We all like the intimate act of "eating out" right? But what is it like to do it alone? Gastronomic self-pleasure?
Join me while I masta-date in Oxford...
Dining out is usually a communal affair. Something we do to release the pressure, socialise & converse. But take away the companions & you are left with a sensual experience with just oneself.
My wife was going to a gig in Oxford - Cat Power, one of her musical idols. I was unconvinced, but with few opportunities to take time away from the fire pits and stoves of The Cauldron, I jumped at the prospect of 24 hours in another city. So it came to be that after chauffeuring her to our Airbnb, I was left to roam free...
Oxford is pretty. It's old. It's quaint. But the food scene is less voluptuous than Bristol's. Less give, more take.
I hunted high & low for a dining experience. I didn’t just want to be stuffed – I wanted to be satisfied. One & only one name kept rising to the top of the temptations whetting my appetite.
A small but well endowed neighbourhood restaurant, similar in size & girth to my own. A family run business, a genuine eatery. Humble yet proud, standing tall & cooking from the soul.
Such a shame they had a 3 week waiting list for Thursdays...
…thankfully a Twitter follow & DM later, I had secured a secret seat at the bar.
I arrived early to a bustling single shop front, opposite the most amazing pet fish and aquatic plant shop I've ever seen. Four small tables sit in a blue picket fenced garden while the residential terrace houses opposite look on from their voyeuristic perch.
I'm told my seat will be available shortly & it’s suggested that I have a glass of wine outside. I decide to skip the foreplay and order a carafe of Gewürztraminer, Bergsig - a South African, white wine. It's delicious! Perfectly chilled with pokes of ripe apricot & elderflower. I still have the day's sun sitting on my neck, already flush from the open window drive that day. I'm grateful for the tardy arrival of British summer & as I sit back to take in the evening sun it dawns of me...
…I barely ever sit alone!
Not long later, I’m brought in, seated & talked through the menu. There was nothing I didn't want. But I couldn’t order it all. There was nobody to order against, no safety net of a companion’s dish to try. I was alone & had to get on with it. I ordered a lot!
Prawn crackers & peanut sauce - a chunky peanut dip with a chilli, salty, fishy, yet sweet oil. The crackers were beautifully fresh, dry fried and thankfully not oily, though I’m not convinced they were as homemade as the sauce. That sauce though… it was so moreish. I devoured it instantly. I was delighted to find it was quickly replenished to match the remaining crackers - a brilliant piece of front of house work.
Front of house is run by husband & wife duo, Celine & Merlin, he English & she French. They work together silently, making it look effortless. They are doing “the dance of service”, an artform mastered by few. It’s reminiscent of two courting birds on a Planet Earth episode, and just as enjoyable to observe.
I was offered one of the daily specials "Salmon & Coconut" – tempting indeed - but I couldn’t resist going to my happy place with an order of "Pork Belly & Kai Lan". You have to understand - I'm anal about pork belly... when it's done properly, it is life changing!
I was really enjoying eating alone. There was no chit chat or interruptions, apart from someone wasting breath on Boris "the coked up pervert" Johnson. I'd rather have listened to the locally advertised village fete health & safety briefing. I zoned out the audible distractions, focusing on an unadulterated interaction with each bite. I relished my intimacy with the food. It is said that human senses are heightened when one is not used or frustrated – I began to feel that sensation.
Since I'd made such a drama about not being able to choose between surf or turf, the front of house went above & beyond, bringing me an amuse bouche sized “surf” - crispy salmon & coconut chutney. Golden salmon skin, desiccated coconut, shaved fresh coconut.
The term “amuse bouche” directly translates as "mouth amuser." A flavour or texture used as a trigger to get you in the mood, to get the glands going & raise the blood pressure. Triggers are interesting psychological phenomenon. Sometimes such a sensual trigger instantly teleports you to a time or a place. The smell of an old book sends you to your grandparents living room, a song to a teenage holiday or a perfume to the one that got away.
I grasped my chop sticks for a first taste of the salmon. Salty, spicy, fresh & crisp. Rough cut chunky chillies, fish sauce, and….
…boom, I was in Koh Tao, Thailand 2003. My sister Sarah & I had an incredible trip all over Thailand that year. “Emotional” is an understatement & the dish didn’t last long. Like the trip, it was all over too soon.
I was ready for more!
Beef Salad - rare seared onglet, crunchy slaw, citrus - perhaps pomelo, fish sauce. Punchy & spicy. A familiar tamarind sweetness. Invigorating like a L’Oreal Shampoo waterfall advert; ‘because I'm worth it’... The piquancy of the beef salad is real. Fresh, encompassing & hot! I'm back in Thailand!
I take a little time between courses to look around the dining room.
There is a hustle & buzz… a normal observer would probably think it a great atmosphere. People are chatting away, telling stories, laughing and gesticulating. I see what they don’t though - they are entwined with each other - not with their food! The meal’s quirks – it’s teases, surprises and delights are going unnoticed; they are being distracted.
Now it’s time for my main. Simply "Pork Belly with Kai LAN". As I may have mentioned previously, I adore pork belly, so the pressure is on. The belly’s skin is crackled. It is light & crispy yet somehow, incredibly, neither salty nor oily. It's refreshing. I mentally note this must be a low food waste kitchen, the telltale sign being a crispy nipple in the crackling which some pickier chefs would remove. But this is Thai food - everything will be used. I wholeheartedly approve.
It is amazing that the pork belly still holds its shape. It's so tender that picking it up with Chopsticks is a task. It's not fatty in the slightest, with the muscle dominating proceedings amongst the layers of meat & fat, it is delicious. Oyster sauce, peanuts, garlic & a generous finger of chilli. The kai lan is a Chinese broccoli - thinner than its European cousin with longer crisper stems & large flaccid leaves. Here it is cooked to perfection, holding it crunch & oozing with oyster sauce.
The rice is flawless.
I also order the apple salad, which has a delicate crunch to its bite. The acidity is very welcome, and the pairing of roasted cashew is a marriage meant to be. A little-known fact about cashew nuts; the cashew nut is a bi-product of the cashew apple tree. The apple itself has a reddish to yellow fruit, eaten fresh, turned into a pulpy juice drink or distilled into ‘cashew feni’ which, trust me, is fucking rank. The shell of the cashew nut is also used and it turned into an organic lubricant… frankly I’d rather drink the latter than the spirit.
I am stuffed. I am finished. I am exhausted. I’ve interacted more with this food that I have in years. It has been a revelation in experiencing food without distraction & a chance for me to enjoy being with food without the pressures of service to contend with. I implore you all to occasionally take the time to be alone. To have a meal just with the food that you are eating, to get to know the textures & flavours that pass others by.
It's not something to be embarrassed about or to fear, just ring Oli's Thai & ask for a table for 1!