Bready, Recipes

Cider, Cheese and Onion Sharing Loaf – recipe

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A more-ish, irresistible loaf 

I love bread. I love making it, I love eating it. I also love cider. And cheese. And onions. So the next logical step was clearly to combine all three into a heady mix of cidery cheesey oniony bready joy. So I did. And what joy it is! Perfect for plonking in the middle of the table for lunch and letting everyone pile in and rip it to pieces. Or just scoffing yourself curled up on the sofa. Your choice really.

This is effectively like a savoury batch of Chelsea Buns – swirls of bread with the filling splurging out all over the place – and it’s pretty simple to do, if not a tad messy at times. The cider adds a wonderful flavour to the loaf and really compliments the cheese and onion filling wonderfully. If you like you can do the second prove in the fridge overnight to really let the bread develop a full flavour but it’s not essential. However if you do this, I’d advise proving the finished loaf on a sheet of non-stick baking parchment as it will stick fast otherwise…

Makes one loaf

Ingredients

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 300ml dry cider
  • 7g sachet dried fast-action yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 1 dessert spoon caster sugar 
  • 1 dessert spoon olive oil
  • 2 medium red onions, halved and finely sliced
  • 200g grated strong cheddar (you may not need all of it)
  • A few sprigs of rosemary, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper for seasoning
  • Olive oil (for frying)

Method

  • Place the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl and pour in the cider – it will fizz and foam as you mix it in – and add the dessert spoon of olive oil. Combine into a rough dough then turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. It will be sticky but don’t worry – it’s worth it.
  • Shape into a round and place in a well oiled bowl (coating the top of the dough with a bit more olive oil) and cover with cling film or a damp tea towel. Leave to rise in a warm, draught-free place for an hour or so or until doubled in size.
  • While the dough is rising, place a large frying pan over a medium-low heat and add a lug of olive oil (and a knob of butter if you like). When the oil is hot, add your sliced onions and soften gently for a few minutes then add the chopped rosemary and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook on a low heat for a good 10-15 minutes to really soften and sweeten the onions – stirring often to prevent them catching. When they are done, remove and leave to cool.
  • Once your dough has risen, tip out onto a work surface and flatten into a large rectangle – about 35cm by 20cm but it doesn’t have to be precise. The dough should be thin enough to roll up with all the filling and it may help to tack the long edge closest to you on to the work surface to help get a tighter roll.
  • Spread the cooled onion mixture evenly over the dough followed by the grated cheese – make sure you keep some back for sprinkling over the top of the finished loaf – then roll the whole lot up tightly.
  • Cut into 12-16 slices (this will depend on how long your rectangle is) and arrange each slice on a well-floured baking tray (or use non-stick baking parchment), spacing each one a centimetre or so apart. You want them to prove and bake into each other so a bit of space is important. If you are worried about everything unravelling just give each segment a squeeze and tuck – it doesn’t matter if it looks untidy!
  • Cover with either a clean tea towel or some oiled cling film and leave to prove for about 30-45 minutes (or overnight in the fridge).
  • Pre-heat your oven to 190c/Gas Mark 5.
  • Once your loaf has proved, uncover and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top then pop in the oven and bake for 25 minutes until risen and golden brown. Remove and allow to cool on a wire rack before diving in and devouring.

NOTE : If you are proving overnight in the fridge, allow the bread to come back up to room temperature before baking

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Bready, Recipes

Focaccia – recipe

Apologies for my absence of late – the end of last year passed in a haze of ale, roast dinners, and fine wine and thus blogging sadly took a back seat. Sorry about that Mr Blog.

But I’m here now and I’ve got a super-awesome recipe for any bread-lovers out there who fancy a bit of a challenge…

Are you ready?

Of course you are.

FOCACCIA!!!!

Focaccia is, when done properly, a true wonder of a bread and something that can make a real impact when presented, warm and fragrant, on any table. A soft, irregular crumb with a glossy olive oil top, speckled with flecks of rosemary and flaky salt, a bread that is deeply savoury and wonderfully more-ish. And not actually that difficult to make provided you are prepared to deal with a VERY sticky dough and give it the time it needs to rise and prove and develop. In many of the recipes I looked at when first attempting this bread, I noticed that most call for a slightly wetter (say 65% hydration – so 650ml per 1kg flour) dough than a normal loaf and go for a straightforward first prove of about 1 hour then shaping and proving again before baking. I’m sure this produces a perfectly fine bread but I was curious to know whether there a longer prove might improve both the texture and flavour (as is usually the case) so I contacted an excellent baker/Twitter chum to get his opinion. Aidan Chapman is a true master baker and has provided me with hints, tips, and advice for some years now and ALL of his advice has proved both invaluable and also delicious. He suggested not only an overnight prove in a cool place (I used a shed in the end as the box was too big for the fridge) but also a very wet (80% hydration) dough. He also said to fold the dough four times over four hours before leaving to prove – a technique that helps trap in more air and also give the gluten an extra stretch which results in a soft and wonderful textured loaf (I do it with sourdough and it makes a HUGE difference).

So all of this I did and the results were, well, pretty spectacular. I’m not going to lie, the super wet dough was a tad tricky to handle and if you want to make this recipe I would highly advise using a food mixer with dough hook rather than attempting to knead by hand. Unless you like sticking to everything in the kitchen and universe as you work in which case go for it. The dough remains pretty sticky even after the first prove so be careful when you cover it again for the last rise – use plastic bags with plenty of volume and oil the insides if you can. And of course, if you are too intimidated by the 80% hydration, by all means reduce it but you will be missing out. I promise.

So…

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After the long prove – look at all the bubbles!

Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients

  • 1kg strong white bread flour
  • 10g fast action yeast
  • 20g fine sea salt
  • 800ml water
  • 100ml olive oil
  • Finely chopped rosemary
  • Flaky salt
  • Olive oil for drizzling

Method

  • Place the flour, salt, yeast, and water in the bowl of a food-mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix on a slow speed to combine.
  • When the mixture has come together, add the 100ml olive oil and set to knead on a slow speed for about ten minutes until it is smooth and silky.
  • Scrape the dough into a well-oiled plastic container or bowl and cover with cling-film, leaving to rise for an hour.
  • After an hour, use a dough scraper to fold the dough over itself, trapping in the air and stretching out the gluten – this will give you the uneven, light crumb you want. Repeat this 3 times – each time you will notice the dough becoming lighter with a myriad of strands and stretches.
  • Leave to prove overnight in the fridge or in a very cool place.
  • The next day, let the dough return to room temperature and oil two baking trays – about 26x36cm. Make sure your trays are well oiled as the dough will still be very sticky.
  • Divide the dough into two and, with oiled hands, roughly shape into rectangles then stretch and squash it into the baking trays, trying to really push it into the corners. Pre-heat your oven to Gas Mark 10/250c.
  • Cover and leave to rise for another half hour or so. When the bread looks puffed up and ready to go, dot the surface with your fingers to create indentations to catch and hold the oil you’ll be drizzling over them. Mmm, drizzle.
  • Drizzle the oil generously but don’t drown your bread, scatter over the chopped rosemary and flaky salt, then bake for 10mins.
  • Turn the oven down to Gas Mark 6/200c and cook for another 10mins or until lightly golden.
  • Remove from the oven and cool slightly (about 10mins) on wire racks – focaccia is at its best when served warm.
  • Scoff and rejoice!

 

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Helen Browning at The Royal Oak, Bishopstone – review 

It is tempting, when you find a gem of a pub lunch, to keep it yourself and sneakily return again and again merely to satisfy your own gastronomic desires and revel in the fact that no-one else knows about your secret. However, it is equally tempting to shout loudly and rejoice, to share your discovery with the world and tell anyone who’ll listen that they simply must try it. They must. Simple.

The Royal Oak had been on my radar for some time and I’d marked it out as a place to investigate as I’d read many great things and thought it sounded just like my sort of place. The little village of Bishopstone nestles beneath the flanking escarpment of the Ridgeway on the Oxfordshire/Wiltshire borders and is just the kind of place that one would hope, nay expect, a fine pub with an excellent kitchen. The sort of place for balmy summer barbecues, autumnal pints, and warming winter suppers. And, with The Royal Oak, the locals are blessed and lucky enough to have such a pub.

Helen Browning has a well earned reputation for excellence with regards to organic farming and animal husbandry and her farm is based in the village with pigs and sheep roaming the nearby fields. In fact, you can even book a farm tour and see the happy animals for yourself, although some diners may prefer to eat before they meet the meat. Some years ago, she took over the pub in Bishopstone and quickly established it as one of the places to eat in the area. And with organic meat and veg supplied on its doorstep, a network of excellent local and national suppliers, and an excellent selection of beers, ciders, and wine, it is no wonder that it quickly became a hit with rural gastromomes and discerning scoffers.

Annoyingly for me, it always seemed a little far from we usually stay for a gentle evening meal after a day walking the countryside, so for some time it seemed ever so slightly out of reach. I could have driven of course but then ale wouldn’t have an option. Or wine. And that wouldn’t do at all. However, while organising a pre-wedding trip for a friend, I discovered that they do offer a free land-rover ride home for up to ten people so I booked a table and made the necessary arrangements.

We arrived and were greeted like old friends, beer at the ready and some plates of homemade sausage to nibble at while the table was prepared.The Royal Oak is a Victorian building with a very snug interior and tables rambling around a generously sized bar. The menu is straightforward and tempting with an array of pig-based dishes as well as excellent sounding vegetarian and fish options. We ate a vast amount, drank a vat of wine and beer, and tumbled into the rickety land-rover for a bracing drive back to where we were staying.

It was only the next day I realised that while we were eating, the laughs and merriment had given way to silent, appreciate devouring of some of the best food any of us had had from a country pub. And I can safely say that, having returned several times since, The Royal Oak is up there as being my favourite pub to eat in in the country. No joke.

Roast pork belly

The sticky, tender spare ribs (available as a starter or main course) hint at oriental flavours and would satisfy even the hardiest BBQ fan. Their burger is fat and juicy and can be customised with extra cheese, pickles, egg, and bacon and is served with chips that rustle for your attention. A main of pork belly with root mash, roast potatoes, and cabbage consists of two hugely generous slabs of rolled pork, cooked slowly to produce tender, juicy meat that flakes apart as you cut through it. A rich, herby gravy and vast fluffy Yorkshire pudding complete this mighty take on a pork roast and a bargain at £15. Also highly recommended is the pig cheek ragu – outrageously tasty meat in a hefty sauce which fills all the corners and comforts the soul.

Puddings (all £7) are simple and wonderful – apple crumble, organic ice cream, sticky toffee pudding were all jostling for attention on a recent visit. The sticky toffee in particular is a thing of true beauty with a decadent toffee sauce soaking through a rich, spicy sponge and topped with a scoop of organic ice cream. The stuff that dreams are made of and tasty ones at that.

Glorious sticky toffee pudding

All the staff, and especially the landlord, are friendly and jolly – happy to chat or recommend anything that is enquired about, be it how the pig racing went or whether we should listen to the blackboard and try the organic ale on offer (we did, it was amazing).

They (rightly) get busy at weekends and it is worth booking ahead if you’re making a special trip. There was a relaxed and pleasing sense of mild irreverence that immediately appealed and this is part of what makes the place so good – no pretensions, no snobbery, just passion and pride. And that is something lacking in many eateries in the world right now. So if you want to eat in a genuinely friendly environment which serves consistently excellent and lovingly prepared food, head to The Royal Oak and rejoice – we always do.

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Meaty, Recipes, Spicy

Spicy chicken and red pepper curry – recipe

This recipe is adapted from an amazing dish by the ever dependable Madhur Jaffrey – my parents only ever used her cookbooks when we were growing up and my Dad’s (signed) copy of Indian Cooking is coated in oil, spices, and memories.

I am always tempted just to turn to the same reliable recipes when I flick through this book – lamb with onions (do piaza), butter chicken (makkhani murghi), lamb with potatoes (aloo gosht) but I recently decided to go for something that I definitely hadn’t made before and I am so, so glad I did. This recipe is absolutely delicious and very simple to make – I always use chicken on the bone for this as it adds extra flavour but it would be equally delicious with chunks of lamb neck (cook it for a good couple of hours) or even just as sauce with some chunky white fish. If you are using boneless meat, reduce the cooking time accordingly. I have made a few tweaks to the version in the book and the results are, I think, pretty spectacular. The heat factor can be adapted to personal taste – I like mine fiery but not everyone does, simply reduce the amount of fresh chilli and cayenne if you want something milder…

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1kg skinless chicken pieces, bone in
  • 1 large onion roughly chopped
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 25g ground almonds
  • 2-3 red peppers, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • 1-2 red chilli, chopped (with seeds if you like)
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsps ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric
  • 1/8-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • Water
  • Black pepper

Method

  • If using chicken legs, divide into thigh and drumsticks. Breasts should be cut in half and kept on the bone.
  • Put the onion, garlic, ginger, almonds, peppers, chilli, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and salt into a food processor and pulse until you have a thick, smooth paste.
  • Put the oil in a wide pan over a medium heat and, when hot, stir in the paste and fry for 10-12 minutes, stirring to stop it from colouring. Your kitchen will start to smell amazing.
  • Add the chicken, lemon juice, and pepper then add enough cold water to just cover the chicken. Stir and mix together then bring to the boil.
  • Cover and turn the heat to low and let the curry simmer for 45mins to an hour, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked and falling away from the bone. If you like, you can remove the pieces and shred the meat back into the sauce but I don’t bother. Adjust the seasoning as required.
  • Remove the lid and turn up the heat to reduce your sauce – you can have it as thick or as runny as you prefer – then serve immediately with steamed rice and flatbreads.

If you were doing this with fish, cook the sauce for about 45 minutes and reduce slightly before adding the fish – it will only take a few minutes to cook through.

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Ramblings..., Reviews

La Focaccia, Roma – Review

Via Della Pace, 11, 00186 Roma, Italy

Tucked up on a quiet street just away from the noise and bustle of Piazza Navona and directly outside the achingly beautiful church of Santa Maria della Pace is the wonderful haven of La Focaccia – home to serious wood-fired cooking and some of the best fritti in Rome. When we first discovered it in 2010, there was no sign outside and the only reason you’d realise it was a restaurant at all was due to the red gingham tablecloths that adorned a few al fresco dining spots. At the moment (well, when I returned in June 2016), the entire street is pretty much covered with hoarding due to building work and the team from La Focaccia have taken the opportunity to do a little fresco outside which features the restaurant name in bold letters, thus making locating this wonderful eatery all the easier.

If you eat inside, it’s a little like entering the vaults of a church (and given the location, you most likely are) but a church with old wine bottles, rusted signs for beer, and a random mix of old tattered posters on the wall. None of this is a bad thing – it is welcoming, comforting, and downright intriguing as you wend your way down slanted stone stairs to discover the expansive underground dining areas that spread underneath the streets. On our first two visits, the whole place was full of priests discussing whether they should pray for a friend before or after dinner, on my most recent trip, one whole side of the dining area was filled for a birthday party and we could hear the increasingly raucous and joyous celebrations out on the street where we were sitting. The bottom line is: Everyone loves La Focaccia.

In Rome it almost a legal requirement (indeed, it should be a legal requirement) to feast on as many types of fried food (the wonderful fritti) as is humanly possible and La Focaccia serve some of the best that I’ve had. You can get anything from stuffed courgette flowers, balls of creamy cheese that stretch across the table when torn apart, mushrooms, ham and cheese, and all are dipped in a light batter and deep fried until crisp and perfect. On their own fritti misti plate, strips of courgette are transformed into munchable, crunchable sticks of joy, a smoky piece of ham is sandwiched between cheese and fried until it is the most decadent of all savoury snacks, and a glorious suppli – the Roman equivalent to Sicily’s arancini – a ball of risotto rice, filled with ragu and cheese, coated in batter and thrown into the fryer to emerge crispy, oozy, and outrageous. Slices of aubergine, little potato croquettes are also crammed on to the plate. You can never have too much fritti. There are other starters available – the meat and cheese selection plate is certainly worth a mention – but I genuinely don’t understand why anyone in their right mind would choose them when such fried delights can be had. And a bargain – under €10 for that vast plate of delight and it fed two very greedy people very well indeed. And I did almost order more courgette flowers…

Their pizzas are truly majestic creations – thin bases with a rich tomato sauce and a good (but not overly long) selection of toppings. I can’t resist a Pizza Diavola with slices of spicy salami covered in melting cheese, finished with a drizzle of chilli oil and a scattering of basil and the ones served at La Focaccia are sensational. The bases are scorched to within an inch of their lives in the fierce wood-fired oven and come out crisp but still with enough satisfying chew to delight any pizza lover. The slices of salami are huge and only three or four are needed to nearly cover the already vast pizza base. When it comes to size, the same can be said of the decadent Calzone – a folded pizza stuffed with veggies or meaty treats that only just fits on the plate. Huge and over the top but so worth it. I have eaten pizza all over Italy and this place serves some of the very best. No joke.

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Pizza Diavola at La Focaccia

 

The pasta is also worth exploring – a Tuscan-inspired wild boar ragu was deeply meaty and rich with sizeable chunks of meat cooked to tender perfection in a simple but delicious tomato and wine sauce. A simple tomato ragu with huge cubes of mozarella accompanied with one of their crisp and delicious breads is also a winner.

Wine is available either by the jug or by the bottle and I urge you to opt for the della casa and get a good carafe of crisp local white or a cool, slightly chilled red. Chilled red wine is something that many people would baulk at but is also something that everyone should have – it is beginning to make more of a splash over here and is truly fantastic. Not all reds are suitable of course – a rich and earthy vintage would certainly not benefit from a spell in the chiller – but for light, fruity wines it is fantastic. And about €10 for a litre. Score.

The staff are multi-lingual and incredibly friendly and every time I return I rejoice – it’s a bit like coming home. I can’t envisage a trip to Rome without a dinner there and I think that just about sums it up – when in Rome, eat at La Focaccia!

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Smoke Ring Roma – Review

Via Portuense, 86, 00153 Roma, ItalySmoke Ring interior

Rome is a wonderful city for finding tasty food – there is a much broader selection of cuisines and styles than you will find in many other Italian towns (although that too is slowly changing) although anyone who has visited Italy will know there is more to the cuisine than pizza and pasta. During my most recent visit I chose four places which I feel any food-orientated traveller would be well rewarded by investigating if they find themselves in the Eternal City and reviews of all will eventually be posted. I should point out that I deliberately chose two eateries that are about as far from traditional Italian cooking as you can get and this is not because I dislike Italian food (far from it) but because sometimes you have to go somewhere a bit different. And let’s face it, if you find a traditional U.S-style smokehouse in Rome it simply has to be tried…

I was very, very excited when I discovered this place during some web-based research for possible tasty destinations. After all, I was in Rome to visit my ‘Meat-wife’ (my real wife is a vegetarian) who has shared some of the best BBQ the UK has to offer and who has recently moved to Rome to teach. She told me that she really, really missed the kind of meaty treats that we had gorged on every month so I felt it my duty to find somewhere. I wasn’t expecting much to be honest – at best I thought I might find a sort of TGI-Friday sort of faux American monstrosity – but I was thrilled to find that in 2013 a group of Italian BBQ enthusiasts opened this welcoming place on the West bank of the River Tiber. They take their craft very seriously, lovingly explaining on their website the importance of low and slow cooking and the miraculous flavour that smoke imparts to meat. They meant business. We had to go.

In true tourist fashion we arrived for dinner WAY before the locals – the place was empty at 7pm but the tables were dotted with reservation markers for 9pm and beyond – but like the troopers we are we were not put off. Smoke Ring has set up home in a brick archway and if you have been to any BBQ joint pretty much anywhere in the world, as soon as you walk in you’ll feel right at home. Light bulbs dangle uncovered from the ceiling, a huge rack of barrels full of liquor are stacked on one wall, signs behind the bar offer craft beer and cocktails – it is every inch the smokehouse that anyone would expect. Yes it may seem a bit tired to those who have tried many (not us however) but finding this kind of place in Rome is both comforting and refreshing. We took a seat at one of the many communal tables and had a look at the menu – eager to see what we could cram into our bellies. Meat is sold by weight (or portion in the case of ribs and wings) and you grab a tick-box form from the table, wonder how much meat you can get away with, and then take your filled in form up to the bar to pay. We ordered ribs, brisket, pulled pork, hot links, and chicken wings along with a bottle of an amber coloured wine from Lazio – as we weren’t sure on portion size, we went for 6 servings of ribs, 200g each of pulled pork and brisket, 2 portions of links, and 5 hot wings. This proved to be possibly rather excessive.

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

The ribs were St Louis cut – fat, juicy and huge. They had been gently seasoned with a simple but tasty rub and smoked to perfection – a nice bark and the meat clinging to the bone. I would perhaps have appreciated a glaze of sauce to finish but they were pretty fantastic all said. And six was far too much even for us (we managed four). The brisket came sliced thin which revealed the rouge ring imparted by the smoker and was savoury and delicious but possibly a little dry. The servings of links turned out to be two huge sausages cut into generous portions – we were very nearly defeated by them – and were some of the best that I’ve had, spicy and smoky with a satisfying snap when bitten into. Wonderful. Wings were also excellent – smoky, succulent, and pleasingly messy. The pulled pork was not half bad either and packed a deep, porcine punch with just the right amount of rub and a top quality amount of smoke for flavour. This is hard to do – Smoke Ring do it VERY well. The only slight let downs were the two sauces that came with the wings and pork – one was supposedly a standard BBQ sauce but in reality tasted a bit like ketchup with a bit of oregano thrown in, the other was a supposedly spicy number but lacked any real kick. That is not to say that either were unpleasant but given the quality of the majority of the cooking it did come as something of a disappointment.

But for all that meat and a bottle of excellent local wine we paid the grand total of 55 euro which was more than good value. By the time we left the place was filling up nicely and I certainly intend to visit again the next time I find myself in Rome and if you find yourself craving some serious carnivorous delights when you visit, this is the place to go.

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Atomic Burger – review

Sometimes you walk into a restaurant and immediately know that everything is going to be alright. There is something about the decor maybe, or the staff, or the smells, or the general vibe that instantly ticks all the boxes and makes you feel reassured that this place is everything that you have been looking for. It is very rare for somewhere to have this effect on the diner, sometimes it is the sheer unexpectedness or unappealing looks of a place that then serves killer food that make a particular restaurant somewhere special and worth seeking out, but I have to say that Atomic Burger had me smiling and happy from the moment I walked in and that feeling has remained with me pretty much ever since.

I first encountered this remarkable mini-chain (they have a branch in Bristol and a pizza place nearby) a couple of years ago when my wife was working in Oxford and I had come to stay with her for a couple of days. I spent my teenage years in the city and have many fond memories of its pubs and majestic medieval beauty, gigs, and parties, but I never really saw it as somewhere to eat out. To be fair, we didn’t really want to spend our precious pennies on food when there was beer to be had but Oxford never really felt like somewhere for exciting gastronomic adventures. I’d read about Atomic Burger in the Hardens food guide and, as I was aiming to visit the tiny cinema (The Ultimate Picture Palace) nearby, I thought I’d check it out. The Cowley road was always a bit of a rough affair when I was growing up but I’d played and seen many gigs in the pubs and venues that were scattered up and down it and was feeling nostalgic.

And surely the area must have been cleaned up a little bit since 1999.

When I walked in my jaw nearly hit the floor. I had never in my whole life seen anything like it. For anyone born and brought up in the 80’s, it was a dream come true. It was like a realisation of the toy section from the Argos catalogue in 1987. It was like the bedroom you wished you had when you were a kid. It was wonderful. Hanging from the ceiling and stuck to the walls were all the toys and actions figures that I pined after as a child – figures from Star Wars, Boglins, My Pet Monster, Thundercats – you name it, it’s probably on their wall. There was a huge TV screen playing cartoons at the back of the room, there was a warmth, a glow, a joy that radiated from the place. A relaxed and friendly waiter showed me to a table (I just about managed to stammer a ‘hello’ so completely bowled over was I by the decor) and I looked at the colourful and intriguing menu. Normally I would shy away from a burger place that has a vast selection of toppings – it’s often a way of hiding the fact that they don’t really do anything well – but there was something about the Atomic menu that felt different. Each burger has a film or pop culture name or theme – The Tony Montana, The Daisy Duke, The Jake n Elwood – and each is customisable to the point of, well, as far as you want to take it. What makes it even more interesting is the option of having any burger as either beef, chicken, or veggie, thus allowing for everyone to dive in and enjoy the fun (gluten free buns are available too). All the toppings are fantastic – the pulled pork, the crispy onions, the dressing, the hot sauces (although be warned that the Atomic Fallout Sauce is lethal), and everything is made with love and passion and that joy that permeates the building.

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Inside Atomic Burger in Oxford

On that first visit though, I went down a slightly different route and ordered a hot dog. Plain and simple. Each main comes with a free side and of these, the chilli-rubbed ‘sci-fries’ spoke to me, as did a starter of BBQ wings. And a beer. Obviously. My order was taken and I sat back and felt very happy indeed.

When the wings came I was, well, more than a bit surprised. I have eaten many a chicken wing starter in my time and was expecting maybe 4 or 5 wings to come my way. This particular portion consisted of closer to 12, covered in a rich and smoky BBQ sauce, and served with a suitably sized stack of napkins and a side of blue cheese sauce. Heaven. The wings themselves were expertly cooked and the sauce was thumpingly good. I think I inhaled the lot in about 5 minutes. The hot dog was vast – a proper frankfurter that was juicy, slightly smoky, 100% amazing, and also gone in seconds. The chilli-rubbed fries that rustled together enticingly in the bowl were a revelation – hot and deeply savoury, crispy outside with a perfectly cooked fluffy centre. And, like the rest, devoured at an alarming rate. The waiter came to ask how everything was but I’d already finished. I knew I’d found somewhere pretty special and was so excited by it that my wife and I went back the next day for lunch – I had a chicken Daisy Duke (bacon, American cheese, BBQ sauce) and she had a veggie Bandit (Cajun-rubbed pattie, huge onion ring, BBQ sauce, cheddar). They were totally awesome. The burgers were massive but not scarily so – and we staggered out happy and full, unable to manage one of their tempting milkshakes or ice cream desserts.

Since that first encounter I have eaten at the Oxford branch 4 or 5 times – the latest to their newer premises a few doors down from the original and we got the train from London especially to eat there – and the Bristol branch once. Every time I have been filled with joy, nostalgia, and fantastic food. The beef burgers are hefty, juicy, and fantastic. The wings continue to deliver on every level (a large portion is more than enough for two – trust me). The staff continue to be utterly brilliant. I’ve had some of the biggest onion rings known to man, a crunchy exterior with properly cooked onion hiding inside, as well as creamy and delicious slaw, and more of those addictive ‘sci-fries’. The plain fries are pretty epic too I should add. And every month there is a different special burger to tempt you with – The Wicker Man creation last year was truly epic. On my last visit I created my own – the Hans Gruber tribute (look it up if that film reference means nothing to you) which featured crisp dill pickles, BBQ sauce, Swiss cheese, tumbleweed onions, and a whole frankfurter crammed atop a mighty beef patty. It was truly amazing.

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The Wicker Man special – chipotle braised beef, Cajun-spiced onions, cheese 

And I should also add that, unlike every other burger chain or restaurant in the land, Atomic do not use a sweet, enriched brioche bun to contain their vast creations. A simple white roll is all they feel is necessary and I have to say it works completely. Some people may take umbrage with this. Some may wax lyrical about the qualities of an enriched dough that will help keep the whole thing together without dissolving into mush before the burger is finished. Some may say the richness of the bun works with the burger. Some perhaps can’t imagine why you wouldn’t use a brioche bun. Some say they thought the Sun and the Moon were the same thing. People say all sorts of things. I’ve had some delicious burgers – Honest Burger, The Joint, Pattie & Bun to name but three – many of whom opt for a brioche-style bun but I have to be honest and say that the only time I’ve noticed the difference was when I was served a burger in a brioche bun that had clearly been toasted hours earlier and was chewy and unpleasant.  Atomic’s traditional rolls more than stand up to the task (and are also pretty damned tasty) of holding an unruly burger in place and surely that is all that matters.

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The Hans Gruber tribute burger

If you’ve got room (and I have never quite managed it) there is a sweeping array of tempting things for dessert – milkshakes, ice cream, waffles – all of which sound fantastic. I saw a Vincent Vega shake (ice cream, bourbon, peanut butter, cream) go past me once and almost sighed at its sheer majesty. One day I’ll do it. One day…

Atomic Burger is a real destination and one well worth seeking out. There are whispers and rumours that they may expand beyond the current sites and if they do we should all rejoice. Their concept (not a word I usually associate with good restaurants) is unique and wonderful and the food more than lives up to the expectation set by the surroundings. There is even awesome Star Wars wallpaper in the toilets. Yes. There is. They are soon (early 2016) unveiling a new menu which I’m sure will be every bit as exciting and epic as the current one and I can’t wait to go back and try it. There is nothing else out there like Atomic and that is worth celebrating and cherishing. If you like burgers, you will love Atomic. It’s that simple.

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Check out their website: www.atomicburger.co.uk

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