Students are generally regarded as selfish and self-obsessed – Channel 4’s Fresh Meat made flesh. But in Oxford, where the contrast between privilege and poverty could not be sharper, there are still students who can see a world beyond the next hangover.
For instance, the charity Oxford Hub – think of it as the anti-Bullingdon Club – supports local, student-led social outreach programmes. It is funded with profits from a restaurant, Turl Street Kitchen, and its neighbouring eight-bedroom hotel, Tower House (note: five rooms en-suite, three not).
In a grade-II listed building of uneven floors, narrow passages and low ceilings (tall guests should discuss their room choice with reception), the cosy, comfortable Tower House feels like a genuine hidden bolthole, despite its central location near Jesus College and the Ashmolean Museum. Often a problem in old buildings, noise from adjacent rooms or the street is not that intrusive, and a refresh two years ago has given the rooms – period features now offset with cool upcycled and handmade furniture – a stylish edge.
Sadly, in my room, Jade, that upgrade did not extend to the tired bathroom (two deluxe rooms have better facilities and baths). It is immaculately clean, but the toilet bowl is badly scratched and the tiny shower is basic. Indeed, Tower House’s luxurious flourishes (locally made toiletries, quality Canton Tea Co teas) are at odds with a lack of everyday maintenance. There are scuff marks on the walls in my room and the rather scruffy communal stairwell needs redecorating.
Perhaps weekly repainting runs contrary to the green ethics at Turl Street, whose European cafe-bar feel – scrubbed tables, bare floors, big candles, jazzy art – has an enduring warmth. It is clearly popular. On a freezing Tuesday night, it is buzzing with students and academics.
Turl Street adheres to the Oxford Good Food Charter, a manifesto which frankly – less meat, less waste – seems more focused on ecological virtue than flavour, and, while broadly enjoyable, Turl Street’s food (a short, daily menu of four starters and six mains) can feel a bit too earnest, if not austere. A starter of skin-on roasted Jerusalem artichoke, turnip purée and (barely) caramelised apple was diverting in its earthy, autumnal way, but needed more sharp apple sauce as a counterpoint. In cooking of such rustic simplicity, every element must sing with flavour. My pork main mumbled. The chop was forgettable, the chorizo overcooked, a breaded cube of pork belly underseasoned. The primary flavour was the rosemary-threaded polenta beneath.
Equally, breakfast – bubble and squeak and impeccably fresh poached eggs – felt tentative. The bubble needed more seasoning and a harder browning in foaming butter to give it real élan.
Overall, Turl Street needs to let itself go a bit. Not necessarily by chucking salt and fat at dishes, but by using more vigorous, elemental cooking techniques. This is gutsy cooking which, at times, lacks guts. It could do with greater smoky, fiery character.
Yet its purity can be arresting. Poached pears with a spiced berry compote and shards of preserved lemon rind – gastronomically, they arc over the dish like shooting stars – is surprisingly good. Turl Street has its indulgent side, too. There’s incredible cultured butter from Ampersand (loved by top chefs) and its wine list, which includes several organic and low-intervention bottles, contains some crackers, such as Domaine de Vedilhan’s heady, viscous and elegantly barrel-fermented viognier.
There is room for improvement, then, but Turl Street and the Tower House are, in their friendly, quirky ways, far preferable to Oxford’s many generic chains. That the money you spend will stay local, funding good causes, is a not insignificant bonus.
Jacqui Thorndyke, co-founder of foodie guide Bitten Oxford
East Oxford is littered with interesting indies such as Oli’s Thai, the Chester for fantastic breakfasts and roasts, and temporary pop-up Hyper Ramen. In Jericho, try the Rickety Press for good pub dining and Zheng for Chinese.
A favourite is through Christ Church Meadow. Meander alongside the River Cherwell before popping out on the other side of the city centre.
The Indie Oxford Compendium (£4) is out now