In order to reach Cinnamon Kitchen and its much-touted ‘panoramic views of the vistas across Oxford’, one must first navigate the bit of Westgate that still looks like a construction site. This juxtaposition of the polished and the unrefined, the exalted and the humble, is good psychological preparation for a menu that features a £20 kebab.
In fairness, it is a veal kebab, and it isn’t served from a van that operates until 4 am, nor does it have weird grey lumps that you try to pretend you’re too drunk to notice. It did also suggest that this was not a ‘maintenance loan-friendly’ restaurant. But it wasn’t just the strong north-easterly winds making it rain tonight: my friend’s Grandma Barb had put up a generous tab, and so we contented ourselves with blinking rapidly at the prices, instead of ‘going out for a fag’ and never coming back.
A sampling of the ‘cocktail range created with influential mixologist, Tony Conigliaro’ came in the form of two glasses ornamented with what appeared at first glance to be prison shanks. On fifth glance (sticks? chocolate? very stiff leaves?), they proved to be pieces of cinnamon bark reclining in a blushing, ombre bath of peach bellini. It was a perfectly nice bellini, with inflections of the east, or perhaps just fierce multi-level branding, from a brown fog of cinnamon syrup lurking at the bottom of the glass. However it was nothing too refined for our less-exalted tastes, and almost sweet enough to blend into the last traces of blue VK lingering about my palate.
We ordered the Bombay street food trio as a starter: vada pao, tapioca cake and chilli paneer. Much like myself, the vada pao is a dumpling-shaped item consisting mainly of potatoes, with a rough skin that glistens with oil. The similarities end here, as the vada pao has been deep fried and put in a sandwich. The addition of chutney, rather than own-brand ketchup, managed to stop it tasting like an extremely expensive chip butty. The tapioca cake felt a little like a polenta fry that had been through a messy divorce and lost its sense of fun. Its tiny, perfectly square form had the thinnest of oily crusts from a brief, guilty pan-frying, and the rest was an all-too-brief crumble of sad, mildly bland starch. This was perhaps needed to soak up the chilli paneer, a joyfully exuberant tangle of salt, spice, and grease.
A quick scan of the main courses demonstrated Cinnamon Kitchen’s emphasis on regional ingredients. Avoiding the mildly aggressive “Chukka spiced 35 day dry aged LOCAL beef rump steak”, we went for chargrilled sea bass and butter chicken. Costing around £20 each, these dishes were, naturally, hilariously small. “Is this a butter chicken for ants?” asked my friend, in her best Derek Zoolander voice. I found a portion of rice the size of an eraser lurking under a decorative banana leaf. However, the fish and chicken on centre stage were simple but delicious, tender and lightly spiced, melting in the mouth as swiftly as my early dreams of JCR presidency.
We split a lassi panna cotta for dessert – one of several Western-palate-friendly options, including a £9 chocolate mousse that didn’t even pretend to have an Indian twist. As complimentary prosecco arrived at the table (Grandma Barb is quite the charmer), we reflected on an excellent meal: the food, surroundings and service were beyond complaint. But when the maitre d’ handed back our coats from a rattan wardrobe and opened the door onto the dark, wet terrace, dotted with posters apologising for its “unfinished appearance”, it felt like a welcome return to the real world, full of sane people who do not pay £20 for a grilled aubergine.