Tucked away down the aptly named ‘Hole in the Wall Street’, facing Caernarfon Castle is Oren. Run by Gert (former chef at popular local eatery Y Caban, it’s a bit of a cross between a secret supper club, a pop-up restaurant and a conventional cafe.
During the day (Wednesday to Saturday 11.00-15.00pm) they offer a hearty lunch for £5 and on Friday and Saturday night a three course set menu dinner for £15. The menu constantly changes and their advertising flyer claims that they make an eclectic selection of simple seasonal dishes using as much local produce as possible, serving traditional food with a twist.
On the night we attended this wasn’t the case.They were offering a Persian menu and apparently theme evenings were also due to take place over the coming weeks (Spanish, Japanese etc). I found this a little disappointing actually as I was hoping to find a local restaurant that genuinely encompassed local, seasonal British cooking (OK the bread was from Bethesda Bakers, the goats cheese was probably local…but the courgettes, aubergines, cucumbers were definitely not). I love experimenting and indulging by cooking new and unusual foods but I would always try things out before giving them to guests (well usually) and I was really hoping for something more traditional ‘with a twist’ especially as the kids were with us and they are less tolerant of anything different.
Now I don’t know much about Persian food so have little with which to compare our meal, so I can only go on my personal tastes and impressions. We started with a noodle soup made with lots of fresh herbs (mint, dill, chives, parsley and tarragon I think). The broth itself was universally popular, having a fresh summery taste, although the noodles seemed out-of-place somehow. The thick consistency didn’t work and for me they needed a little more cooking as some of mine were still stuck together. I wonder if perhaps thinner more delicate noodles would have worked better, although Gert did say it was a traditional dish.
The main course consisted of a number of dishes; a broad bean hummus with ramsons, sweet mildly spiced carrots with dates, a dish of cucumber with dill, aubergine with goats cheese, a leek omelette, lamb stew and rice.
The kids weren’t too sure about all of this although my other half tucked in quite happily saying “it’s not bad, I like it”. We then proceeded to discuss the ways in which we view and eat food, he didn’t like my tendency to critique everything saying ‘just eat it and enjoy it’….I think that’s harder as a cook or a chef, because you are always considering how it could be done better, or why something works or doesn’t work.
I think perhaps I also had a slight problem with Oren because it seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. If it were a supper club offering good experimental home cooking it would work, because this is what the food struck me as: good home cooking. But as a conventional restaurant, with a chef, for me it didn’t quite come up trumps.
That’s not to say there weren’t dishes that I liked very much and that worked well (the aubergine with goat’s cheese, the cucumbers with dill and the courgettes with date syrup and pistachio). But the broad bean humus was a little bitter (they must have used frozen, unpeeled broad beans as of course they are not in season), the omelette was bland and under seasoned and the lamb needed something to give it a little kick, it was too rich and without the spice such a dish might deserve. The rice also had too much bite to it (even though I appreciate Persian rice is cooked differently to the way we are used to).
Unfortunately the chick pea flour fudge and frozen yogurt also underwhelmed. I like a sweet hearty pudding and this did not push my buttons, although hubby loved it.
I think I appreciate what Gert is trying to do with Oren and I applaud him for giving it a go in Caernarfon (not exactly the gastro hub of the universe), but I still think he perhaps needs to decide what it is exactly he is trying to create. Is it an experimental cafe, a pop-up restaurant or a place to celebrate local, British, seasonal foods, but that’s not for me to decide. I have been through this myself with supper club and it has taken me a year to really understand what local people want and like.
I also think he needs to either focus on being the chef or running the front of house as it’s extremely difficult to do both. Getting someone who is a natural with the customers would allow Gert to focus on the food coming out of the kitchen and not meeting and greeting guests. All this said I liked Oren and I will go back. It was astoundingly good value, a beautiful environment and I want to support this venture. Hopefully as time progresses some of these issues will get ironed out in order for the place to be a long-term success.
Oren can be found at 26 Hole in the Wall, Caernarfon LL55 1RF. It does not have a website so to make a booking either phone 01286 674343 or email firstname.lastname@example.org