The Magic Café, OX4 1RQ

Once the tree is down and the decorations have been packed away for another year, stripped of festive merriment we are left to contemplate a depressingly prominent stomach and a pickled liver. As we enter January, New Year’s resolutions are made and many decide to endure a month of deprivation in an attempt to absolve their recent excesses. However this is surely a bizarre practise. The virtues of a healthy ‘little and often’ philosophy are the polar opposite of this conscience-cleansing January abstinence, which will inevitably be followed by a February that will involve enough Jaegermeister to bring down a small elephant as we pat ourselves on the back and return to the binge.

Detoxing is not for me, mainly because I would rather, admittedly not always successfully, try to find a good balance as opposed to extreme fluctuations, but also because my powers of resistance to good food and drink are pathetically limited. But we can eat well without damaging ourselves and following on with a pointless period of self-denial. Indulgent and satisfying food need not involve artery-clogging doses of fat, salt and sugar, we shouldn’t have to detox. Large Big Mac meal or skimpy salad? It does not have to be all or nothing with food and drink.

The closest I came to a January detox was making the decision to discover a decent vegetarian place in Oxford. It seems that the reputation of vegetarian food from those of a carnivorous persuasion can be poor. It may be that vegetarians themselves have given vegetarian food a bad name. Poor attempts at recreating meat products, an obsession with seeds, and, of course, the dreaded stuffed miscellaneous vegetable have not helped.

But I have eaten some superb vegetarian food, where the produce does the talking and the vegetables are treated with respect. Tarts, pies, soups, pasta dishes and many more can be created to great effect without the nagging feeling that something is missing when meat is omitted. Good vegetarian food is not ‘Vegetarian’ food, it is simply food that does not happen to contain meat.

I had not heard of the Magic Café in Cowley, and had assumed it had sprung up in recent times to satisfy the thousands of students that descend on Oxford each term, and the aging hippies struggling to come to terms with the fact that the only things that resemble free love and Thai dye in the 21st century are organic coffee and ethical mung bean production. It was therefore a great surprise to learn from the waitress that they had been in business for 16 years.

The Magic Café is uncomplicated in the extreme, at the counter you pick from a selection of daily specials – soups, salads and pies, before returning to your table with the dishes of goodness in hand. The interior is somewhat aged, but spacious and sociable. The majority of the seating is made up of large tables so one could easily end up sharing lunch with a bunch of strangers. The Café seems to have a keen local following and I started to see why as my plate was piled high with fresh and imaginative salads – spinach and grilled halloumi with squash, and beetroot and apple alongside a golden and aerated ricotta and vegetable tart bordered by crisp and flaky puff pastry. I also ordered a soup and enjoyed a deep and warming minestrone packed with hearty produce. For all this I was paying closer to five pounds than ten. The food was very tasty with a real home cooked feel to it, perfect for lunch. Furthermore, it genuinely could not have been improved by the addition of meat.

The Rusty Bicycle and the Magdelen Arms are just a few paces away from the Café in an area which is beginning to develop a high concentration of fine eateries. However the Magic Café is far from ‘gastropubbery’, it is cheap, cheerful and nutritious, and next time I am in the area around midday I will probably make a beeline for it.

This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian on December 1, 2011.


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