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Brookes Restaurant

Oxford Mommy turned 40 today. Yup, FORTY. I thought I’d be dreading it but actually I was quite gleeful. I had a great decade in my 30s and I’m looking forward to another one as I enter my 40s. To celebrate, the Baberoo, her Daddy, Gran, Grandpa and I all went out to Brookes Restaurant (Oxford Brookes University, Headington Campus, Gipsy Lane, OX3 0BP). I’ve been wanting to try this place for ages, especially since Oxford Daddy is a lecturer at Brookes and I’ve passed the restaurant countless times on the way to visit him at his office.

The Brookes Restaurant is part of the university’s School of Hospitality Management, so the students work alongside professionals in the restaurant as part of their training. The menu changes monthly to reflect the seasons and the dishes showcase British ingredients from artisan producers. Because it’s part of the hospitality course, Brookes Restaurant is only open on weekdays from 12 to 2 pm. It’s also one of the only restaurants in the area – it’s in Headington but not near any of the other eateries or main shopping area. But if you enjoy fine dining it is definitely worth going.

For my starter, I chose the Oxfordshire asparagus trifle, which was a mousse topped with a brilliant green jelly, fresh asparagus pieces, pea shoots, and a Spenwood cheese straw. It was refreshing and springy, a perfect beginning to the meal.

Brookes restaurant asparagus trifle

My main was the Gloucestershire rump of lamb, which was meltingly tender and juicy. It was served with roast onion puree, spinach and wild garlic, turnips glazed in red wine, and a mystery croquette that was tasty but didn’t appear on the menu, and I forgot to ask what it was! The whole dish was delicious and also nicely presented.

Brookes restaurant lamb

With giddy disregard for our waistlines, we ordered dessert too – since a 3-course lunch is an unbelievably cheap £15.95 (it’s £13.95 for two courses if you are being more restrained). I chose the brioche bread and butter pudding with apricot ice cream, which was unlike any other bread and butter pudding I’ve had. It was much less stodgy, but it was extremely sweet because it contained so many apricots. It was a nice finish to the meal, but if I’d had it on its own I think it would have been too sweet for me. Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of it before I started eating!

The Baberoo had her own lunch brought from home, since we had checked out the menu before and we didn’t think that any of the options would appeal to her toddler palate, but she did eat quite a good amount of the pre-meal bread and some of the vegetables we passed her from our plates, without too much landing on the floor. I think we did try her patience by having a leisurely lunch of three courses, but she did pretty well while we were there and then immediately conked out in the stroller on the way home. Be warned that it does take a while between courses, so do try to engineer your lunch to coincide with naptime or plan ahead with snacks to stave off a baby-boredom crisis.

We enjoyed the food and I had a lovely birthday celebration. Now, how does Brookes Restaurant rate for baby-friendliness? My criteria, as explained on my About page, are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The Brookes Restaurant menu changes monthly and is clearly posted on their website, so you can have a look at the options in advance and see if there is anything that you are able to eat one-handed in case your baby needs to be held. Sometimes there may not be anything that’s suitable for one-handed eating. On the May menu there was one starter and one main that I would say could be eaten if you were holding a baby in the other arm, but for the most part the dishes will require both knife and fork.

Space: There is a huge amount of space between tables – more than I’ve ever seen at any other restaurant. This is fantastic for getting through the restaurant with a stroller. There is plenty of space to park a buggy anywhere around most tables and there’s also lots of space elsewhere; we parked ours under the specials board. The Baberoo enjoyed toddling around the restaurant exploring some of the vacant tables and looking out the plate-glass windows.

Brookes restaurant interior

Ambiance: There is certainly a fine-dining vibe in the restaurant, but it’s definitely not a snooty one. Staff were pleasant and helpful and spent a long time chatting to our party about how the restaurant works and some of the cooking techniques that were used for our meals. They were friendly with the Baberoo, who was really enjoying flashing her toothy grin at everyone who passed by our table.

Brookes restaurant interior 2

Facilities: Brookes Restaurant doesn’t have a baby-changing facility yet. They are in the process of ordering a baby-changing table, which will be installed in the disabled toilet. They did offer us a private space for baby-changing, but as it was within earshot of the restaurant diners and the Baberoo sometimes loudly protests any changing session, I thought it wiser to wait until we were home.

Feeding: The restaurant was quite happy to have us bring our own food for the Baberoo. We were also asked if we would like anything for her (in the way of side vegetables, etc), but we decided that we would just give her some of ours. Her high chair was already set up before we arrived; it was a nice wooden one with a higher back than usual, which gave extra support. If you’re breastfeeding, there are some comfy-looking bucket chairs at the entrance. The chairs at the dining tables are also padded and comfortable, and there are also some bench seats if you prefer.

For baby-friendliness, Brookes Restaurant gets a 6.75 out of 10. That score will improve once they get a baby-changing table installed, and it certainly is no reflection upon the food, which was excellent. If you are interested in fine dining at a reasonable price this is one of Oxford’s top places to go.

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Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Washington DC

Our trip to America with the Baberoo began with 36 hours in New York, then continued on to Princeton, NJ. We left Oxford Daddy there for the week while he did his archival research, and the Baberoo and I took a train trip to Washington DC to visit my sister. I had never been to Washington before but I had heard good things about both its baby-friendliness and its amazing sightseeing opportunities. And of course, it was great to see my sister and also to be able to sleep and eat in a real house instead of being in a hotel and restaurants all the time.

Hands down, Washington DC wins the baby-friendliness award when it comes to transport. The Metro, its underground/subway system, is fully accessible to all strollers (and wheelchairs), with elevators at every single station so that you can get from street level to platform without folding your buggy, even if it’s a huge one or a double stroller. Are you listening, other cities? Every. Single. Station! Just look for the elevator entrance on the street (a dark brown structure with a big M) and you’re on your way down to start your journey. Sometimes it’s a little complicated, with a few elevator changes before you reach your chosen platform, but most of the time it’s straightforward and easy to use. The signposting is also very good and the fares are quite reasonable – most of the time they were $1.70 or so, depending on the time of day and distance travelled. There’s even a section on the Metro website that gives you elevator and escalator status, updated 24 hours a day, so you can see if there are any outages before you travel.

Washington DC Metro

With such a great transport system, I nearly didn’t try any other ways of getting around, but for the sake of thoroughness I decided I better check out the city bus and the taxi service. The city bus requires you to fold up your stroller – which I didn’t know before I attempted to get on, but it does say so right on the door of the bus. So I folded up, but it would have been an easier journey if I’d taken the Metro instead. Unless you’re travelling light and can fold your stroller easily, go for the Metro rather than the bus. Taxis were fine, and not very expensive. It was easy enough to hail one from the street, although by mistake we got one that had been pre-booked by someone else! One note about being in a taxi or walking on the street: drivers in DC are completely nuts and will drive into the intersection even though they have a red light. Be very careful when crossing the street.

Washington DC is a very pretty city, especially in April, when the cherry blossoms are out. We were lucky and picked the exact week when the blossoms were most on show, and we also lucked out with temperatures soaring as high as 26 degrees. It was so beautiful and sunny that everyone seemed in a good mood and the sense of fun was heightened. We decided to take a walk to see the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. It was gorgeous, but there were so many people walking along the same path that it was also really crowded and slow. Lack of  sunscreen and pretty hot weather made us turn around before we even got to the Jefferson Memorial – but we enjoyed the short walk anyway.

Cherry blossoms

 

We took refuge in the National Museum of American History, one of the many Smithsonian museums (all free). Our exhibit of choice was the First Ladies, which was an amazing look at the contributions made (and the dresses worn!) by Presidents’ wives from Martha Washington onwards. As a fashion lover I found it fascinating, and the Baberoo seemed to like it too – although, as one of the museum docents pointed out when we asked, there is really nothing for under-5s at the museum. The museum has two Family Rest Rooms where you can change your baby. We didn’t manage to make it to any of the other Smithsonian museums, but if you are planning a visit, especially if you plan to stay all day and see many of the museums, your first stop should be the Smithsonian Visitor Center, in the Castle, which is open 1.5 hours earlier than all the museums so you can plan your day. The Smithsonian is great for children and families, but the Baberoo is still too young to enjoy most of it.

We did find a very baby-friendly activity, however, in the form of Story Time… at the Library of Congress! I was so excited to find that the Library has programmes for even the youngest of audiences. The free Story Time for Infants and Toddlers takes place every Friday (except holidays) at 10:30 am. Roll up early, because they only have 50 places (including adults) and they hand out numbered admission stickers on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 am. If you are there early and have got your stickers, you can browse the collection of children’s books and play with the toys in the Young Readers Center. The Jefferson Building, where the Young Readers Center is located, requires everyone entering to go through the security system, so leave time for that, especially since you’ll have to put your baby and your stroller through the metal detector separately. Storytime is a fun half-hour with sing-alongs and some books read aloud by the librarian. You get a handout with the words to the songs, so you’ll always know what’s coming up – the theme the day we were there was Springtime. The room was a little warm on the day we went, so the Baberoo got a bit hot and bothered, but she enjoyed most of the experience and if we lived there I’d be first in line every week for this lovely event.

Story Time at the Library of Congress

We mainly took a much-needed break from eating out while we were in Washington – I do love going out to eat, but not twice a day every day for a week! – so we only went to one restaurant. But it was probably my favourite meal of our entire trip to America. We ate an early dinner at Founding Farmers, a restaurant showcasing American cuisine (and owned by a collective of American farmers) in eco-friendly settings. I ordered the Skillet Corn bread ($5) to share with the Baberoo as a starter, and we were presented with a huge cast-iron pan full of the lightest, fluffiest cornbread I have ever had. It came with whipped butter in a pool of honey, with sea salt on top. What a revelation! It was so good that the Baberoo, a big fan of corn and anything corn-based, wolfed it right down, although it was such a big portion that you could actually order it as your meal and not be hungry afterwards. Luckily, I had ordered us a main to share as well, and it was equally good. The Founding Farmers take on Macaroni and Cheese ($14) includes Gouda, Gruyère, ham, peas, and apples, and is a very sophisticated dish for such a comfort-food favourite. We both loved it, and there was enough left to take home and eat for breakfast the next day. The only strike against Founding Farmers is the lack of baby-changing facilities in its bathrooms, which is a shame because they could easily modify the disabled bathroom to include a changing table. Still, they do cater well for babies with good booster seats (that strap onto a regular dining chair) made by Stokke, so I felt that the Baberoo was comfortable and secure while she was eating – more so than with your standard restaurant high chair. Note: the restaurant books up well ahead, so make a reservation!

Founding Farmers

We had a wonderful time in Washington DC, and it was very easy to get around thanks to the brilliant Metro system. There were some opportunities for baby-friendly activities, and I am looking forward to going back sometime when the Baberoo is older so we can really appreciate the museums together. For now, I’m just happy to be back home in good old Oxford, so we can resume our regular schedule of testing the city’s offerings for baby-friendliness.

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Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Princeton, NJ

Our family trip to America began with a quick 36 hours in New York City, then continued on to Princeton, New Jersey, where Oxford Daddy spent the week ensconced in Princeton University’s Firestone Library doing archival research. The Baberoo and I explored the lovely Princeton town centre and found as many baby-friendly places as possible.

Princeton Campus

Our first recommendation is the Princeton Public Library. Reopened 10 years ago in a state-of-the-art building, it has an entire floor for children that includes books for all ages, an exhibition area, a special play room with lots of toys, and a separate room for storytime and other educational sessions. We visited three times in two days and met some very friendly parents and their babies. The play room was wonderful; lots of parents and nannies were using it with their babies and small children and the Baberoo enjoyed all the toys, while I appreciated not having to chase her around the bookshelves and re-shelve all the books that she would be pulling out. We went to the storytime session on a Tuesday morning and the presenter, Martha, was wonderful. We had to step out a bit early due to a diaper emergency, but that was OK because there is a baby-changing facility in the bathroom on each of the library’s three floors (in the ladies’ rooms; I’m not sure whether there is something similar in the men’s rooms). The changing table is right outside the doors to the cubicles, so when it is pulled down it obstructs the entrance to some of the cubicles, but other than that it works fine. The Princeton Public Library also has a café and lots of comfy seating areas within the stacks, which came in handy when the Baberoo was napping and I wanted to sit and read for a while. It’s a wonderful resource and if we lived there we would be there almost every day. I think it may be the most baby-friendly public library I’ve ever visited.

Princeton Library

Another lovely baby-friendly place we found in Princeton was the Bookscape at the Cotsen Children’s Library, located on the ground floor of the Firestone Library on the Princeton Campus. The Bookscape is a reading space for children, populated with topiary animals, a wishing well, and a hollow tree full of books to read. There’s also an activity area for free education sessions. Lots of comfy chairs and whimsical furnishings make this a wonderful space for both children and adults. We were the only ones there when we visited, so we had the run of the whole place. The Baberoo loved exploring all the nooks and crannies and having some of her favourite books read to her. There is a baby-changing table in the nearest ladies’ room (just off the main entrance to the Firestone Library), although it’s a small room and you won’t be able to fit your pram inside. The Cotsen Children’s Library has a space at the entrance for you to leave your pram, which can’t be brought into the Bookscape. Don’t forget to also have a walk around the Princeton University campus, which is beautiful.

Cotsen Children's Library

Our third find in Princeton was the fabulous Labyrinth Books (can you tell that we love books in our family?). This bookshop has a great selection of both adult and children’s books, and it has a small space in the children’s section with beanbags and some wooden toys for children to play with. The Baberoo loves beanbags so she had lots of fun, but she’s also at the age where she loves whacking books off of bookshelves, so we only had a short playtime. Still, it’s great if you want to sit and read some books before you buy (you will definitely leave with at least one book!). They also have a baby-changing facility in the women’s bathroom; it’s in one of the cubicles and it’s big enough to fit your pram in.

Labyrinth Books Princeton

Princeton also has a few baby-friendly restaurants in the town centre. During our few days there we visited PJ’s Pancake House (where the Baberoo had some macaroni and cheese, plus some of Mommy’s spaghetti marinara), Teresa Caffe (where the chef made the Baberoo a special dish of peas in brown butter – utterly delicious and only $1!), and the Blue Point Grill (where the Baberoo had some buttered pasta and then ate the side dish of rice that came with Mommy’s hazelnut-and-cherry-crusted tilapia). Most of the sit-down restaurants in town have high chairs and baby-changing facilities.

Blue Point Grill crusted tilapia

There are definitely some baby-unfriendly elements to Princeton, though. In the downtown area, which has been kept very pretty and only has high-end shopping, there’s no supermarket. If you want to buy fresh food like fruit and snacks that a baby will like, there is very little available. There are some great delis (Olives and D’Angelo Italian Market, to name a couple) where you may be able to find a few things that appeal to babies, but if you want a supermarket it’s in another part of town.

Our biggest problem, though, turned out to be where to stay. There is only really one hotel in the middle of Princeton and it’s quite an expensive one, so we went for the less pricey Hampton Inn, which is one of a string of about 20 hotels outside of town that are located up and down the Brunswick Pike (US Highway 1 South). Although it was a fine hotel and we got an absolutely huge room, we realized we had made a big mistake in picking our location. The taxi ride from the hotel to the Princeton town centre is $25, which means $50 a day to get into town and back. This is no problem for most visitors if they don’t have babies, because there is always a hotel shuttle bus that can bring you wherever you want for free. However, we found out upon arrival that the shuttle bus doesn’t take babies. It doesn’t have any car seats, and being a private vehicle it can’t operate by the same rules that taxis do (where you can just seat your baby on your lap). The Hampton Inn were very nice about it and were even up for buying a car seat to use in the shuttle bus, but then discovered that the law required the parents to provide the car seat and even be the ones who installed it in the vehicle every time the baby needed to travel, just in case there was an accident. What a litigious country America is! I would have been very happy to sign a waiver form every time we travelled, but it wasn’t possible. Car seats being the price they are, it wasn’t worth buying one there and just using it for a few days. And there was no alternative to taxis, because there are no city buses that run along the highway (there are hardly any buses in Princeton at all).

So the upshot was, although Oxford Daddy got to take the shuttle bus for free whenever he needed it, the Baberoo and I had to take a taxi every time we went somewhere. On one of the days she was able to nap in her stroller in the afternoon, but on another day I knew she would need to go back to the hotel in the middle of the day to get a good two hours of sleep in an actual bed, so I shelled out an extra $50 to get us back to the hotel from downtown and then back downtown in time to meet Daddy for dinner. That’s $100 that I spent on taxis that day, folks. It was most unexpected and it really put a dent in our finances. We did meet a couple of lovely taxi drivers, though.

I had heard that in America, especially small-town America, it’s assumed that everyone owns a car. In Princeton that seems to definitely be the case. If you’re travelling to Princeton, either bring a car seat with you, drive your own car with a car seat attached (hard to do if you’re coming from across the ocean!) or prepare to spend lots of money on taxis, because there is no other way to get from many of the hotels to the actual town centre. I can recommend Princeton as a nice place to visit for families, but it’s pretty tough getting around with a baby. It was much easier in our next stop, Washington DC, as I will relate in my next blog post!

 

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Jacobs Chop House

There is no greater pleasure than to meander around my neighbourhood on a beautiful spring day, pointing out the blossoms and buds to the Baberoo – who giggles and claps with joy to see such beauty – and then to continue into Headington for a leisurely breakfast. Today we tried out Jacobs Chop House (3 Manor Buildings, Osler Road, OX3 7RA), our newest neighbourhood establishment. The Chop House is the third venture for the partners behind Jacobs & Field and Jacobs Inn, and it’s a welcome addition to Headington, taking over the premises of the now-closed Cafe Noir (which lives on at Coco Noir just down the street).

I’ve given favourable reviews to both Jacobs & Field and Jacobs Inn, and I was hoping that I would enjoy my experience at Jacobs Chop House just as much. And I sure did. I ordered the steak, eggs, and spinach (‘Breakfast of Champions’, £8.50) and was treated to one of the best steaks I’ve had in ages, brought up to me from the basement kitchen by the chef himself. You might not expect a breakfast-dish steak to be as tasty and succulent as a dinner steak, but boy, was it ever. I enjoyed every bite, except for the one tiny corner I permitted the Baberoo to have. She was more into the eggs anyway: she commandeered them and I hardly got any. The spinach was served raw and was bursting with freshness.

Jacobs Chop House steak and eggs

In my book it is just fine to order cake no matter what time of day, and there was a pretty tempting-looking lemon poppyseed cake on the counter. It was nice and moist and the icing was excellent.

Jacobs Chop House cake

Jacobs Chop House, as the name suggests, revolves mainly around meat, and their menu offers lots of chops: lamb chop, veal loin chop, bacon chop, steak, etc. But there are also some other interesting dishes on the menu: slow-roasted beef short rib, grilled cod cheeks, and ‘London particular soup’, which I may well have to investigate very soon. I think it’s settled: I now have a go-to restaurant in my neighbourhood.

So, how did Jacobs Chop House rate for baby-friendliness? My ratings system takes into account menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: As mentioned above, the menu is mostly meat, with lots of chops that definitely require the use of both hands. So if you need to hold your baby in one arm, there are only a few large plates that you can comfortably eat using one hand. There are a few options available in the ‘smaller plates’ section of the menu. But still, if you’re going to go to a Chop House, you might as well go for the chops – which means making sure that your baby is either sleeping or happy enough to sit in a high chair so you can use both hands for eating.

Space: It’s a small space but it seems bigger than it is because of its high ceilings and clever use of mirrors. Still, there’s probably only room for a maximum of three pushchairs in the whole restaurant, otherwise there wouldn’t be room for anyone to move around. We used the lone table on the left side, near the counter with stools, and there was plenty of room for our quite large Uppababy Vista, but that was also because the place wasn’t full. I imagine that at lunchtimes, and especially dinnertimes, it can be a very tight squeeze. There’s more seating downstairs but unless your pushchair folds up easily it’s probably not an option.

Jacobs Chop House interior

Ambiance: This feels like a place where you could hang out for hours, nibbling at various plates, sipping a coffee, and just reading a book or talking with friends. It has an easy, relaxed feel about it. The staff were very friendly and our server asked the Baberoo’s name and was interacting with her the whole time. They were helpful in getting a high chair set up and opening the door for us to get in and out (although it’s a pretty easy door and there are no steps, which is great).

Facilities: Kudos to Jacobs Chop House for providing a baby-changing facility in what are some pretty tiny bathrooms – I had originally feared that there might not be a changing facility, but there is. It’s in one of the unisex loos downstairs (the one on the right), so you’ll have to leave your pushchair upstairs and walk down with the baby. The changing table is in a very small entry space outside the actual toilet cubicle. Remember to lock the outer door, otherwise you might get whacked by someone else trying to get into the bathroom. The changing table itself is a wooden shelf with one leg supporting it, very much like the one at Jacobs Inn but sturdier-feeling. There isn’t anywhere to put your bag and the changing table is quite small, and there also isn’t any access to the sink, which is inside the toilet cubicle behind a fairly heavy door. But they have made the effort and done a pretty good job with the space they have.

Jacobs Chop House baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re a breastfeeding mother, the bench seats will be pretty comfy, although the tables are quite close together so you may not get much privacy. The wooden chairs are fairly small but you could probably manage with them too. If your baby is up for some food, they need to be good with eating meat; it’s not up every baby’s alley so you may want to have some snacks handy. The high chairs are actually a padded booster seat strapped to a regular chair. It was the first time the Baberoo had used one of these but it worked just fine. (Remember to put the baby’s bib on before doing up all the straps, though!)

The final score for baby-friendliness for Jacobs Chop House is 7.0 out of 10. They do very well with the small space they have available, and the ambiance and friendly service makes it a place you’ll want to return to again and again.

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The Oxford Kitchen

It says a lot about a restaurant if I visit it twice in one week. It says even more if it’s on the opposite end of town from where I live and I still make the effort to get there. That’s what I did this week with the Oxford Kitchen (215 Banbury Road, Summertown, OX2 7HQ). I had been wanting to visit this new restaurant since it opened a few months ago – the menu looked spectacular and the reviews were generally excellent, so I wanted to see whether it lived up to the hype as well as to establish how baby-friendly it was.

My first visit with the Baberoo was for Sunday brunch; I ordered the full English breakfast (£10.50) for us to share. While we waited, the Baberoo enjoyed playing with the coloured pencils she was offered, dropping them one by one on the floor. When the meal came, she devoured the scrambled eggs – I hardly got any at all! – and also had some of the toast, which was a bit too crispy for my liking. The sausage was lovely and had that gooey stickiness to it that only slow cooking will produce. The bacon was good, and the grilled tomato was elevated to something special with slivers of garlic. My Earl Grey tea (£2.50) and a pain au chocolat (£1.75) completed the meal; the pain au chocolat was very nice but – like all pastries – would have been better warm.

Oxford Kitchen brunch

I could have written this review after our brunch, but I had already studied the à la carte menu and knew there was a ham hock with my name on it. There was nothing to do but come back for it. I was sneaky and timed today’s lunch for when the Baberoo was sleeping so I wouldn’t have to share anything with her. Poor kid, she missed out. The crispy ham hock with celeriac purée, compressed apple, and walnut (£7) was delicious. The saltiness of the ham and the crispiness of the breadcrumb coating went perfectly with the tart green apple. The celeriac purée was smooth and velvety.

Oxford Kitchen ham hock

Since the ham hock is a ‘small plate’ (you can have it as a starter or order several small plates to share), I also went for a beef burger (£12.95) as a main, because I seem to be on a burger kick these days. It came with a red onion jam, mixed leaves, and triple-cooked chips. Not advertised on the menu but also making an appearance on my plate (or, rather, my wooden board) were some onion rings. Folks, I haven’t been so excited to see fries and onion rings together since I was in high school and our beloved Canadian burger chain, Harvey’s, introduced Frings (fries and rings together so you got some of each). I am always thrilled to see onion rings, as you may know if you read my blog regularly. That said, these rings were somewhat disappointing as they had a bitter taste. It wasn’t the onions themselves, it was the batter. I’m not sure what happened there but I hope it was just a kitchen mistake. The chips were much better; you don’t get many of them but they are thick and fluffy and perfectly crisp. The burger was great; it had a certain amount of charring on the surface that might not appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it. The mixed leaves were miles better than the usual iceberg lettuce and the red onion jam was sticky and delicious.

Oxford Kitchen burger

It was a lovely meal and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Despite not being able to even finish the burger because I was so full, I was toying with the idea of ordering dessert, but the Baberoo woke up so I left well enough alone. Although I do think I will have to go back sometime soon just to order dessert!

The Oxford Kitchen is certainly one of the best places I’ve dined in Oxford. So how does it do for baby-friendliness? My five-point scale covers menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: Many of the ‘small plates’ on the a la carte menu can be eaten with one hand if you need to hold a baby in the other arm, although many of the main plates will need both hands, so you may not have that much choice there. The set menu for lunch/early supper (£10.50 for one course, £13.50 for two, £16.50 for three) may be a better option; both starters and at least one of the main courses are one-handers.

Space: There was lots of space for the Baberoo’s carriage at the table I chose near the front. There is less space as you go towards the back of the restaurant, although you can probably get a pram in at most of the tables. There is lots of seating upstairs but it’s not accessible with a pushchair. If the restaurant is full of diners it may be a squeeze to get through. The front door is somewhat heavy and it isn’t within easy view of the staff, so although they are happy to help you in and out, on one occasion a passer-by on the street had to help me get our pushchair in.

Oxford Kitchen interior

Ambiance: Couldn’t be nicer. The staff were fantastic. They asked right away about whether we needed a high chair, offered a colouring activity to help the Baberoo pass the time while waiting for brunch, and interacted with her whenever they came to our table. They also remembered us when I came in the second time. The restaurant is light and airy, with huge windows and a calm, relaxed vibe that is hard to come by in some fine dining places.

Facilities: The baby-changing facility is part of the women’s/disabled toilet on the ground floor. The pull-down table – one of the swanky metal ones – is in the entrance area to the room along with the sink, and there is a separate toilet cubicle. It’s all very clean and fresh-smelling. There is quite a lot of space in the baby-changing area, but if you need to bring your pushchair into the toilet cubicle with you it’s a tight squeeze. There should be a lock on the outer door, not only on the toilet cubicle door.

Oxford Kitchen baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you are a breastfeeding mother the wooden chairs will be fine, although the padded upholstered ones may not be great because they have arms that jut out quite far forward. For babies who are on solids, there is a children’s menu (£5 for one course, £7.50 for two) that has some kid-pleasing meals on it; most children’s palates probably won’t be refined enough to appreciate the regular menu.

For baby-friendliness, the Oxford Kitchen scores a 7.5 out of 10. If you want fine dining, there are very few places in Oxford that can outdo this one. Go for lunch or brunch while it’s still a bit of a secret, because when it starts getting more popular it’s going to be jam-packed.

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Gourmet Burger Kitchen

Sometimes Oxford Mommy just wants to have lunch in peace. Not that the Baberoo isn’t excellent company, but there are moments when I just want to read a book while waiting for my meal to arrive, and then to dig in using both hands without worrying that I’m going to have to stop eating and attend to her immediate needs and/or whims. With that and the craving for a hamburger in mind, I walked up and down George Street with her in the stroller until she finally fell asleep. Then, after a quick victory dance, I wheeled her into Gourmet Burger Kitchen (29-31 George Street, OX1 2AY) and parked us at a table.

While trying to get her to nap I had passed the menu in the window a few times, so I already knew what I wanted: the Taxidriver (£9.75), which comes with American cheese, onion ring, Cajun relish, smoked chilli mayo, dill pickle, and salad on a brioche bun. Naturally, I also went for a side of onion rings (£3.35).

GBK burger

Returning to my seat (you have to go up to the counter to order and pay), I pulled out my book to have a few minutes’ reading while I waited. My order came fairly promptly so I dove in before the Baberoo could wake up. It was a tasty burger, and although I’m not usually a fan of American cheese, it was exactly what was needed for this particular flavour combination. I think it would have been even better, though, if I had ordered it medium-rare instead of going with the standard medium (which is my own fault, not GBK’s!). But truly miraculous was the fact that the burger held together and didn’t fall apart while I was eating it. I’ve never seen a burger do that before. I don’t mind when burgers get sloppy, but I was amazed that this one remained uncompromised.

My lunch was satisfying, and all the more so because the Baberoo stayed asleep until I had finished eating. But how does GBK rate on my baby-friendliness scale? I look at menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: Mainly burgers, so you’ll need both hands free to eat them. If your baby is happy in their stroller or in a high chair, go for it! Or do like me and wait until they’re asleep so you know you’ve got your hands free.

Space: The restaurant is one of the smaller ones along George Street; I had expected it to be cavernous like many others but it’s actually more boutique-sized. This means they have to put quite a lot of seating in a small space, which doesn’t leave much room for a stroller. There are a few tables at which a pram might fit, but most of the tables are booth or bench-style and a baby carriage next to them might really impede the movements of the staff as well as the patrons who are going up to the counter to order.

GBK interior

Ambiance: The staff were helpful in suggesting a table where I could park the stroller with the sleeping Baberoo in it, and they came back several times to ask if I needed anything. The music is somewhat loud and boppy but that didn’t bother the Baberoo at all. Strangely, at the time we visited there were no children at all in the restaurant.

GBK condiments

Facilities: The baby-changing room was clean and fresh-smelling on our visit. The pull-down changing table is a good size. It’s equipped with a soft pad to make it more comfortable for changing, although I personally think the hard surface of the changing table is easier to keep clean. The room is big enough to comfortably fit a large pram.

GBK baby-changing facilities

Feeding: GBK has a junior menu with scaled-down burgers and other treats for kids. The Baberoo was sleeping so she didn’t try anything from either the kids’ or adults’ menu, but she probably could have devoured part of my burger for me. If your baby is new to solid foods there won’t be much on the menu that they can eat, so bring your own food from home. If you’re breastfeeding the chairs are wide enough to be fine, but there’s not much space between them; you might want a bench seat instead but the same lack of space applies.

On my baby-friendliness scale, Gourmet Burger Kitchen rates a 6.5 out of 10. It’s a small space for a baby carriage but the staff are helpful and friendly.

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Portabello

A little while ago the Baberoo and I were on a shopping trip in Summertown. It was a cold, wet, horrible winter day and we needed a comforting hot meal, so we popped into Portabello (7 South Parade, OX2 7LJ), which has recently refurbished both its interior and its menus.

I took advantage of the £9.95 two-course lunch special. As my starter I chose the cream of cauliflower soup with toasted walnuts. I’d never have thought of pairing cauliflower with walnuts, but they are a wonderful taste combination, and the soup had a perfect velvetiness that magically soothed away the irritations of the drab and drizzly day. The Baberoo ate the bread that came with it, which was perfectly fine but not of the artisan quality that I might have expected to go with the soup.

Portabello soup

My main was the osso buco with fried polenta. The osso buco was very nicely done and mostly falling off the bone – the Baberoo ate quite a lot of it. The fried polenta was too salty and didn’t add anything to the dish; it would have been better with a creamy, soft polenta that stayed in the background to let the osso buco shine through.

Portabello osso buco

Midway through the meal the Baberoo decided to have one of her most ear-deafening tantrums yet, for no apparent reason. There weren’t too many diners in the restaurant yet, but this meltdown was the kind that would soon irritate anyone within earshot. I had to gobble the rest of my lunch and get us both bundled up and out of the restaurant, quick. Back in the rain again, I regretted not being able to linger over my lunch in the calm and quiet atmosphere of Portabello’s dining room.

So, how did Portabello measure up to my five criteria for baby-friendliness? They are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about them on my About page).

Menu: If you need to hold your baby with one arm while eating one-handed, the regular lunch menu has several items that will allow you to do so. The regular lunch menu is somewhat more expensive than the lunch special, with starters running from £6 to £9 and mains running from £12 to £16. If you’re going for the special £9.95 lunch menu, note that it changes often so your ease of eating one-handed will depend on what is available that day.

Portabello interior

Space: The entrance to Portabello is a vast space, but the amount of room around the tables varies and tends to be somewhat small, especially around the bench-seating area. We used a table for four and squeezed the baby carriage into one of the seat spaces. It’s doable in some areas of the restaurant, and the way the space is laid out means that you don’t have to travel very far to get to any table so you won’t need to weave your way through the restaurant with your stroller. However, it’s not so good for groups because you wouldn’t be able to get more than one stroller at a table.

Portabello booth seats

Ambiance: Calm and quiet, with a mixture of sophisticated and homely decor. The staff were very friendly and helpful with the baby carriage and high chair, as well as with directions to the baby-changing facilities. The Baberoo (before her tantrum) enjoyed turning around in her high chair to catch the eye of the bartender and practice her waving, and he was a very good sport and gave her a lot of attention.

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities are in a smallish space, although we managed to squeeze our huge pushchair into the room anyway. The room is pretty and clean and smells amazing for a baby-changing room! The changing table is a good size. Because of the layout of the hallway, it may be hard to manoeuvre your pushchair into the room, but we had some help from our server, who was very kind and held the door open for us.

Portabello baby-changing

Feeding: The Baberoo ate part of what I brought from home for her and part of my lunch. She would have also enjoyed most of the kids’ menu, which offers a main plus a dessert for £7.50 (Sunday roast is a £1.50 supplement). I didn’t breastfeed while we were there and the chairs are on the small side, but the benches looked quite comfortable (though there isn’t much space around them).

For baby-friendliness Portabello scores a 7.0 out of 10. It might be a tight squeeze if there are lots of diners, but at less busy times it’s a lovely place to relax and linger over your meal – if your baby lets you.

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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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