Chopsticks at the ready! Author Clover Stroud and her brood of five tries the much hyped Sticks'n'Sushi - but does this sleek Oxford restaurant work for kids?
Those Danes, they know a thing or two about how to live well, don’t they? They’ve got it all down to a tee:, great interiors, great knitwear, great childcare, great noir drama, great hair, and now, it seems, great sushi.
Because their most successful restaurant group, founded in Copenhagen a very respectable 22 years ago, by brothers Jens and Kim Rahbek and another family member Thor Anderson (impossible not to love a man called Thor, is it?), fused their half Japanese, half Danish background to create Sticks ‘n’Sushi.
The concept is simple: the finest fresh sushi, served alongside yakitori sticks from the grill, like chicken, duck and beef. It’s a blindingly simple, blindingly brilliant concept, and means you can just ignore the person who cries “I don’t like fish” when you’re heading out for a meal together and really, really craving a plate of spanking fresh sashimi.
Such was the success of their restaurant that they quickly expanded across Copenhagen, and six years ago moved to London, where they now have four restaurants, as well as Cambridge and to a roof top perch in the Westgate Oxford. I went to check them out on a Saturday lunch time, not for a quiet lunch a deux with my husband, who was away with work, but with my five kids. Yes, apologies to Renée Zellweger, but Sticks’n’Sushi had me at “of course we can accommodate you and your five children.” Yes five! Yes I am mad! And since the next thing you’ll probably ask me is what car I drive, it’s a VW Transporter the size of a mini bus!
We struck meteorological gold, arriving for lunch in late February, when the weather was pretending to be high summer, so lingered outside for a round of iced green tea and elderflower pressé in the rooftop garden outside the restaurant. There are stunning views over the dreaming spires, and it’s a fun place to people watch. Inside, the mood is chicer and darker, all navy blue hangings, a big bar alongside one wall, and pebbles (natch) to prop chopsticks on the tables. It’s understated and very Japanese feeling, and gives you the distinct sense Victoria Beckham might be about to waltz in at any moment to push a piece of seaweed around her plate.
Despite this grown-up vibe, I felt entirely at ease arriving with my children, and at lunch time, was one of several big family parties. At 2, 4, 6, 15 and 18, my children are, to say the least, spirited, but the waiting staff where absolutely charming, and totally unphased by their questions. Why do four year olds ask so many, many questions? Sticks’n’Sushi, it turns out, is brilliantly set up for family groups and actively encourages children to sample the nutritional delights of raw fish. There are regular children’s sushi classes where kids as young as five can be taught how to make nigiri and hosomaki, and they even run children’s birthday parties. This doesn’t mean the restaurant feels overrun with screaming families, and it’s still a super chic place for a grown up meal, but it was a joy to peruse a menu with my kids without a chicken nugget or burger in sight.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Where do I start? It’s all so delicious. A large Japanese menu can sometimes be confusing, but I was more than aided by our waiter, the wonderful Dean, who talked the kids through different dishes. Each dish is also accompanied by a photograph on the menu, so you can get a really good sense of what you’re actually getting. We ordered several à la carte dishes in order to put these Danes through their paces, including some spectacular suzuki kataifi, salmon sashimi, beef tataki, delicious edamame beans (which the kids had fun popping open) and seaweed salad and miso soup. And that was just for starters.
The younger kids had simple bento boxes with crudités and a few pieces of nigiri including salmon and shrimp, and chicken sticks, which they gobbled up. My teenagers were keen on the sticks, too, so we tried chicken teriyaki, scallop, and asparagus sticks from the grill. The biggest hit, however, was the sweet, sticky taste of blackened cod, which everyone fought over.
It’s a big menu, with lots of sharing plates as well as set menus, and a good vegetarian menu, too. The kids loved the chocolate fish in their bento boxes, and I finished with calming green tea. Believe me, after trying to teach my two year old how to use chopsticks, I needed it.
OUT & ABOUT
Situated in the top of the Westgate Centre, you don’t have to walk that far to literally shop until you drop. But it would be a shame to miss out on the city centre, too, which is just a short stroll away and deserves your love (and money.) Check out the Ashmolean, which always has great shows on, currently Jeff Koons, and if you are visiting with kids, the Pitt Rivers and Natural History Museum, are a must. Younger children will also enjoy The Story Museum while teenagers can be set free in Primark in the Westgate.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: I was delighted by what a great place this is to take kids. Beyond the really delicious food, the smiley, cheerful and incredibly welcoming waiting staff helped make this a genuinely enjoyable family experience, which isn’t always my lasting impression on leaving a restaurant with my kids. The range of tasty bites on the menu also means there there’s easily something most kids will enjoy, and there’s always plain rice for the really picky eaters. And while it’s a good place to take kids for a quick lunch, as the afternoon goes on and night draws, it’s a grown up and sexy place for supper, too, or drinks and snacks.
Not For: I loved Sticks n’Sushi and struggle to see who wouldn’t enjoy it. There were families of all ages enjoying lunch, from small babies to their smiling grandparents, plus groovy looking couples on first dates, a handful of Japanese guests, which is always a good sign, and everyone in between. Perhaps it’s not the best place to take someone who wants something really traditional and very safe, like cottage pie or macaroni cheese, but perhaps you could just suggest they stay at home and cook that themselves, so you can enjoy your hosomaki in peace?
The Damage: A generous lunch for three small children, two teenagers and a hungry adult came in at £92, which didn’t include alcohol. It’s not cheap as chips, but food this good shouldn’t be, it’s certainly worth it for a treat.
Sticks ‘n’ Sushi, 311, The Westgate, Castle St, Oxford OX1 1NZ. Tel: 01865 237 777.
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Words: Clover Stroud