With the recent arrival of Thaikhun and Big Ron's, Oxford is bearing the brunt of the shabby chic revolution, celebrating ethnic street food with red neon signs and exposed filaments in jam jars. Already a hit in several locations around the UK, Turtle Bay has come to Oxford on its wave of Caribbean surf, promising lots of rum and lots of jerk. It's had no trouble coming out of its shell, planting itself squarely on the food and bar scenes, with happy hours until 7pm, and from 10pm, offering two for one cocktails, and isn't for slow movers with extended opening hours at the weekends.
Though we all suffered from the demise of Far from the Madding Crowd, its replacement is suitably distinctive in both its cuisine and atmosphere. A complete refit has put the large bar in the middle of the floor, an open kitchen at one end and a full array of unvarnished wood, Caribbean colours and a massive Red Stripe advert daubed across the wall. The whole place throbs with party; even sitting down for a meal the pumping soca soundtrack got me dancing in my seat. The staff have a really strong enthusiasm (bolstered by the slightly cultish chant, 'We are Turtle Bay'), but they add a lot of fun to the restaurant. Much more commercial than Hi Lo on Cowley Road, Turtle Bay is nonetheless infused with an idealised Caribbean spirit, pushing fun and good food.
It's already a popular restaurant so booking is recommended, although waiting at the bar for a table is no bad thing. With a solid range of good, largely rum-based cocktails to choose from, half an hour can pass very smoothly. The food is pitched as spicy, with a strong emphasis on jerk flavours. Turtle Bay has a jerk pit, a recognisably Caribbean, and delicious, style of cooking, so most things they make are going to be good. To start we had Chilli-fried Squid, spicy and tender, with a really creamy, cooling sauce; and Jerk Prawns, with good smoky flavours and fragrant juiciness originating from the prawns' obvious freshness and the accompanying spring onions. Leaving the skins on adds a crisp saltiness that's essential to good jerk.
Again delving into the smoke of the jerk pit for the mains, the Goat Burger combined good-quality meat with really complex smokiness. The green seasoning - a sauce based on shado beni and Spanish thyme - provided essential mint notes to complement the lamb-like flavour, and the accompanying sweet potato fries are always a solid move. The Mo Bay Chicken was immersed in a rich, coconut-packed sauce, nicely balanced but as my friend reported, 'I didn't realise how spicy it was until the end, quite spicy.' The addition of plantain to both dishes is always welcome, and although the menu doesn't say, the side can be altered between sweet potato fries, mash, and other options, so it's worth trying several options.
There isn't an overabundance of Caribbean eateries in Oxford (although I don't think there ever could be), so Turtle Bay is a welcome addition to the city centre. By opening late, with cheap drinks, it'll also be a hit as a bar, I hope their ability to convert part of the restaurant into a dancefloor will be utilised more and more.