So, Oxford appears to have landed itself a brand new chain restaurant. Given both that I am a committed foodie, and that I consider Italian cheeses to stand above nearly any other food, I should find the arrival of Franco Manca on George Street an event of interest – perhaps even excitement. This being said, we Oxonians appear to be living at a tipping point over land use in the city centre. First, Wahoo departed. For a while, Cellar appeared to be on its way out. Upon finding out about the new restaurant, my response instead was one of trepidation. But, I opted to enter Franco Manca with an open mind, and let its food and atmosphere sway me instead.
The George Street restaurant is certainly doing a valiant job with the space given, but the shallow room was quickly overcrowded, and I found myself squeezed between a friend and a fire extinguisher, a little uncomfortable for most of the night. This said, I’m certain that on a less crowded evening the smaller restaurant size would cease to be a problem.
There was a heavy emphasis on wine on the evening we visited – the sommelier personally came to visit our table to dispense various bottles – and several were particularly highlighted as Sicilian. One of my favourites was described as a “sourdough wine”, perfectly complementing the sourdough garlic bread that we had as part of our starter. The dryness and slight sour hint of the wine accentuated the twice-fermented sourdough pizza and garlic bread, working very well together.
Curiously, our wine was also a perfect complement to the cured meat presented as part of the ‘Sharer Platter’, which had an unfortunately perfumed taste. All sins were atoned for when garlic bread and buffalo mozzarella arrived at our table, which was a triumph. And it wasn’t even the best dish we had. That honour instead falls to the Burrata Pugliese, a mozzarella filled with cream. This, combined with a pesto to complement the cream and curd of the cheese, left my taste buds sated. After a trip to Florence in the summer vacation, I’ve had a yearning for a decent buffalo mozzarella on this side of the channel – this cheese alone is worth a visit to Franco Manca. The vegans on our table were also satisfied by their combination of artichokes, asparagus and other grilled vegetables, although these did arrive noticeably later than their meat counterparts.
While the starters piqued my interest, in Franco Manca pizza is (naturally) the star of the show. A testament to their deliberate paring down of the menu, the limited selection of toppings ensured that the sourdough bread shone through our combinations of cheese, tomato sauce, herbs, and meats. If you can choose any topping, you will not be disappointed by the chorizo.
Rounding off came dessert – a tasting platter of a high performing Tiramisu, a rather bitter chocolate ice cream (which was in fact an asset, cutting through the sickliness of the other cakes), amongst other less memorable dishes. The lemon almond cake was decidedly average, for example.
At the end of the meal I found myself in two minds about the desirability of a restaurant like Franco Manca in Oxford. I should be careful not to be unfair – aside from a tight squeeze in the seating arrangements, the meal they served us was absolutely delightful. The wine, cheese, and sourdough bread could not be faulted, and the service was cheerful. The restaurant made an effort to present an enjoyable evening, and for this it cannot be marked down.
But we do not exist in a vacuum, and a review of a chain restaurant must be accompanied by a frank look at the context in which it is placed. In Oxford there are already several popular and high performing pizza places, serving the city centre (one doesn’t even have to look beyond George Street!) and further afield alike. While Franco Manca performs well above my experience with pizza in Jamie’s Italian, for example, I can’t help but wonder if Oxford would not be better served by something a little more unique.