THE owners of Arbequina on Cowley Road were ‘chuffed to bits’ to win the overall Oxford Mail Food Awards 2017 this week, after a hard-won battle that saw them take on about 80 other cafes, bars, pubs and restaurants in a bid for the grand title.

For the full list of nominess, see here

Emerging on top, head chef Ben Whyles and partner Rufus Thurston said: “It’s incredible to be recognised like this. And to know that people really love what we are doing, is an amazing accolade.”

Theirs is an inspiring story. About 14 months ago, Ben was running Door 74 while Rufus was fully ensconced at Oli’s Thai on Magdalen Road.

But after spending four years talking about opening up together, the pair finally decided to put their money where their mouths were and transformed Door 74 into new tapas bar Arbequina.

Recruiting Ben Bateman as their front-of-house they opened up 14 months ago, with a slick operation on two floors with about 60 covers.

Hard to locate because the original pharmacy sign revealed during the refurb was so charming they’ve kept it up, it’s worth persevering.

Their tapas ranges from Iranian to Spanish, with mouth-watering consequences. Every dish on the thoroughly unpretentious but magical menu, is a gift thanks to Ben Whyles’ mastery in the kitchen.

Best-sellers include the chocolate salami, oxcheeks and beetroot borani.

With wines and service to match, Arbequina has certainly hit the right note, aided by an extra culinary boost from classically-trained Spanish chefs Narborto Munez and Carlos Ranchal.

So what’s their secret?

“We just serve the food we love, “Rufus says.

“And we are very careful about our sourcing so that the ingredients are as authentic as possible.”

As for winning the Oxford Mail Food Awards 2017, the old Cherwell School friends are delighted.

“I can’t believe we won!” Rufus grins.


Best Gastro Pub

WINNER - White Hart, Fyfield

Oxford Mail:

Husband and wife team Mark and Kay Chandler have made The White Hart in Fyfield a labour of love since arriving on the scene 13 years ago. 

Taking on the 15th century pub in 2005, they have transformed it into a foodie haven where locals and visitors alike can revel in the friendly atmosphere, have a pint or indulge in the wonderful cooking emanating from the kitchens where Mark produces so many inspired creations.

While high gastronomy can be sampled, there is also a tapas style sharing board to appease anyone who fancies something more low key, meaning that no one is left out.

Service is brisk, friendly and professional all under the watchful but ever cheerful eye of Kay, and the pub’s loyal clientele speak for themselves.
Personally, The White Hart in Fyfield was always the stand-out winner, in this, the most competitive category.

Having eaten there numerous times over the past year, I have never had a bad meal and have been continually delighted, surprised and amazed by the calibre and consistently brilliant stream of dishes arriving from Mark’s kitchen.

Oxford Mail:

Growing much of the produce themselves on site; sustainability, locality and seasonality are not just buzz words here but etched into the very fabric of the place – the ingredients, positively radiating with fresh picked taste and texture.

These deserved winners have not only hit the spot on the food front, but also found a comfortable middle ground away from the pomposity and snobbery of many so called gastro pubs, instead concentrating on the more important factors such as excellent food, service and customer satisfaction. 

If you haven’t been, give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Best Cafe

WINNER - The Milkshed, Weston-On-The-Green

Oxford Mail:

Lucie Greenwood at home in The Milkshed which flourishes

Alongside the coffee revolution, came a wave of new cafes, all plugging the caffeine gap in the market.

They also honed in on the new trend for brunch, covering all bases for a more laid back crew who shy away from a formal lunch, and the ‘quiche and baked potato’ style tea shop offerings, instead veering towards the US West Coast/South American love of pancakes, spicy eggs and bewildering amounts of avocado on toast.

Cake is also back in a big way, another cafe staple.

But some do it better than others; from charity venture Yellow Submarine to the eccentric Worton Organic Garden, the sleek hipsters at The Handle Bar or the veggie focus at The Rookery.

The Milkshed however has to win because Lucie Greenwood’s refreshing take on her Cornish roots has never let me down.

Indeed, The Milkshed’s reputation has spread so far that the no booking policy means you often have to wait for a spare table in the vast warehouse style farm building which Lucie appropriated, changing it from a neglected ice cream parlour to a mecca of interesting, novel and ambitious food.

The specials change all the time, the coffee is amazing and the smoked haddock chowder is worth writing home about.

Now a firm favourite at the Thame Food Festival, Lucie’s is a name to watch. 

In the meantime you can sample her food for yourself in this random farm  outbuilding off the A34, and revel in her clean, coastal inspired aesthetic while enjoying the delicious Spanish stews, Italian platters, healthy salads and home-made ice cream on the menu.

Did I mention the brownies?

Best World Food 

WINNER - Dosa Park, Frideswide Square, Oxford

Oxford Mail:

Oxford, of all places, boasts some of the most wonderfully diverse food anywhere in the country. 

The net spreads far and wide to encapsulate all cultures and their cuisines ranging from Ethiopian to Polish, Bangladeshi to Caribbean, Nepalese to Syrian.

Of course the Cowley Road brings the greatest depth of variety to our city, a plethora of wonderfully colourful and tasty food offerings, restaurants and cafes stretching as far as the eye can see, surely one of Oxford’s greatest attributes.

Our overall winner Arbequina for example serves some amazing tapas near The Plain, and several of the nominees from The Kaz bar to Spiced Roots and Pomegranate have set up shop here. 

Oxford Mail:

Yet our World Food winner hails from a different neck of the woods.
Parked in the inauspicious surroundings of Frideswide Square, in what was an old chicken shop, is Dosa Park.

Its decor is certainly of the eat-and-go variety, and although it has been refurbed recently to smarten it up a bit -  there are no airs and graces here. You order at the metal counter and your food is brought to your small formica table on lino flooring.

But its menu is much more exotic – dosas (long savoury pancakes, my favourite being the masala stuffed with spiced potato), thalis and vadas (savoury doughnuts) or the idlys (steamed savoury cakes) served with wonderful combinations of dhals and curries, all home made on the premises. 

The thalis defy belief in their variety, taste and price, all served in traditional aluminium trays, as seen in the picture here.

If you like smart sophisticated food and restaurants, then this isn’t for you. 

If however you want to try something new, authentic and wonderfully tasty, I’ll see you there.

Best Opening 

WINNER - No.1 Ship Street

Oxford Mail:

No one in their right mind would open up a new restaurant in Oxford city centre, or indeed outside, as the vast ominous bulk of the Westgate Centre introduced its endless number of restaurants covering every spectrum.

But this doesn’t seem to have put anyone off. 

In fact, it seems to have spurred people on, with a resurgence of really good restaurants and pubs,either completely refurbing, such as The Blue Boar in Chipping Norton or the Muddy Duck in Hethe, or starting from scratch.

From Syrian restaurants in the hinterland of Middle Barton, to renamed pubs such as The Boxing Hare in Swerford, and heart-warming community pub The Jolly Postboys, the competition was fierce.

And yet one stood head and shoulders above the rest. No1 Ship Street bravely did up The News Cafe in the centre as Oxford’s shopping streets emptied.

Oxford Mail:

In its place is an overtly plush, comfortable, fun and sexy restaurant and bar, with an oyster, champagne, cocktail and sharing platter space at the top and a really good dining room on the ground floor. 

Run by Ross Drummond, formerly of the The Crazy Bear, and his chef/partner in crime Owen Little in the kitchen, it’s a great partnership.
I have eaten there countless times since it opened before Christmas and have been consistently surprised by the quality experienced.

Independents like this must be supported, and in this case, No 1 Ship Street is a clear winner.

Finally a really great central restaurant with excellent service, atmosphere and food to match.

Best Fine Dining 

WINNER - The Nut Tree, Murcott

Oxford Mail:

We discounted Le Manoir from the word go, because with two Michelin stars and awards coming out of his French ears, Raymond Blanc would sweep the board clean in terms of both food and hospitality at his beloved hotel in Great Milton.

However, while fine dining has become an increasingly erudite occupation, the gastro pub craze replacing much of the competition, only those offering the best and perhaps the finest, remain standing.

Which levels out the playing field but doesn’t diminish the amazing contributions in this category, whose standards are continually elevated.

One to watch for example are Liam and Ryan at Orwells in Shiplake who are garnering endless national attention, or Restaurant 56’s stellar cast of food obsessives, transforming an otherwise unknown corner of Faringdon into a foodie destination.

Oxford Mail:

Having’ ummed and ahhed’ extensively about the winner, when asked where I’d like to eat the most, my immediate answer was The Nut Tree. 

Its homage to food remains undiluted, its service friendly and professional thanks to Imogen North, yet it remains an unpretentious community pub.

Last time I ate Mike North’s accomplished tasting menu (an incredibly good value £75) in the new lofty extension, the adjourning bar was filled with the Aunt Sally team eating home-made pork scratchings.

Yet, from the moment you taste the bread and amuse bouche to the last scrape of Mike’s infamous desserts, the entire culinary experience is not only top quality but an enormous treat, without being obsequious, grandiose or ostentatious. 

Which would explain why, Le Manoir aside, The Nut Tree is the last man standing in Oxfordshire with a Michelin star to its name. 

A husband and wife dream team, which seems to be a enduringly winning formula.

Best Pub 

WINNER - The Hollybush, Witney

Oxford Mail:

We had a change of heart about this category, swapping allegiance to The Hollybush in Witney, having wrongly categorised it under Gastro Pub. 

Because while the food is wonderful, it’s also a proper boozer whose bar and saloon can host happy crowds of drinkers, left to their own devices, as well as community events and parties – New Year’s Eve there is legendary.

What makes The Hollybush even more inspiring is the relatively young team running it.

Oxford Mail:

Luke Champion grew up over the road in his parents pub The Three Horseshoes, eventually taking over The Hollybush and transforming it into the fun, funky, quirky, contemporary pub of today whose reputation spread as soon as it opened its doors.

Friend and partner Alex Vaughan ensured it was an immediate success story. But maintaining that quality and reputation takes a more sustained effort.

Recruiting head chef Liam Whittle was a stroke of genius – the young lad’s food continuing to astound, because while the ethos here is on relaxing and having a good time, Liam is always on the ball with a menu to match.

Oxford Mail:

The sharing menu is therefore varied and easy to pick from, and the mains include pub staples from fish and chips to steaks, yet the dishes are accomplished and ambitious, the attention to detail a constant, new flavours a given.

My favourite dish is the unassuming bar snack of smoked haddock croquettes (£6.50) whose smoky crunchy soft/texture has been impossible to forget. 

They also do a damn good burger.

Best Pizza 

WINNER - The White Rabbit, Oxford

Oxford Mail:

Certainly one of the most oversubscribed categories this year, pizzarias have been steadily taking over, certainly in the city centre, with chains spreading their Italian influence over large parts of George Street in particular.

Ever more closely contested, the old school crowd of Pizza Hut and Pizzaland are now competing with upstarts who are more interested in dough and ingredients.

The debate about what constitutes a good pizza rages on unabated, the purists believing in a ‘less is more’ mentality, the rest of us enjoying experimenting with different toppings.

Oxford Mail:

The pizza bianco – or white pizza – for example is a new introduction, served without tomato sauce, allowing you to savour the base and subtler toppings.

But the independents have been winning the fight, ensuring that their contributions are more consistent, authentic and well priced than their more commercial rivals. 

Only Jamie’s Pizzeria (the much maligned and lesser known branch of Jamie’s, set up under Gennaro Contaldo’s watchful gaze, and Franco Manca ( a close contender) made it to the final cut.

The White Rabbit, which was also nominated for Best Pub, wins however because it serves wonderful pizzas with a minimum of fuss. Wander in for a pint, sit and chat to friends, and if peckish, order a pizza. 
There’s little else on the menu, but the choice is vast.

Hailing from the wood-fired oven, the pizzas are a marvel. My last – a blue cheese and pear - was so subtle it blended seamlessly into the tomato sauce. I was an instant convert.

And it’s not just me. The White Rabbit pizzas are so renowned that they are now being sold in national supermarkets.

Pop down to this cubby hole of a pub in Friars Entry, run by a young team, to see for yourself.

Best Restaurant 

WINNER - Sojo, Hythe Bridge Street

Oxford Mail:

SOME acute hair pulling occurred over this category, there being such a vast pool to choose from, differing enormously from new to old, classics to eclectics, serving everything from fun burgers to posh steaks, pizzas, Moroccan and even vegetarian food, which is a wonderful reflection on where we are right now from a culinary point of view.

Some, like Gees, have maintained their high standards in their charming and infamous conservatory restaurant for decades, while other newbies such as Cuttlefish saw a gap in the market and pounced, now serving the best fish possible.

But again, given the choice, I always return to Sojo, despite it being rather long in the tooth, for its soul-warming Chinese food. 

Oxford Mail:

Yes, the service can be a bit surly sometimes, and they seem to shut up shop increasingly early, but what is produced from the kitchen always silences any argumentative diners.

Sojo’s regulars and devotees, of whom there are many, have their favourites: the salted beans, dark sultry aubergines or the pork belly, but I prefer asking the staff to produce a variety of dishes on the night and surprise me. They always do.

This end of Oxford is suffering in terms of footfall, thanks to the Westgate Centre, and Sojo has fierce competition from the likes of Zheng in Jericho and Xian in Summertown. 

But having taken everyone to Sojo, from suspicious grandparents to children and large parties, all of them, without exception, have absolutely loved it. 

Let’s just hope Oxford continues to support its favourites with its feet.