Some years ago in more carefree times I was drinking coffee and enjoying an olive oil bread roll made by Hafiz, the original owner of the Magic cafe.
The Magic Cafe
Two women (one wearing a turquoise headscarf)
Eat cake, drink coffee
With silent relish.
A small reward, so innocent, at the end of a working day.
The other had a haircut at the local salon
By Mary, of rosebud mouth and comfortable arms.
The headscarfed one taught English to a class of asylum seekers.
She dampens stray crumbs with finger
Glancing out the open doors
Sees greenery on red brick, the odd car cresting the sleeping policeman.
A couple, he earnest and bearded, she listening professionally,
Talk about clients.
“Wait till my book comes out,” he tells her.
Property prices are stable, says the paper
A contemporary tinkling of Goldberg Variations
Plays in the foreground-
Something must be right in Heaven.
Well, yes, all very cheery and idyllic and suitable for more innocent times when you might have chosen a watering hole to fit the needs of your particular mood: vanity choices, indulgences in that care-free background to our quotidian experiences tailored to frame what now seem covetably humdrum lives.
The Magic Cafe in (then unfashionable) Magdalen Road, was a somewhat hippy hangout full of beards, beads and baby-buggies. Earnest socialist type gatherings among the clan of therapists, social workers, Green activists, potters, weavers and many sorts of worthy citizens who lived in community minded East Oxford. Their veggie cravings were handsomely served by a dreamy Sufi chef, Hafiz, who had compiled his recipes into 4 slim volumes and who made the most delicious above-mentioned olive oil baps.
Then he sold his premises to persons lacking in culinary flair or distinction of any sort and it metamorphosed into a grubby, sticky floored non-place.
Now its rolling again under the capable hands of Jehan Rahman and the buzz is slowly returning. The place is clean, if a little bare, with tables under the awning for folk who like fresh air and distancing. On the day I first visited (a recommendation from next door Wild Honey) a couple were airing their new-born baby, who was snugly cocooned in her sling on dad’s chest.
Jehan’s is a remarkable story. Like her celebrated compatriot fellow chef, Nadiya Husain, she comes from a traditional large Bangladeshi family. Her father worked as a waiter in Brick Lane and sent his wife and three of the children back to Bangladesh for a period of many years. Jehan says she was hugely influenced not by her mother but by a Hijra (trans) cook called Kauser Bai, hired by her mother, who let her work alongside and from who she learned to love different flavour combinations. She speaks longingly of hilsa fish and jhinga (prawns) fried in mustard oil. Her childhood was full of conflict between traditional family demands and her own independent spirit, but she and her siblings struck out on their own very individual paths. One of her brothers is a writer (he won the James Tait Black prize in 2014) and she herself has led a life of her choosing and is a graduate of English from Sussex.
Her menu is simple but made with fresh, locally sourced produce.
There is a very good masala Dosa plate , the dosa made with chickpea (besan) flour instead of fermented rice, but tasty nonetheless and the salads are attractive. I wondered if she had tried the excellent coffee from the roastery down the road, or thought of leaf tea instead to the standard dreary tea-bag.
There is a little way further to go to find a sweet spot- where the welcome is palpable and the atmosphere distinctive. I suspect she is hampered at present because she is short-staffed and rushed off her feet in the kitchen, but Jehan has the right idea and I hope the Magic Cafe will be resurrected in its full glory again.