are so many different kinds that there’s sure to be one that suits you; my personal choice, if I’d needed to breastfeed, would have been one of the padded armchairs of different vintages near the front of the pub. I was hoping the Baberoo would eat part of my regular-food lunch, but we resorted to the snack bag; I would say that the menu at the Magdalen Arms isn’t particularly kid-friendly (unless your child’s sophisticated palate is attuned to the tastes of, say, rabbit and pork rillettes, blue cheese souffle, or potted shrimps).

The final score for baby-friendliness for the Magdalen Arms is 6.25 out of 10. I would say this is a gastropub for the grown-ups to enjoy on their own rather than with their little darlings.

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Ask Italian

The Baberoo and I are back in Oxford after our holiday in Canada, so our 2014 adventures around town have begun! After a busy morning in the city centre, the Baberoo fell asleep in her stroller and I decided we’d stop in for lunch at ASK Italian (5 George Street, OX1 2AT).

I started with the small Antipasto Classico Board (£5.95, or £11.95 for the larger size), which included buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, two kinds of salami, rocket and tomato salad, and rosemary-sea salt bread with olive tapenade. While the meats were nothing to write home about (I couldn’t taste the difference between the Milano and finocchiona salami), the bread and olive tapenade were truly enjoyable. I finished the plate while the Baberoo was still sleeping.

Ask Italian antipasti

Knowing the Baberoo would want lunch as soon as she woke up, I ordered the half-size of Spaghetti al Pomodoro to share with her (£6.25 including a side salad, or £7.75 for the regular size without salad), but I switched the pasta to the gluten-free fusilli (which is available for any of the pasta dishes), not because we eat gluten-free but because fusilli is a lot easier for a little hand to grab. We’ve had this pasta dish before at ASK Italian and the Baberoo has enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that she was wearing a brand-new cream-coloured sweater I gave her for her birthday, and I didn’t have one of our impermeable neoprene bibs with me (top mealtime tip: neoprene bibs with sleeves – we use the Ultrabib from Bibetta – are the best thing ever). I put two regular bibs on her, sat her on my lap instead of a high chair so I could hold the bibs in place, and hoped for the best.

Ask Italian pasta

The Baberoo enjoyed her pasta until she suddenly decided that she was done and wanted to get down from Mommy’s lap Right Now, and with an ear-splitting scream started in on one of her delightful tantrums. These are a new thing in our household and I guess we’re lucky it didn’t start earlier (and I know it’ll get way worse in the next couple of years, because at least now I can still contain her squirming with only one arm, but wait until she starts punching and kicking…). But it still sucks when it’s in public. I got my first-ever ‘can’t you control your baby’ look from another diner (lady, I forgive you, but next time try to cut a mom some slack, ok?) and we left in a hurry. Ah well. She was her usual cheerful self five minutes later. Bonus: even with the thrashing around, we miraculously didn’t get any tomato sauce on the cream-coloured sweater.

So, how did ASK Italian rate for baby-friendliness? My five criteria are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: If you need to eat with one hand while holding a baby in the other arm, there’s plenty on the menu that you can choose from. Most of the pastas, risottos, ravioli, and salads would be OK to eat one-handed. The pizzas might be manageable, while the meat dishes and panini would be more difficult.

Space: We were there during a lunch hour that wasn’t too full, so there was enough space between tables to get a baby carriage through the restaurant (even navigating between other prams – there seemed to be a lot of babies there today!). If it had been fuller it wouldn’t have been as easy, and certainly I wouldn’t recommend more than one baby carriage to a table. Some of the booth seating – as I belatedly realized after requesting a booth table – is quite close together, so that might not be your best choice.

Ask Italian interior

Ambiance: It’s a chain restaurant and it looks like a chain restaurant, but it has nice enough decor and good tables and chairs, as well as a wall of drawings done by children (while they waited for their meals, presumably), so it’s not devoid of character. The staff are friendly and helpful and seem to get along very well with each other, always a good thing to see.

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities are easy to access, although in a room that looked quite big I had a little trouble turning the baby carriage around so that I could get it out of the way. The pull-down changing table (made of enamelled (?) metal) is unusual and even kind of pretty compared to the usual plastic ones, but it’s a bit chillier against skin so you might want to put a cloth under your baby.

Ask Italian baby changing facilities

Feeding: It was the Baberoo’s lunchtime so I ordered the half-size pasta from the regular menu, but I see from the ASK Italian website that there’s also a kids’ menu (which we weren’t offered) that has kid-sized mains for £6.25. They’re mainly pizza and pasta with flavours that appeal to children. If you’re breastfeeding, the padded wooden chairs look OK but are on the small side. Booth seats are comfy but awfully close together so you might be jammed up against someone else. With the number of babies in the place, I would guess that the restaurant would be supportive of breastfeeding mothers, although I didn’t try it myself while we were there.

For baby-friendliness I give ASK Italian a 7.25 out of 10. Judging from today’s clientele, many other parents already know that this is a solid choice for somewhere to eat out with a baby.

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