I know the routine well.

Me: “Hi, I’m Helen Nugent.”

Maître d’: “You don’t look like a Helen.”

An email on Saturday night informs me that Helen’s mum is poorly and that my esteemed editor will not be joining me for sunday roast and jazz at The Refuge. My usual subs are also unavailable. The Blonde is otherwise engaged on domestic chores and The Brunette is off to see her beloved Gunners at Old Trafford. So it’s a solo meal pour moi. Le déjeuner sur le tod. There have been media reports of restaurants charging double for lone diners so I feel I’m making a stand for soloists everywhere.  

The Refuge. Photo by Robert Hamilton.

The Refuge on Oxford Road is a hotspot for jazz on a Sunday with Dr Sid’s Jazz Roast in the afternoon and now live music with Steve Pimlott and his band, aka The Refuge House Jazz Band, in the evening slot. The hot sounds accompany the popularity of their Sunday roasts. Roasts are now as ubiquitous as the full English. Every tom, dick or harry place offers its variation on the roast beef of old England as well as a vegetarian option.

It’s difficult to plot the origins of this classic but I suspect many of the variations are far from the source. Many years ago, I had a Sunday dinner in a small mining village outside of Barnsley before Maggie decimated them. To start we had a slab of Yorkshire pudding followed by a slice or two of beef and a few potatoes and vegetables. The Yorkshire pudding was cheap to make and filling. It was more than 40 years ago and I still remember it for its simplicity and authenticity. Not a cauliflower cheese or a charred hispi cabbage in sight.   

The Refuge makes a fair stab for a top spot in the Sunday League Table. The Yorkshire pud is the first thing you notice. It is the size of a bairn’s heid, to use the Scot’s vernacular. I opt for the chicken variation which is equally as big. The roast potatoes nestle on a bed of carrot and swede purée alongside glazed carrots and, yes, a charred hispi cabbage. The Yorkshire pudding is airy and crispy as a good pud should be and the chicken is tender and moist, although the advertised garlic and thyme flavouring lacks a starring role. The dish also loses points due to an over-generous pouring of a bland gravy, something the English seem to crave. Give me the light touch of a good red wine jus. Meanwhile, the hispi cabbage is a little too charred and the carrots a tad undercooked. Washed down with a cold, dry vinho verde, it is a satisfying, if not an outstanding, plate.

The Refuge. Photo by Robert Hamilton.

For dessert, an inspired kaffir lime cheesecake with a pineapple compote finished off a filling meal. But the star of the evening was Vaishnavi, my table assistant. She was aware of my solo status, attentive without being overbearing, informative and, above all, just really friendly. About halfway through my meal, the sunny weather broke as a thunderstorm announced its noisy arrival. As the lightning flashed outside, my memory of being struck by a bolt as a child made me apprehensive. Vaishnavi took note and listened with good humour as I briefly recounted my childhood story. Add empathy to her list of skills.

It wasn’t quite a meal I will remember in 40 years but the evening will stay with me for some time. I managed to miss the deluge on my way home but was comforted by the image of a drenched but happy Brunette on her way out of Old Trafford. 

By Robert Hamilton

Main image: The Refuge, photo by Robert Hamilton.

(three stars for the food and an extra star for Vaishnavi)  


The Refuge. Photo by Robert Hamilton.

The Refuge