The experience at Cowley Road's resident Syrian restaurant - the Pickled Walnut - is a cohesive one; from the clean, stylish design of the tiled interior, to the warm, fun and knowledgeable service from the staff, to the unfussy and high-quality food. All are presented with the same effortless unflappability and simple-but-not-simplistic know-how.
Our evening at the Pickled Walnut started with cocktails - delicious cocktails. That is apart from one of my guests who ordered a mint tea (we told him it wasn't traditional to have mint tea at the beginning of the meal but our waiter, after giggling, was very obliging in providing his back-to-front request). The highlight of this introduction to the meal was the Pickled Walnut's signature Watermelon Martini, which is incredibly sweet, delicious and watermelon-ny and I urge you to try it.
Apparently, Syrian starters traditionally take the form of meze, for which we had hummus, mutubal and baba ghanoush, alongside a portion of spicy pickled walnuts (it's only polite, surely, to sample the eponymous dish). All the dips were smooth and full-bodied in flavour, and the pickled walnuts are well worth trying. They are delicately spiced, with a beautiful sweet-sour balance and a satisfying chunky bite.
For my main course, which arrived quickly, I had the Vegetable Fasoulia, which came with a side portion of bulgar wheat. Vegetable Fasoulia is a dish consisting of french beans in a warm garlicky tomato sauce. The portion was rather large for such a simple meal; it really was just a big bowl of green beans. But I enjoyed it nonetheless; it was real comfort food in its gentle warmth and uncomplicated flavours and thus easy to appreciate. The bulgar wheat - which was dotted with little bits of chopped up noodle - was delicious; a really nice texture and not too oily nor dry. My guests had the Vegetarian Mixed Grill and the Kosa Bilabea. The former was again a simple and ample meal, this time cooked on the barbecue out the back, giving the vegetable and halloumi chunks an authentically summery chargrilled finish. It was served with chips and cooked to perfection. The Kosa Bilabea are courgettes stuffed with meat and covered with a yoghurt-based sauce. This was perhaps the most unusual of our meals, using as it did yoghurt as the basis for a main course. My guest enjoyed the novelty and found it tasty.
After the meal we stayed for a while soaking in the atmosphere and hardly noticed when we were the last ones left in the restaurant. Luckily, the staff cheerily waved us goodbye as if it were no problem at all.
Price: £59.90 for meze starter incl pickled walnut side, three main courses, two cocktails and 1 mint tea.
Verdict: Compared to other restaurants owned by the same family (I'm thinking of Pomegranate mainly), the Pickled Walnut is more expensive but this reflects the fact that it is perhaps more of a dining experience. I would recommend it to students wanting to take their visiting parents out for an interesting and delicious meal, or groups wanting to share an authentic middle eastern meal without leaving Cowley Road.