Although Oxford has pubs and shops and restaurants in abundance, like most English towns it’s overwhelmed by chains. Though a certain amount of snobbery has kept the likes of Woolworths and Wilkinsons away from the centre and safely tucked away in the surrounding smaller towns, the central retail areas still lean dangerously close to generic.
Starbucks and W.H.Smiths, Nandos and Boots, an All Bar None and perhaps a dozen Wetherspoons, a Pizza Express, and so on. Go to one English town and you could be in any English town, with only the particular style of baseball cap to tell you if you’re in Basildon or Bracknell. This is not always a bad thing, and when it comes to restaurants it’s usually safe to say that (for better or worse) the produce of a Nandos in Manchester will be much the same as the produce of a Nandos in Kentish Town. Safe and predictable.
With this in mind, I was pleased to discover the existence of The Big Bang, a restaurant on Walton Street in Oxford that’s dedicated to serving sausage and mash. It’s not part of a chain of restaurants (not yet, anyway) and they get their supplies from local stores and farmers. There are no starters on offer, and only two desserts (apple or rhubarb crumble) — you come here for sausage and mash (or pie and chips) and that’s it.
My companion and I had expected it to be a fairly cheap-and-cheerful place, so we were surprised when we turned up on a Saturday evening and were swiftly turned away again as we didn’t have a reservation. Such is the popularity of The Big Bang, it seems. After being told we could come back at 21:00 for a table, we buggered off for a quick pre-meal drink at a random pub nearby (where my companion was served by a guy she once lectured in New Zealand a few years ago — small world, or perhaps a stalker) then returned and were seated. All other things aside, I can tell you that it’s a wonderful feeling to sit in a restaurant while other people turn up and get turned away — it makes you feel important and wealthy and special, just like all those people in American Psycho.
Sausages were all sourced from the local market, which means it’s technically possible to trace your sausage history all the way back to when it was just a piglet, happily gambolling in the fields, blissfully unaware of its fate. I don’t know — perhaps it’s just me, but I find my meat tastes just that little better if I know where its donor grew up. Not that I had pig sausages, though, in the interests of experimentation I went for the duck and orange variety and my companion went for lamb and mint. Proper food! The mash wasn’t just a great big dollop of white, either — no, this was gourmet mash, with…I don’t know, herbs and shit in it, and was perfect. All served alongside green peas, fried onions and red cabbage. There were also real ales available but I’m a wine ponce so I avoided them.
I say I’m a wine ponce — I’m not, actually, because I can’t afford it so it’s always the house red all the way. The waiters usually ask if I want to taste it first, bless them. But this was a good house red — I have no idea what the name was but it had a cartoon picture of a Platypus Duck on the label, so if that isn’t recommendation enough, I don’t know what is. This is how I usually pick wine out, at any rate — scan the shelves looking for a nicely-designed label with good typography and colour contrast, then the price, then the back of the bottle to see whether it’ll go well with steak or pizza or whatever I’m eating that night.
We’ll have no trouble here.
I’d love to be a wine snob. Or a food snob, in fact. I enjoy reading restaurant reviews by the likes of Victor Lewis-Smith, who says things like “the custard-coloured velouté turning into the Red Sea as the blood seeped from the foie gras”. Mmm, I wish I knew what that meant more than I wish I knew what it tasted like. I don’t think I have the required vocabulary for this sort of thing, though, mentally filing every meal away either under “Has some flavour, filled me up, good” or “Bland, left me hungry, bad”, and every wine is just “red” or “white”.
I wanted to believe that The Big Bang was a restaurant that would let me get away with it, because where I struggle with trying to describe exactly how “acorn-fed black pig charcuterie with Manchego and quince cheese” tastes without resorting to “sort of like a ham and cheese sandwich”, I felt I was on safe ground describing sausage and mash, but no — I’ve been outclassed yet again, because the staff were helpful and professional, the food was delicious and the atmosphere was lively and welcoming.
You just don’t get this with chain restaurants — local restaurants give you so much more of an experience, with personality and history and food that tastes like food instead of some god-forsaken flash-fried fillet of fish. Yes, it could have been awful, and the menu in this particular case was obviously very specific but who cares when it all works so well? It’s so strange — I’d tell people I was going to a sausage and mash restaurant and the reaction was always one of bewilderment, but tell people you’re going to Nandos and nobody reacts at all — why is a chain chicken restaurant acceptable but a local sausage restaurant not?
The Big Bang is located at 124 Walton Street, Oxford, OX2 6HA.