The blurry person hurrying to pay for his chocolate and raspberry jam is Siddo, who sometimes accompanies me on these food critiques.
We shared an agreeable afternoon at Bill’s, part of a rather large chain and the latest eaterie to open in Oxford in Northgate Hall. Opposite it is the Oxford Union and next door is the newly furbished Vanbrugh Hotel. Northgate Hall was a Primitive Methodist Church in the 19th century but with Methodist Union in 1932 it was no longer needed for this purpose, as the Wesleyan Wesley Memorial Church is about 100m away. From 1933 until the summer of 1989, it served as the base for the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) and from 1991 to 2005, it hosted the Oxford Lesbian and Gay Community Centre. It has also been home to Gatehouse, which was a drop-in centre for homeless people set up by churches.
Understandably bypassing the sombre civic fabric, Bill (who involves himself in the design of his restaurants) has followed the current trend of warehouse meets loft meets industrial unit meets nonchalant chandeliers and worn leather banquettes. It works rather well and is favoured by very good acoustics; tables cannot eavesdrop and the busy bustle is a nice hum rather than the frantic clashing and clanging that too often intrudes the sharing of an intimate conversation in other places. Service is a little raw, but they are in the process of training a crew.
So the verdict on the seating and general ambiance is 8 out of 10. Now to the food.
When I dropped in last week, Bill’s had been open for just a few days. I ordered granola, plain yogurt, fruit and a flat white. The granola was out of a box, and not a choice brand either, the yogurt was good and creamy, the quality of the fruit was excellent, but it came on weird skewers and the honey tasted of nothing. The coffee was quite awful. The granola was served in a small Kilner jar and I was told I had to eat it in the jar (!) so I asked for a bowl. The waiter brought me a very large soup bowl, the size of a baby’s bath. At the end of my meal I was asked if everything had been all right, I said no it hadn’t. To the credit of the pleasant manageress, she insisted that I talk to the General Marketing Manager of the chain, who was busy with his laptop in a corner. After an amicable conversation, when I aired my misgivings I was assured that my comments would go to the chef and be seriously noted and others concerned would also hear about them.
“It’s too tricksy,” I told him. “I just want a decent home-made granola in a manageable bowl with my fruit cut up. I don’t want a drama staged on my table. And go and see at how they treat coffee at Zappi’s Cafe” (look up my earlier blog) “That is perfect coffee.”
Graciously I was invited to a freebie on a day that suited me and this is why I was there today with Siddo. Our lunch was more than acceptable- it was good.
We ordered three starters as neither was feeling hungry. I had a prawn cocktail, fifties style, which is so easy to get wrong. The prawns were juicy, the rose mayonnaise had just the right balance of cayenne and the salady bits were fresh and appetizing. I would have preferred it had come un-layered- just lightly mixed so I could have combined a bit of tomato with a prawn or piece of avocado. Siddo’s crab cakes were light, if a little bland, and the bacon and avocado salad was very tasty and succulent. This time the coffee was properly made, but the brown bread and marmalade ice-cream, although not too sweet, could have had a more distinctive flavour.
The recipes are aimed at the middle-range palate, but even so one could have a reliable meal here in a very agreeable atmosphere. If ambiance was 8 I would rate the food 7. Not bad for a chain and Bill’s is a welcome addition to Oxford restaurants and a great place to either meet a friend, or sit by oneself and read the papers. Bill’s also has a selection of preserves, olive oil, biscuits and chocolate to take home or be gift-wrapped for a last-minute present.