With restaurants coming and going in Oxfordshire with alarming speed, it’s evident that times are hard, and competition is rife.
And yet some weather the storm thanks to their regular, returning customers and their reputation for outstanding food.
This is certainly the case in Middle Barton, a tiny village in West Oxfordshire, where nestled in the former Carpenter’s Arms, is one of the county’s best kept secrets, Cinnamon Stick, where beautiful Middle Eastern food emanates from the kitchen.
Syrian chef and owner Khalid Mohammed and his wife Lauren set up shop there nearly three years ago. Khalid, formerly an academic, turned to cooking later in life and having worked in prestigious restaurants such as The Feathers in Woodstock, decided to open up on his own.
After two years of searching for a suitable premises he chanced upon the quaint thatched traditional village pub The Carpenters Arms and knew he’d found his dream location, however remote it might appear.
It means the site is spacious, with ample dining and a nice bar area, complete with a book corner and children’s area – family friendly then. It has a lovely beer garden and a beautiful spacious souk tent in the summer redolent no doubt of Syria’s former spaces.
But it’s the food that shines, and draws me back over and over again, as consistently exciting, fresh and delicious as expected, each and every time.
I took my vegetarian Human Dustbin of a son; who is also a student, a combination which means he is permanently starving and able to eat an indecent amount of food at any time of the day or night, a form of constant grazing.
As grazing is what The Cinnamon Stick does so well, he was the prefect candidate, and having been there before, we visited on his request.
The proffered menu, served in the beautiful souk tent (only available in the summer months) was surplus to requirements.
We knew what we wanted already – the infamous mezze is predominantly veggie, with a few extras thrown in for good measure.
It includes humous (soft and creamy), Moutabel (like babaganoush), warak inab (vine leaves stuffed with rice, tomato, parsley and onion), the zahra maglia (this fried cauliflower with tahini dressing is my absolute favourite and I always order two portions) and some fatayer sebanikh (pastry parcels stuffed with spinach and onion with a zesty lemon tang).
Enough for most mere mortals but not The Human Dustbin, we added two portions of tabbouleh (a wonderfully zesty bright green parsley and tomato salad, finely chopped with onion, herb and bulgur wheat, another favourite), the kellage halloumi (grilled flatbread filled with halloumi & fresh mint( and the fun moudammas (boiled fava beans with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and tahini, the juice of which I could drink) and of course some delicately but distinctly spiced falafels. Plus pitta.
There are other starters – the lentil soup being hugely enticing – but we had over-ordered already.
Preceded by the complementary and colourful pickles to whet the appetite, they vanished before you could say abracadabra.
Khalid cooks everything himself from scratch, which is why, having never taken a day off, Lauren has finally put her food down, which is why The Cinnamon Stick is now closed on a Monday.
Otherwise you’ll find him in the kitchens, maintaining the impossibly high standards of his wonderful food.
It’s such a lovely way to eat; a little bit of this and a little bit of that, so agin the meat and two veg approach of the Brits, so foreign in every way. Yet locals of all ages come in on a regular basis, many of whom have never tried Middle-eastern food before, some deeply suspicious, now all firm converts.
So make the effort to visit because The Cinnamon Stick is authentic, communal, beloved and very special without any pomp and circumstance. I can’t recommend it enough.
- The Cinnamon Stick is holding a Syrian Supper Club on Nov 21 with all proceeds going to the Hands Up Foundation. Banbury MP Victoria Prentis is attending as well as the Founder of the Hands Up Foundation, who will give a brief talk. The Cinnamon Stick has been involved with this charity for the past year, selling second hand books in the corner of the bar, where the proceeds help pay for prosthetic limbs for Syrian children.
The Cinnamon Stick, 122 North Street, Middle Barton. Chipping Norton, Oxon. OX7&DA
Open Tues 6pm-11pm, Wed- Sat 12-3pm and 6pm-11pm, Sun 12-3pm
The mixed mezze is 14.95 each for two.
thecinnamonstick.co.uk or 01869 340440