'Food critics are forever doomed to compare everything they're eating now to everything they've eaten before.' The Ewing, 2013.
My wife came out with this little nugget as we we sat digesting our lunch at The Big Society in in Oxford; and, I must admit I guess she may have a (rather depressing) point. While you try to look at each breakfast, lunch or dinner in context there's always the memory of the perfect meal, or,even worse, the perfect ideal, there in the back of your mind. A reference point with which to gauge each and every mouthful you eat.
It's not that I even remotely consider myself a food critic, merely a greedy person with an opinion (and we all know what part of the human anatomy they're linked with), who likes to write about some of the things I cook and meals that I eat. I certainly have no interest with darkening the internet with my negative views of certain places/experiences (although I'm fairly confident no one pays much heed to my opinions anyway). But I guess it does get harder and harder to look at things through new eyes, especially when so many places seem to be following the same path.
Anyway, back to our lunch. The Big Society is a large pub serving American style 'fast' food on The Cowley Road. While it is situated opposite the lovely Atomic Burgers, the fact they both sell meat in a bun is really the only link between the two. While Atomic Burger focuses on 80s kitsch, the Big Society seems to have very much modelled itself on a certain Marylebone burger joint. Hence the Ewing's earlier comments; how does it compare to places in the Big Smoke, and is there a point in doing so?
The greeting that welcomed us was as bright and cheery as the spring sunshine that was finally beginning to peek through the clouds. Our friendly bar tender explained that drinks and food are ordered up the bar and bought to your table when ready, and even helpfully let us try some of the beers they had on tap before we made our choice.
The beer is served in 2/3 of a pint glass (at 2/3 pint prices). A nice idea, meaning you can try more without forgetting what you're drinking. I found it especially cheering to order a couple of drinks, pay with a tenner and get a note back with my change. My choice, the Big Society Pale Ale, was perfect, with massive amounts of juicy hops to deal with all the rich meat and cheese. The Ewing enjoyed something a little smoother and maltier, brewed in nearby Abingdon.
While the menu looks suspiciously familiar - with the food served on metal trays, and the drinks in jam jars - they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; and while there are many similarities, the Big Society have stamped enough of their own style on the place to give it some of its own unique Oxford character. The Ewing particularly liked the murals decorating the walls, and there's also a large beer garden, wi-fi, and a ping pong table to help burn off those burgers.
We chose a selection of different dishes and sides to share; fried chicken, slaw, cheeseburger, fried pickles, mac and cheese and chilli cheese fries. I really fancied sampling the hot wings, too, but even I sensed ordering anything else would have been sheer folly, as well as struggling to fit on our tray).
The things that had been in the fryer; the chicken, pickles and chips; really needed to stay acquainted with the hot oil for longer, to become properly golden and crunchy. As it was, they were - a bit like myself when the sun comes out - rather on the pale and flaccid side. A minor shame, as the ethereal pickle batter had adhered to the spears like a second skin, a very hard trick to get right, and the chicken (thumbs up for dark meat) was tender and nicely spiced. And the onion rings I saw being delivered to other tables looked pretty majestic, too.
The chilli cheese fries, despite suffering from pallid potatoes, were, however, brilliant. The chilli itself, a thin, bean-less and fiery mixture, was the best I have eaten in a very long time and made me rue not trying the chilli dog. Luckily for me, they proved too spicy for the Ewing, so I got to enjoy most of the sticky, meaty, greasy bowlful of goodness myself.
The red cabbage slaw was also bang on, providing a cool and creamy counterpoint to the chilli heat. We fought with our forks over last shreds, leading to me - (not very) hilariously - to sing Purple Rain every time the vibrant violet sauce dripped across the table. There was also a thimble of mystery dressing/dip on the tray that looked a bit like a lumpy pint of milk found the fridge when you return from holiday, but didn't have much discernible taste of its own.
The mac and cheese was decent; the pasta still had bite, the sauce was good and gooey, and it was bronzed nicely on top. My favourite elbow macaroni had been replaced with the larger penne rigate, but the Ewing didn't seem unduly bothered, and happily scoffed the lot.
The cheeseburger was very fine; bright orange melty cheese, squishy, slightly sweet bun; excellent burger sauce, crunchy shredded iceberg; and a juicy patty that was a little crumbly but extra beefy. My only real criticism of this was size. While it was more than enough as part of our mega feast, all alone, even when served with the hefty portions of fries they offer, I fear it might struggle to satisfy.
Ultimately, we decided over much heated debate, the main criteria for a good meal remains the same, no matter where you are and what your eating. Namely does it taste good, did you enjoy the experience, and would you want to go again. And in all cases, the Big Society scored a big thumbs up.
And, though it may not score quite so highly for originality, just like with our recent visit to Red's, this is a place where the staff seem to really care about the food they're producing, and have managed to create a laid back and welcoming ambience that made our visit such a pleasure. And, far from ruing the spread of this burger and beer based cuisine, I just wish there was a Big Society in my town.