When news broke of Oxfork’s closure, it was a sad day. The much-loved cafe was a popular East Oxford haunt for all things brunch. It never quite made a proper impact as an evening venue, but was always a go-to for coffee, cake and a damn good brekkie. So when Oxfork was taken back over by Drew Brammer and rebranded as GAF, we all wondered what the hell was going on.
I went in to meet the new team and find out what their plans were back in June, and I’ve been into GAF a few times since. Once for the opening night, two or three times for a school run timed coffee or breakfast, and once last weekend for a dinner as their guest, along with Becca and Phil.
I have to say I was initially really excited about some of the menu items, especially the breakfast/brunch offerings. Over the past year I’ve been getting much more interested in the health benefits of what I eat, and generally eating more natural foods (not all the time, because hot wings, pizza and salted caramel…).
If you’re a regular on Instagram, like food, like health & fitness and/or haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard of Deliciously Ella, buddha bowls, smoothie bowls, almond milk, matcha lattes, golden milk, the Hemsley sisters, chia seeds, ancient grains and are sick to death of ‘avo toast’ [I’m not, fyi]. Anyway, I’ve been quite into a lot of this stuff. In fact, I’ve pretty much tried all of it this year – full 2016 food fad review incoming – and was excited to see a menu that listed pretty much all of these things and more.
While I am most excited to try their breakfast and lunch offerings, my only foray into their new breakfast menu so far is with a couple of pastries and their English Breakfast. The pastries were great, the coffee local (from Jericho Coffee Traders), and the breakfast was pretty impressive. With the English came a very large, plump sausage, field mushroom, black pudding, which I was pleased to see included, egg, homemade baked beans – ARGHHH homemade baked beans! They’re fine, but will NEVER be better than Heinz. Not enough mopping up sauce for a start. Anyway, I digress, there was also decent maple smoked bacon, toast and jams. For £10 it was a hearty meal, good value and satisfying. Homemade baked beans aside, I’d eat this again, though I’m also excited to try their Bircher Muesli, Turkish Eggs, Buttermilk Pancakes and more.
Dinner was a funny one. The evening menu is vegetable-centric and very conceptual. And it all feels very different from the daytime offering, causing A LOT of talking points. Day to evening transition had been accomplished by some significant dimming of the lights, so don’t expect particularly good food pictures.
The first thing I should point out is the menu. It’s minimalistic (see below), with descriptions being a few separate words, and made up entirely of ‘small plates’. When they first opened for dinner there were large plates available too, but apparently people were treating it as three courses, rather than sharing dishes, which is what they are aiming for. Think tapas, but not tapas. You’re supposed to order a few plates to share between you, 3 are recommended per person, but I’d say more are required if you want to feel like you’ve had a meal, as each individual dish is starter size or less, and they can vary in volume quite dramatically.
The Onion, Apple, Gin & Tonic, for example, was about one or two full mouthfuls of delicate ingredients, compared to the more filling Monkfish, Dhal, Coconut.
Because the menu was so vague, each dish was accompanied by an explanation upon arrival, which meant an interruption to conversation with every delivery. As each plate of food is brought to the table when it’s ready, this means a lot of interruption. As I already mentioned, portion sizes were quite varied, but so too were their impact. At the start of our meal, after a small serving of Pickled Carrot and Homemade Onion Bread with Herby Butter, came the Onion, Apple, Gin & Tonic (£5.50); Nicola Potatoes , Horseradish, Rocket, Capers (£4.50), which are basically al dente baby potatoes dusted with freeze-dried rocket; Flower Sprout, Walnut Milk, All Spice (£4); and Burnt Cauliflower Romanesco Mac n Cheese (£6), which was not a Mac n Cheese by any expectation, missing the ‘Mac’ element entirely. If I were to judge based on these initial dishes, I’d say the flavours were ok, cooking had been executed well, but that none of the dishes inspired me enough to order again.
But then came the Buckwheat, Mushroom, Yolk (£6), with meaty slices of mushroom on a bed of herby grains and runny egg yolk; Piccolo Parsnips Oxford Blue Hazlenut Truffle (£6); Leek, Potato, Onion, Pickled Trompets, Rye (£5), with creamy, crispy, sweet and savoury all present and correct; and the Monkfish, Dhal, Coconut (£8), which Phil and I thoroughly enjoyed while Becca watched on with her coconut allergy. We were glad to not have to share that one.
We ordered 10 between us, plus three desserts and some petit fours. While I came away with a belly no longer empty, I didn’t feel like I’d had a meal. More like I’d had samples. I’d have preferred to have the option to order larger versions of a couple of the dishes – the monkfish or buckwheat dishes for example – or to have some of the dishes bulked out a little. While the meal was incredibly thought provoking and provided a lot to talk about, we struggled to think of occasions when we would return for dinner and who we would bring. My husband or Becca’s? No, they’d hate it and think it was too faffy. Phil’s fiancee? No, she’s vegan and there weren’t quite enough vegan dishes. Our friends? Sadly again no, we couldn’t think of any who are into this type of food enough.
The breakfast and lunch menus will definitely have me returning, but I wasn’t as sold as I was hoping to be on the evening experience, while an experience indeed it was.
I like meat. I like vegetables too and when at home it has been known for me to have a vegetarian dinner. Not often but occasionally. So when I was told that we’d be reviewing a predominantly vegetarian restaurant I had a little bit of a paddy. But then I thought, okay, if you can convince me then you’re onto a winner. Bring it on.
Unfortunately, GAF didn’t convince me. I’d attempted to mentally prepare myself by reading their most recent menu online but was utterly baffled by the minimalist descriptions. Plus, I was kind of hoping for that eureka moment where something alien to me suddenly made culinary sense. You know, like chia seeds.
The restaurant itself is nice, cool contemporary in that shabby Scandinavian style. Not having the eyesight of an eagle I struggled to read the menu in the dim lights and the tealights didn’t help. I spent the first half hour squinting to read the menu and trying to make sense of what appeared to be a random minimalist selection of words. Actually, that was quite fun as we each read out three words and then tried to figure out what the hell it could actually be.
Having decided that we wanted to try as many dishes as possible, we ordered everything off the menu bar two dishes. Even then, George advised us to try one of the ones we’d omitted and to have that night’s special – pigeon, the only meat dish on the menu!
This conversation with George was the first of many as every dish had to be explained. He’s a lovely guy, very passionate about letting the ingredients speak for themselves but it was kind of odd having our chat interrupted every few minutes.
A platter of warm onion bread was first to arrive which was lovely, a good crust, soft interior and decent butter. It came nestled on a bed of bloody chia seeds though!
Next up was the Nicola potatoes, forevermore known as the dusty potatoes. It’s hard to describe how odd these were. Had they been a softer or even waxier spud it might have worked a little better. The rocket powder on the outside wicked every little bit of moisture from your mouth and there wasn’t enough horseradish cream to replenish.
The onion, apple, gin and tonic was pretty. Pretty to look at, pretty delicate and pretty small. A good palate cleanser.
I’m not a fan of sprouts or any milk that doesn’t come from a cow so bypassed the flower sprout and also the monkfish due to a coconut allergy. I liked the leek and pickled trompets with rye and the buckwheat with mushroom but found both to be okay rather than the vegetable epiphany I was hoping for.
The one dish on the menu that I was really looking forward to was the burnt cauliflower romanesco mac n cheese. That didn’t save the evening either. Burnt cauliflower, yes, the cheese was a delicate flavour but most importantly, there was NO BLOODY MAC! I genuinely expected some pasta shapes with some charred cauliflower and a good pungent cheesy sauce. Disappointed to get some cauli, some cheesy sauce and a chewy cheese tuile. Now to me if you call it mac n cheese, I expect some mac n cheese. Not getting mac n cheese makes me sad.
The special of the evening was meat, well game. Two slices of pigeon on some more bloody vegetables. It was okay.
My general feeling of the evening was that everything was just too contrived and conceptual but doesn’t pull it off. The menu needs to be more descriptive so that you know exactly what you’re getting and understand that you need to order several dishes to make a full meal. Having a waiter explain every dish to you is annoying and unnecessary. Personally, I would also baulk at spending 5/6 quid on some poncified hipster veggies – especially when they didn’t quite deliver. I felt quite let down that I didn’t get the epiphany I was hoping for but I’m still willing to be convinced.
As the vegetarian in the trio I was particularly excited to see what GAF had to offer in the evenings, as having visited previously on a couple of occasions for breakfast I knew the food was of a high standard. On arrival it was explained to us that the menu was based around small plates, that you order 3-4 each and the idea is that you share between you, so in my head I was immediately thinking ‘ah, kinda like Tapas then’ and started to see what was on offer.
The menu is a little confusing, instead of the standard summary of each meal (Steak and Chips – 30 day aged steak served with 3 times cooked skin-on chips blah blah blah) it is minimal. Very minimal. For example, Buckwheat Mushroom Yolk and that is all you get. This leaves you guessing as to what is going to arrive on the table and you tend to go with what you know from previous experiences. So we were expecting maybe Buckwheat Pancakes served with some mushrooms and egg in some form or another. While that was ultimately true, it was a bit different to what we expected.
I’m going to digress here and mention the word that kept coming up in our discussion, Expectations. You go to a restaurant with certain expectations based on previous experiences and I think that is where GAF fell short for me, my expectations where not managed. It wasn’t until later on in the meal that the concept was fully explained and at that point it all made more sense, had I known that earlier on I probably would have felt differently.
The menu is purposely vague, eating at GAF is supposed to be an experience, a journey that is shared with your fellow diners. The plates come out as they are ready, rather than all at once and that can make things confusing. We were presented at first with the Onion Apple Gin & Tonic and Nicola Potatoes Horseradish Rocket Capers which could have been described as some bits of onion and apple alongside a plate of a few potatoes covered in some green powder with a bit of sauce. So at this point there was a table of rather confused diners wondering what was going on!
Other than the potatoes, the food itself was all very good. In particular, the aforementioned Buckwheat Mushroom Yolk was excellent, the mushrooms cooked perfectly with just the right amount of meaty bite to them. The Monkfish Dahl Coconut was also a stand out along with the Piccolo Parsnips Oxford Blue Hazelnut Truffle.
Though one of the other issues for me was the difference in the amount of food on some plates compared with others. The Onion Apple Gin & Tonic was very small and more like something to scatter on the plate you are given to eat from with another dish than an event in itself. However, the Piccolo Parsnips was a hearty plate of food and went a lot further. We mentioned this and it was explained that the idea is you share the plates, so the difference in sizes evens out. The more I think about it the more I disagree with that though, if you have 3 people choosing from a small plate menu then one person will have a preference compared to another. If I had been dining as a vegan that night I would have been sorely disappointed as I would have been restrained to only 3 dishes; Flower Sprout Walnut Milk (kinda like opened up sprouts in some milky sauce), Onion Apple Gin & Tonic (bits of onion and apple) and the Nicola Potatoes Horseradish Rocket Capers (the strange dusty potatoes mentioned earlier). Sprouts, Onion and Potato do not a meal make!
I enjoyed the experience, the discussion between us was interesting and some of the food was really delicious but I just felt it lacked in the execution and when you are looking at £5.50 for a small plate of Onion and Apple I want near perfection. Would I go back again? For brunch, definitely but for dinner, no and as a vegetarian in Oxford that makes me a bit sad.
We dined together for dinner as guests of GAF