Bellissimo Italia!

THEY’VE played around with the menu at Bella Italia since our last visit in the summer.

In have come a few new starters and desserts, plus – what they are most proud of – some additions to its fresh pasta menu.

As a family, we were invited to try the new dishes out. Well, family is what Italian food is all about, isn’t it? And our table resembled something out of a Mafia movie banquet scene when the delightful waiting staff brought out our plates of pasta.

The new ravioli dishes we tried – pollo robiola (£12.95) with sunflower shaped fresh pasta parcels filled with cheese and rocket, combined with roasted chicken in a rich red pepper sauce; and panzerotti funghi (£11.25) with half-moon shaped fresh pasta parcels filled with mushrooms and served in a mushroom and spinach sauce – were lovely, rich bowls of comfort food.

The fillings were full of flavour and the sauces packed a punch. Ideal food for a winter’s night.

The children demolished their creamy tagliatelle carbonara (£9.95), fighting with each other for the crispy rashers of pancetta on top.

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We had started with the new chicken wings Italiano (£6.45), in a tangy balsamic barbecue glaze, served with a cooling garlic and lemon mayonnaise, which proved so popular that the children nearly came to blows when arguing who got the last one. Arancini funghi (£6.25) were also a tasty hit – deep-fried balls of mushroom risotto with a lovely tomato dip. Both were great “messy food”, which was a great excuse to use our fingers!

As for desserts, tops for me was the new orange cheesecake (part of the shot glass desserts – three for £5.25 or five for £7.95), a sweet, creamy, citrussy treat. The morello cioccolato (£5.75), a hot chocolate cake with rich cherry sauce, was also delicious, if a bit cloying.

It was all washed down with some great alcohol-free mocktails, and we left feeling as stuffed as the ravioli.

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What would we do if Italians didn’t make such yummy food? I have absolutely no idea where we would take children for a fail-safe meal during a day out! It’s true that most ristoranti d’Italia offer a good choice in pizza, pasta and antipasti, but if you want a really great selection of freshly-made dishes, in my opinion, you can’t beat Bella Italia.

Bella Italia,14-16 George Street, Oxford 01865 791032 bellaitalia.co.uk

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Turning Japanese (I really think so!)

IN THE words of Anchorman Ron Burgundy himself: “Well, that escalated quickly.”

Invited to review the Yo! Festival menu at Yo! Sushi’s George Street branch, my wife and I might have gone slightly overboard on the conveyor belt of gluttony.

For the uninitiated, diners help themselves to dishes as they circulate the restaurant, with plate colours indicating the prices, ranging from £2 to £8.50.

We had just planned a light lunchtime bite. By the time we squeezed out of our funky booth, we had demolished no fewer than 17 dishes between us. And therein lies the beauty – and the danger – of Yo! Sushi. It’s incredibly convenient, genuinely fast food, and all-too tempting to have just one more dish.

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Those people put off by the thought of raw fish should note that there is more to it than sushi. And if what you want is not on the conveyor belt, then just ring a bell and order one. Beware, though, the siren that you launch is not for the faint-hearted: It’s the booming vocals of an angry Japanese woman.

From the blue menu, highlights included the chicken katsu curry – breadcrumbed fried chicken with boiled rice and oriental curry sauce. A real crowd-pleaser.

The duck gyoza were also a treat – rich meat in a crispy dumpling with a hoi sin dip. Yasai yakisoba was a very tasty noodle dish, and the spicy pepper squid was really crispy.

We watched some Japanese diners to find out the correct way to eat the edamame beans (tip: DON’T eat the whole pod – they are not mange tout) and they were pretty moreish.

The popcorn shrimp (£5), deep fried, battered and in a sweet miso sauce, disappeared in seconds, as did the Japanese sea bass (£6).

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The sushi rolls were also great, coming as they do with a huge variety of fillings, although salmon and tuna feature heavily.

Star dish, though, was the hot and sticky sweet beef teriyaki. So good we had to grab a second from the belt.

Our meal was topped off with a rather yummy selection of Japanese soft drinks, including yuzu and pear juice, and Ramune Soda (billed as Japan’s oldest soft drink).

We left feeling bloated but stumbled back to the car sated! We didn’t take the sprogs this time, but I know they’d love most of the food – almost as much as the concept of tiny dishes travelling round the conveyor. Maybe next time…

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Yo Sushi, George Street, Oxford. For more information, go to yosushi.com.

Thaikhun

WE’VE all heard the old joke: “Waiter, waiter, there’s a bug in my food.”

“Please keep it down sir, otherwise all the diners will want one.”

Well, the people at Thaikhun – the ultra-funky Oxford Thai street food restaurant – seem to have taken this message to heart when they unveiled their new children’s menu.

As an eye-catching gimmick, all kids’ meals come with tubs of crispy creepy crawlies. It certainly caused a stir with our four young diners, aged between eight and 12.

We were invited to the George Street venue to give our verdict on the new menu for youngsters, heralded as “unique and refreshing in its approach the ‘mix and match’ concept”.

Children get a pot of crunchy vegetables to start and an ice lolly to finish, and can then custom-build their main course.

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They get to choose noodles or Jasmine rice, then grilled chicken, pork or mixed vegetables, plus a sauce – nut-free chicken satay, slightly spicy green curry or sweet BBQ. There’s also phad thai or breaded chicken and rice with a sweet chilli sauce. They all come with juice, water or milk and cost £5.95.

The restaurant was bustling when we arrived, and were ushered to a table where one set of seats was built out of an old boat – a big hit with the children, but not so good for the aching backs of the ageing parents.

It has to be said, the children’s meals didn’t go down particularly well. The first mistake was the plates they were served on – reminiscent of American-style school trays, with compartments for each item. It accentuated the difference between the adult and children’s food, and looked a bit canteen-ish.

The grilled chicken was a bit dry, the sauces were reasonable, but it was all a bit underwhelming on the culinary front.

My friends’ 12-year-old Niamh said: “What I really liked about Thaikhun was the ambiance – it was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the lay out of the whole restaurant, from the working traffic lights to the idea of turning a boat and a bathtub into seats.

“The decorations and the music too really gave of the feel of a street in Bangkok. The service at Thaikhun was also very good; the staff were all very smiley and friendly.

“One of my few criticisms would be the children’s menu. I was disappointed with the lack variety and the presentation of the food on it, particularly the dessert. After seeing the variety on the adults’ menu I was expecting a little more than just a mini milk ice lolly.”

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However, as if to prove that siblings hardly ever agree, her 10-year-old brother Johnny said: “The kid’s menu at Thaikhun was lovely although I wasn’t so pleased with the dessert. I’d expected more then a mini milk although this might be based on younger children.

“The creepy crawlies though were a clever and delectable addition to the meal.”

Yes, the bugs were a hit with three-quarters of the youngsters around the table, and even the adults were forced to give them a try.

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Not that the grown-ups had any need to resort to eating insects. Our food was sensational, beautifully presented, and really delicious.

I couldn’t find fault with my barbecued pork on rice (£11), with unctuous pieces of belly pork and a sticky, lip-smacking sauce. My wife’s spicy seafood noodles (£11.50) were equally eye-catching, full of huge mussels, prawns and squid. One of these meals – I’m not sure which, but I polished it off anyway, just in case it was mine – came with a superb, clear savoury broth that proved a perfect palate cleanser.

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Our friends went for the curries – well, when in Thailand… – and made short work of their aromatic chicken massaman (£11.50), with chunks of potato, cashew nuts, and a hunt of cinnamon, and the almost obligatory prawn Thai green curry (£13.50). It was the sort of meal where everyone is eyeing up each others’ food to see who made the best choice – and no-one could decide.

I’ve never been to Thailand, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but I have eaten poor Thai food and this was most definitely not poor. Very, very, good, fresh-tasting and consistent quality.

Desserts were almost as good. I devoured the banana fritters with vanilla ice cream (£5.50) and a lovely, sticky syrup – or at least I would have done if my children hadn’t kept stealing spoonfuls of it from me. And the Thai waffles with green tea ice ice cream (£5.50) also disappeared in an instant.

So, much like Brexit, the generations were divided. But hopefully we can come together if they decide they can manage another taste of Thailand in the future. I’ll let them choose though – I promise not to bug them.

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Despite its faults, Thaikhun scores 8/10

For more info, go to thaikhun.co.uk