It's not fancy, it's not big and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs and what not, you've come to the right place.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Lan Kwai Fong, 95 Cowley Road, Oxford

Oxford’s great. It’s like London’s gentler, smaller, slower sibling: not the kind of person you’d want to go on a roaring night out with, but perhaps someone with whom you could spend the hungover morning after.

The food has a similar sense of ease about it. You feel that restaurants get a little more leeway here, that there’s a touch more room for error. Things don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be good.

And who needs perfect anyway? Anyone who’s tried cooking Heston Blumenthal’s Bolognese can vouch for that.

Lan Kwai Fong
, on Oxford’s Cowley Road, is certainly not perfect. Kitsch, odd and fun, but not perfect.

First, the food. Garlicky squid was batter and grease heavy, and on the not-crispy side of crispy. Crispy seaweed, in contrast, not only lived up to the ‘crispy’ bit of its name, it also tasted as if it might once have been somewhere near the sea – oddly uncommon in Chinese restaurants. Was it actual seaweed? No, but is it ever in England? It tasted great.

It’s tempting to say that those two experiences summed up the restaurant: tempting, and inaccurate. Nothing else was crispy, for one thing.

In fact, the squid was easily the worst dish we ate, while the seaweed was arguably the most competent, if not the most delicious. That honour was shared between two more meaty dishes.

‘Chicken wings in capital sauce’ doesn’t sound like the most appetising of appetisers. These were sweet, sticky but not cloying, and meat-heavy. Five for £5.50 is a real bargain.

Best of all though was the pork belly, braised in ‘sweet sauce’. If there was a dish of the noughties, it was surely the gastro-pub pork belly, crunchy-crackled, fatty, tasty and cheap(ish) as if the mere fact of using a cheaper cut made something better. This, predictably, was nothing like those dishes. Braised belly is an acquired taste. Or rather, it’s an acquired texture, all chewy and slippery and gloopy. But in the right hands, it’s pretty special. What sweet sauce is I have no idea, though there was certainly soy, sugar, garlic and vinegar in this one, and probably fennel too, with maybe some star anise and cinnamon. For those of us who like our meat fatty, it was a treat.

There were other dishes: beef noodles, pak choi, beef in oyster sauce. They were above average, but with nothing to mark them out either way. The meal came in at about £20 pounds per head for three of us, including a beer or two and some rice, and with plenty left for doggy bags.

But that’s not all there is to say about Lan Kwai Fong. The waiting staff deserve particular praise for their bonhomie, while the venue itself is a hoot. A converted pub, the restaurant makes an unholy and very funny mishmash of pub, cocktail bar, nightclub and eatery, complete with fruit machines, garish colouring, karaoke screens, cocktails that come with health warnings, and a pub garden.

So no, it’s not perfect, but if you find yourself on Cowley Road, you could do a lot worse. I know I have.

Phil Lett’s take: 6/10

Lan Kwai Fong on Urbanspoon

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