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Travel
December 23, 2011

Oxford Now

Text by Devanshi Mody

Oxford is Britain’s second most visited city. Those dreamy spires, amazing architecture, lush lawns and moody meadows bewitch. Verve revisits to discover glam hotels and culinary bliss

Hotel hip
The Randolph: Older than the London Ritz, this Oxford institution, since 1864, has awed Oxford students. To us Oxonians The Randolph was an abode of unbridled luxury, even the embodiment of snobbery. Outside its arched entrance Rolls Royces and Jaguars paused, their occupants in furs and diamonds and signet rings received by bowler-hatted doormen whose crisp tailcoats swished in those boisterous Oxford breezes.

The Randolph sustains old-fashioned service delivered with promptitude, precision and not a little panache. The Randolph’s GM remarks Oxford and The Randolph are visited by heads of state (Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachov) and film stars (Cameron Diaz and Darryl Hannah) to “couples who have saved up all year for a weekend in one of the country’s most famous hotels”.

At the Randolph Bar renowned writer Colin Dexter of Inspector Morse fame drinks. Here, you will taste Britain’s best afternoon tea with the crumbliest scones and daintiest finger sandwiches – made by a Nepali pastry chef! The Randolph Lounge showcases celebrated paintings of Osbert Lancaster who stayed at the hotel whilst painting scenes from Sir Max Beerbohm’s Oxford novel Zuleika Dobson. Incidentally, on Millennium night when a £3 million Cézanne was stolen from the Ashmolean, the detectives meant to be protecting it were living it up in The Randolph lounge across the road!

The Old Bank Hotel: Age old exteriors of an old bank enclose vital modernity. The exiguous room with views over my college Christ Church made me feel like I was at university again. Then I was moved to a larger room – that Meg Ryan and Cameron Diaz had stayed in.

Spa-tan
Randolph Spa: This has become a destination spa. It certainly offers better facials than over-hyped, over-priced London spas. In a Zen space with antique adornments from Kerala and lantern-lit pathways, jump into the Jacuzzi and simmer in assorted saunas before indulging in the Decléor Classic Aromatic Facial that uses all-natural products including flowers, herbs and grains.

Old Swan and Minster Mill: In the fabled Cotswolds, about 20 kms outside Oxford, check into this charming and recently revamped luxury boutique property that sits right on the river. The spa stocks products ‘hitherto exclusive to A-List celebs’ (which they deign to dispense on the rest of us). The spa therapist grandly announces she will name five ‘exclusive A-List’ ingredients the products comprise of, but can’t even remember them….

First class shopping
The Covered Market and little lanes around it, especially Turl Street, abound with century-old boutiques which Londoners come to shop at and which have supplied everything from jewels to shoes to Britain’s royal family. For Oxford’s flea and food markets, gypsies come weekly from Europe with their wares.

Food for thought
London’s Michelin-starred restaurants mostly disappoint. Oxford mightn’t have Michelin stars, but its (ironically) less ‘academic’ cuisine lingers longer on the palate.

Chiang Mai: Amongst the world’s best restaurants. Nowhere in my travels, not even in Thailand, have I had better Thai food. Oxford’s favourite restaurant, with its tangy Tom Yum teaming with lemongrass, its tongue-tickling salads, dynamite curries made with unusual Thai vegetables and perfect pak tais, remains my benchmark for Thai food. Expect restrained textures and delicious service. Current chef Alex launched Michelin-starred Nahm in London and trained in Thailand’s royal kitchen.

Randolph Restaurant: Enter theatrical realms. The spectacle unfolds as gourmet trolleys roll in to play their role. Chef Tom Birks makes better homemade breads, pastas, fresh soups and chocolate than some Michelin-starred restaurants, which has earned him two AA Rosettes. However, the show-stopper is the flambé trolley upon which maître d’ Giuseppe Vurchio flambés your favourite fruit. Quite spectacular!

Alpha Bar: William de Pouget was 25 when he opened the most adventurous salad bar in England’s oldest covered market. Will’s flamboyance translates into eclectic salads and sensational shirts. Despite his sartorial excesses, this article requires that I focus on his salads, a jumble of wild rice, falafel, sun-dried tomato pesto, seeds, seaweed and alfalfa…. The snobbiest salads (although Will isn’t vaguely snobbish, aristocratic roots notwithstanding) divided Oxford between those who did and didn’t patronise the Alpha Bar.

The Vaults: Will has since opened Oxford’s most atmospheric café inside the University Church of St Mary’s. Under vaulted ceilings try tagines and spiced parsnip soup. In civilised climes, when the skies aren’t weeping down remorselessly, enjoy cream teas in café gardens overlooking the fabled Radcliff Camera and Bodleian Library around which Bollywood stars run, singing and dancing….

The Cheese Shop: If Will is mad his father, the Cambridge-educated Baron Bobby de Pouget, is the most outrageous man in Oxford. He is politically incorrect as a French aristocrat (and indeed everyone) should be. Faithfully French, he runs an elaborate cheese shop (London hasn’t an equivalent) offering fromages affinés that bewilder Brits who think French cheese is brie and are more comfortable with the baron’s own Oxford Blue cheese which, of course, is always desirable….

Woodstock Road Deli: Le Baron de Pouget’s latest passion is his très charmant delicatessen specialising in premium quality vegetarian and vegan salads. Assistant and aristocratic French belle, Jessica runs a one-woman show as she dashes off plethoric salads including exotica like quinoa and durum wheat together with jams, chutneys et al. Will’s mother Omega’s orange cake, however, takes the cake.

G&D’s: My Oxford memories include misty mornings and Oxford’s own satin-textured ice cream – Belgian chocolate, pistachio, green tea, frozen strawberry yoghurt. Ice cream mornings define decadence!

Moo-Moo’s: Jason and Bina present astounding shakes containing chocolate fudge, Battenberg cake, Bourbon biscuits…. You’ll lose the calories before you get to them, when a thousand youngsters meander clamouring for Oxford’s naughtiest drinks.

Chamber music festival
(September/October): Savour ethereal notes strummed by world-class players. As Shakespeare wrote, ‘If music be the food of love play on!’

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