Going out to dinner is one of my favourite ways to indulge. I spend most of my waking hours thinking about food in some way, whether it’s planning a menu for my week of home cooked meals, thinking about how best to avoid disappointment in the work canteen, or giving into my garlic pizza bread cravings during an inevitable Saturday morning hangover.
There’s something really nice about the way we have evolved entire cultures around eating, and I love the way that there are communal public spaces designed for us to sit around a table and enjoy having a meal cooked for us – whether it’s a celebratory dinner, a catch up with a friend, or a romantic date.
|What’s a date night without frequent glances at BBC Sport?|
If a good chunk of my life revolves around food, it’s safe to say that most of my relationship with Fahad does, too. Cooking for each other, watching food programmes, gorging on takeaway, telling each other in rich detail about restaurants we’ve visited, or what we had for lunch – you name it, we do it. Food is so much more to us than just a series of ingredients we fill our stomachs with; it’s communication, comfort, love.
We try and go out to dinner together at least once a month, and although we make return visits to our faves, we usually try and experience new restaurants together whenever we can. When I received a message from him on Friday morning saying that we should go out to dinner that evening, I immediately knew exactly where I wanted to try.
Oxford Brasserie is somewhere Fahad and I have been before, but I had felt a bit underwhelmed by the experience (although my two mediocre courses were somewhat redeemed by a stunning lemon tart that still crosses my mind from time to time). It has a fair bit of clout in the Soton restaurant scene, extracting approving murmurs from whoever you mention it to. It also was recently named the best restaurant in the country at the British Restaurant Awards.
I knew I wanted to give it another go, and with my expectations in check, I wasn’t left disappointed.
For starters, the atmosphere on a Friday night was considerably better than it had been during my previous visit. Filled with a comforting buzz of excited chatter and clinking glasses, the restaurant had a relaxed, friendly charm to it.
From start to finish, we received excellent service. Our glasses never dipped below being full, we didn’t have to wait for our food, and our waitress gave us a heads up when there was only one of the dessert specials left, in case we wanted to order it.
One of the best things about being with Fahad is that our taste in food is so harmonious, which means that whenever we order a meal in a restaurant, we can share, and get to try twice as many flavour combinations! Nothing puzzles me more than seeing a couple dining at a restaurant where they order the same exact meal – I can’t understand why you’d limit yourself like that!
Anyway, between us we ordered the buttered chicken liver and foie gras parfait, and the moules mariniere. Both were delicious, though I think the mussels in their creamy, savoury broth, sopped up with fresh crusty bread, may have been ever-so-slightly more so.
Our mains were both fish dishes – an oven roasted fillet of cod, accompanied with Lymington crab bon bons, lemon bok choi and a curry butter, as well as a pan fried black bream, served with crushed new potatoes, peas, pancetta and a drizzle of lobster oil. Here, the cod was the better dish, with more vibrant flavours, although both pieces of fish were perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked.
Somehow, every time I visit a restaurant on Oxford Street, I have a dessert awakening. From a poached pear with mascarpone, to the aforementioned lemon tart, these are rare moments of enjoyment for a self-proclaimed non dessert person. And this time was no different.
I mentioned before that Fahad and I have the same taste in food, and that we usually share the things we order. I’m afraid this is not the case for sweet foods; he is a chocolate loving maniac, and I favour the sharp sweetness of fruity desserts. This worked out well for me, because my dessert of spiced poached pear with white chocolate panna cotta, Italian meringue and clotted cream ice cream was unbelievably good, and I didn’t even have to share.
There are three tiers to great food: flavour, texture and balance. Strong flavours are always the most significant part of a truly amazing dish, with one of the most unforgivable crimes in life being the creation of bland food (though this is yet to be reflected in our justice system, oddly). Texture is so important because it takes food from sustenance or fuel to an actual experience, a journey you go on with a dish. Don’t agree with me? Try putting your dinner into a blender and see how your shepherd’s pie smoothie goes down…
Balance is the most important tier of great food in my opinion, and the fundamental factor in transforming something that’s just nice into something that’s out of this world. It takes a lot of precision and thought to arrive at a meal that is perfectly balanced, whether it’s a balance of flavour, texture, richness, freshness, creaminess, sweetness, sharpness, or something else.
This poached pear dessert achieved each of these tiers, with fantastically bold flavours of sweet star anise in the pear; a perfect marriage of texture in the combination of velvety fruit, firm panna cotta, silky Italian meringue and crunchy chocolate crumble; all forming a deliciously balanced (and stunningly beautiful) dish.