Eating Out: Where the chips are down

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The Independent Culture
TESCO COFFEE SHOP

Lockheed Close, Banbury, Oxfordshire OX16 7LX. Tel: 01295 457443. Open Monday to Friday 8am-10pm; Saturday 7.30am-10pm; Sunday 10am-4pm. Two courses from pounds 3.50-pounds 5. Breakfast from 99p. Credit cards accepted

SATURDAY MORNING and the prospect of a long bank holiday weekend looms large before us. The fridge, once cleared of the items emblazoned with long-gone use-by-dates, looks bleak and empty. The big shop is upon us and the children are delighted; a trip to Tesco means a trip to the cafe there. They love it, for some quite unfathomable reason. I've snacked there more times than I care to admit - it just seems the easiest option when hungry children and mega-shopping coincide. To keep some semblance of propriety and bank holiday weekend activity afloat, I promise myself that we will go somewhere, anywhere, rather more interesting before the weekend is done.

First port of call, however, is Banbury Tesco, star of the recent fly-on-the-wall television series. Despite its fame, this is not one of the top-rung stores. Their much publicised "Finest" range is poorly represented, but it still ranks fairly well among small town supermarkets. Tesco after all, has been working hard to upgrade its image. The cafe, though, remains stoically unscathed by the desire to raise standards. I imagine the thinking runs roughly as follows: customers buying the more expensive foody lines would never consider taking a bite in a supermarket caff, so why bother to make changes to an easy and unchallenging formula?

But, and this is a purely personal point of view, their customers, whatever they are buying, deserve better, though not necessarily more complicated, food. And even more to the point, their children deserve to be treated as important clients who one day may well be spending their money in-store. Here is a golden opportunity to introduce shoppers to some of the better products available on the supermarket shelves. Why then do the appealing looking children's lunchboxes, with their irresistible bright colours and free gift, have to contain a snack meal of almost zero nutritional value, precious little flavour and absolutely no imagination. Here is what my children peered into: two small white rolls, spread with marmite, cheese spread or choc `n' nut spread (sometimes they replace this with strawberry jam), a packet of crisps (until recently these were at least low fat, though not on this occasion), an overly large packet of dolly mixtures (previously, the sweety offering was a more acceptable small packet of chocolate buttons), and an orange drink containing no more than 10 per cent orange juice and an unnerving cocktail of sweeteners.

Adult fare is less demoralising. There are, of course, ample supplies of cheap chips, sausages, beans and so forth. The chips are meaty and slightly fishy, which is disappointing as it really isn't that difficult to produce decent chips from a packet these days. My friend Wendy and I came over all adventurous. I bravely tackled chicken tikka with rice and Wendy had sweet and sour chicken with vegetables which she chose to have spooned over a baked potato rather than rice. Verdict: could be worse. The sweet and sour was mucilaginous, but at least the vegetables retained a degree of firmness and character, even if the sweet and the sour elements were crudely exaggerated. The rice under the tikka was actually rather good, the grains firm and individual. The tikka itself had a bizarre moreishness, though distinguishing individual vegetables was no easy task.

The highlights of the meal came at the end, in cake-form. Both the moist, not-too-sweet carrot cake, with its cream-cheese icing and the chocolate brownie meltdown were really very palatable. Indeed, the latter is something that chocaholics might well drool over in indecent fashion: a dark chocolate biscuit sort of a crumb-base crowned thickly and royally with a dense, decadent chocolatey cream, topped with sprinklings of nuts. Something to celebrate at last.

Two days later, we found ourselves at the Buttery (01604 696 728) in Castle Ashby, just off the road from Northampton to Bedford. The contrast was staggering. A small cafe-cum-restaurant in a quaint village surrounded by craft shops, and a mere stone's throw from some fine Capability Brown gardens, it does have a head start on the perfunctory surroundings of Tesco. It must be said, however, that the proprietor, Kate Dicks, grabs the advantage and runs with it. In a distinctly, compact kitchen, she and her team turn out well-prepared, often imaginative but not radical, fresh, well-flavoured food that obviously has tremendous appeal, judging by the packed tables, and small queue. Sandwiches are made to order with very fresh bread, speckled with sunflower seeds or sun-dried tomatoes. My four year-old daughter was so smitten with the delicious egg mayonnaise sandwiches that we had to order a second round. A plate of freshly cooked pasta, with mushrooms, broccoli and green olives in a creamy sauce met the enthusiastic approval of my two-and-a- half-year-old, who generously let me and his grandmother raid the rather fine olives. My bruschetta were somewhat unorthodox rounds of crisp toast topped with chunky halves of tomato and melted cheese, but the coleslaw that accompanied them was truly superb. Made with freshly grated vegetables and plump raisins, dressed with good, but not excessive mayonnaise, it redeemed the much-besmirched name of coleslaw.

Puddings were tip-top. Granny thought she had died and gone to heaven with her brilliant chocolate roulade, all crackly meringuishness on the outside and fudgey chocolate inside, and Florence's raspberry cheesecake, though over-solidified with gelatine, had a good flavour. I loved the blackberry and apple crumble with its tart cinnamony filling, and sweet thick crumble topping. A tub of Loosely ice-cream kept the smile on Sidney's sticky face.

Now, if this small team of young women can pull that kind of food off so competently and thoughtfully, why can't the mighty Tesco, with its stacks and shelves of fresh produce, do a little bit more to show their hungry customers how good fresh, simple food can be?

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