Fiction Reboot: Travel Writing meets Food Review
As Tuesday’s Fiction Reboot concerns travel writing, I thought I would share an older post (but one that remains a most popular ‘hit’). I confess to be a bit of a “foodie”–and I love to write the sights and sounds and flavors of my restaurant experiences while abroad. Last year, I went to Jamie Oliver’s Italian in Oxford. After having a truly inspired meal, I wrote the following review–which (much to my surprise) has been linked to by other travel sites and food blogs. So today, let me encourage you to take your “writing utensils” when you ramble to the local restaurant, cafe or pub. But it isn’t fiction, you say–well, perhaps not. But then again, creative writing is multitudinous. Let your imagination mingle with the sights and smells around you. Create a journal not only of the places you have been from the outside, but also from the inside, the intimate space, the small table, the candle-lit dinner, the quiet repast.
Ramblers get hungry, too, you know.
Oliver Oil: A Review of Jamie Oliver’s Italian (Oxford)
If you are not familiar with the foodie world, the name might not ring a bell. However, if you understand the subtleties of cooking genius (think Anatole, Bertie Wooster fans), then you will know what a treat it is to go to Jamie Oliver’s. It is said that he hasn’t made quite the same splash in the US as in the UK, but he has a knack for excellent food–and his bent is simple, organic, fresh. I took my notepad with me to the restaurant (something which seems to get a server’s attention), and so I post the following review in present tense, just as I wrote it:
So here I am, at Jamie’s Italian in George Street, Oxford. It’s a tidy little corner shop, not huge, not that impressive architecturally. However, as soon as I walked into the place, I was rocked by the SCENT. You have been to resaturants, no doubt, where all the smells run together. Not so at Jamie’s. I can smell fresh basil, mint, a subtle hint that may be cilantro. There is a citrus note in the air–lemon, lime, orange. There is a warm, aged cheese smell, a mushroom smell. And something else, these are all distinct in here. You see, most of the prep happens where you can see it–bunches of watercress on cutting boards, cured ham hanging just out of reach (and over the heads of the prep chefs).
Feeling overwhelmed and spoiled for choice, I decided to begin with a drink. Alcohol, in my mind, come sometimes dull the senses, so I have chosen a refresher instead. It includes cranberry juice, crushed strawberries, elderflower, lime and soda, with a splash of grape to finish it off. Called a Tutti Fruti, it has a wonderfully summer flavor. I also ordered the bruschetta. The bread–a focaccia they make fresh here twice a day–is topped with oven-dried tomatoes, basil and ricotta. It was a difficult choice, as they also have a marinated mushroom bruschetta with lemon, thyme and garlic. I await with anticipation as I choose the second. What to have–mushroom friti? bocconcini?
And the food arrives…
Bruschetta: The server, noting my difficulty of choice, has brought both the bruschetta and a complimentary bocconcini or baby mozzarella. She is clearly a large-souled person. And the dish itself: a lovely presentation! The bread is layered on itself, the tomatoes are multi-colored and the basil fresh and green. It is topped, too, with a bit of watercress. The dish is simple–but elegant–and the CHEESE. I have had some grainy ricottas in my time, but this was creamy and smooth–almost custard like. I detect a hint of lemon, but that may be the taragon? Exceptional. I should also mention that the mozz. was delicate in flavor and perfect in texture–not rubbery but having just the right amount of resistant to the bite before melting on the tongue. Heavens, I love food when it is done well!
Alas, I am now faced with the difficult choice of main courses. They have everything from wild boar sausages to lamb spiedini. However, at an Italian bistro, one really ought to eat the pasta… Not that this is much simpler as there are many varieties at Jamie’s…may with seafood. As Mark would say, “cockles and muscles, alive-alive-o!” The spaghetti tossed with smoked pancetta and leek sounds divine. However, a true test of fine cooking, in my opinion, is not the pasta but the risotto. Still considered in the pasta menu, this is actually a dish of slow-cooked arborio rice…and phenomenally easy to screw up despite looking simple enough. So, on the recommendation of my server, I chose the wild truffle risotto and a small green salad (mostly to sample the lemon buttermilk dressing).
Salad and Main: Arrived together. The lettuce is nicely layered, dressed, and tossed with fine-grated parm and diced red pepper. A nice mixture of mint leaf and black pepper complete. The taste is light and herb-like; a bit like being outside after a rain. The dressing has a taste I cannot place, but it is very nice indeed.
The risotto was something of a surprise. The texture was not what I normally think of–it was not creamy or pudding like. This is not, however, criticism (though it might have been)–because it is an absolutely excellent dish. The rice, by retaining its character, lends a nuttiness to the flavor–and it is buttery and rich. Best of all, however, is the truffle infusion. Not overdone–not too strong–but full flavored and bathing each taste bud. Delicate, earthy. Wonderful, wonderful! I could eat three dish-fulls, but I won’t, because there is–of course–dessert.
Interlude: Now that I have a moment between courses, I should mention decor. While an Oxford sensation and number 1 on the list of places to eat here, there is a strangely down-home feel to the place. The tables are simple and unadorned. The chairs are actually aluminum varieties reminding me of my uncle’s “porch chair.” The napkins–unless I am very much mistaken–are dish towels (or tea-towels, you would say in the UK). The dishes are rustic, and even mis-matched. I don’t know if this is meant to capture the Italian-dinner-at-home feeling (which Oliver admits was his inspiration), but it is actually nice to dine out with so little pretense.
Dessert: Shockingly, I departed from my usual tonight. I am usually a fan either of the chocolate torte (and variations) or of panna cotta (something I often get when eating Italian). After discussion with the server, I decided on a delicate and yet flavor-complex item: the Amalfi Lemon Curd. Custard, but with additional firmness and a lemon zing, sits atop a biscuit base and is topped with fresh English rasberries, clotted cream and a healthy dose of crushed pistachio. I also ordered a nice coffee. These did not last long, though I did attempt to savor. A great end to a grand dining experience!