Just a month ago another new restaurant opened somewhat quietly in the centre of Oxford. With no big promo or social media splash heralding the arrival of Banana Tree, it was only spotted by the Bitten team on a casual walk by. With several locations in London and one in Milton Keynes, this seems to be another chain keen to spread its wings.
Intrigued to try another Indochinese restaurant opening just a few doors away from Thaikhun we booked a table. Happily, they were doing a soft launch for everyone who followed their Facebook page in the first week which meant 50% off all food – much needed in the lead up to the shopfest known as Christmas!
The restaurant is housed in the old Jessops camera shop at the bus station end of George Street. It has a slightly industrial feel with some tables in the front for less sociable diners, and large communal tables (like seen in Wagamama) in the main dining area. No prizes for guessing where I chose to sit! The industrial and slightly cold feel is broken up by various bits of jungle like foliage and somewhat bizarrely, a collection of stuffed apes hanging from scaffold poles. It’s a bit like being in a grown up, deconstructed Rainforest Cafe.
Knowing that we were getting a cheaper meal we decided that it was our duty to sample as much of the menu as possible, in order to give a much fuller description to our readers! We chose the double cooked crispy pork with mint, ginger and chilli dip, £5.45. More chewy than crispy. The crispy dough, £3.95, was a curious choice, as in we didn’t know what it was exactly so ordered out of curiosity. It was odd and none of us particularly enjoyed it yet we seemed to manage to devour it all. Chunks of deep fried and chewy dough that tasted of nothing, with a satay dip.
Seafood money bags are exactly as you’d expect, little bundles of prawn, white fish and veggies in a deep fried pastry with sweet chilli sauce, £5.75- just as you’d find on the shelves of your supermarket. Chicken dumpligs, again these were fine but as a bit of a dumpling connoisseur, I found them a little bland and lacking. I’d hoped for an explosion of flavours and the feeling that I was being transported from a dark and rainy Oxford to a bustling Cambodian street and so far that hadn’t happened.
The best starter decision that we made was the aubergine half drizzled with a caramel sauce for £4.95. As odd as it sounds, bear in mind that just a few years ago you’d have baulked at the idea of putting salt in your toffee. The sweet and tangy caramel works surprisingly well with the soft smoky texture of the aubergine, especially when combined with the sprinkling of some crispy shallots.
Main course choices include regional specialities, stir fries, noodle dishes, grilled meats, salads and the now hugely popular pho. We all decided to sample the grilled meats and selected the chicken jawa £10.95, the chargrilled duck £14,25 and the blackened chilli pork £10.95. It’s worth pointing out that all these are just for the meat and these prices don’t include any accompaniments. You are given the option to choose your own sides which range in price from two and a half quid to just over six. Alternatively, you can upgrade your meal to a combo for a fiver, which gives you spiced rice and a papaya salad. This is huge and would comfortably feed two so worth bearing in mind.
The chicken was good, the pork was fine but again it still didn’t have that chilli kick I was looking for. The chargrilled duck was by far the best of the three.
Overall, it wasn’t bad. The bill, including crackers, Tiger beers and soft drinks came to £95 – with an included 10% service charge. I was happy to pay the £59 it was reduced to with the soft launch offer – but if I’d paid the full amount I would have felt it was lacking Not in the quantity of food but just in the general averageness of it all.
We regularly bemoan the lack of independent restaurants and use chain fooderies as a convenient excuse but the truth is that there is some excellent chains out there where I’m more than happy to eat at any time. The flip side is that there’s far more chains who just do the bare minimum and just tip a nod in the general direction of the cuisine they’re selling . To me, Banana Tree is one of these and I’d much rather go to one of our few but consistently good independents.
One final point which REALLY annoyed me. The service was fine and obviously you make allowances for any new venture. But… why do restaurants insist on showing how cool and funky they are by either making their waiting staff memorise entire tables orders, inevitably leading to at least one cock up or, as Banana Tree have done, use incomprehensible ordering systems on a tablet. Our waitress spent a good five minutes scrolling through various screens trying to find our ordered items and it was totally unnecessary. Use a pad and pencil which worked for so many years and then go to your little screen if you must. That works and as is often said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
PS Apologies for the poor quality photos, it was a very quiet evening and photos had to be taken discreetly and very quickly!