Freedom is slavery, said a great man who knew a thing or two about pig farming. Paralysed by the vast range of the Wetherspoons menu, I begin to understand. Hundreds of dishes jostle for space on the easy-wipe A3 sheet, all of which will emerge uniformly pallid and damp. Perhaps if they just cut down a bit, they’d be able to do a small number of mediocre items, rather than boundless iterations of the same miserable slip of grey meat accompanied by your regulation five-and-a-half chips.
The Big Bang seems to have a much better idea. Minor variations on the same staple – you’ll never guess what – form the bulk of the menu. Cumberland. So far, so normal. Pork and apple. Good. Wild boar and pigeon. What? Lamb and apricot tagine. How? Toulouse. Where?
You can get three sausages served over any mash with gravy, along with peas, red cabbage and fried onions, for £12.49. In the spirit of journalistic enquiry, I plump for this option. For those of you without the swollen OxStu expenses account for which I have been pleading, there’s a ‘Cheapskate’ option for £6.99.
The Piri Piri Chicken sausage is fiery and dense, and would have been deftly mollified by the creamy mash, if I hadn’t gone and chosen the grain mustard variety with stilton gravy. Fortunately, the mash is so darn good that it didn’t matter. Strewn with dark little mustard seeds, it almost steals the show, soft, fluffy, and welcoming to the sharp, crunchy strips of red cabbage.
Wild boar and pigeon sausage – gamey AND piggy. Genius. And the venison – a haughty hereditary peer of a sausage, which reclines on its mash like a country pile on a sprawling estate, until I scarf the lot and end its reign of lean, beefy terror. Gratifyingly thick, the plentiful gravy helps me sop up every last morsel of an excellent meal.
Here ends Part One of my Big Bang experience. My next visit was part of a crew date, an unnervingly regressive experience at the best of times. If I wanted noise, mess, and enforced girl-boy seating, I’d go back to primary school. But I can see why the Big Bang have a dedicated crew date night, cramming us all in, like umpteen sausages packed together in the same intestinal casing, sweating like the pigs we’re wolfing down – it’s lucrative, and it’s fun. Supposedly.
It’s also crowded – very crowded. I have to slalom my way into a chair, halted every time some chump in my path stands up to unleash a sconce which nobody will even hear, such is the cacophony under the low-slung ceiling. Granted, the food is infinitely better than Jamal’s used to be, but the venue, a clean, modern, light corner of the Castle Quarter, just isn’t suitable for conventional crew dates.
But the Big Bang still has a lot going for it. They try to source all their ingredients from within 20 miles of Oxford, supporting some excellent small suppliers. They work with prisoners nearing the end of their sentences to give them a valuable route back into employment. And its manager, Max Mason, is – bizarrely – followed by Barack Obama on Twitter – quite an endorsement.
Don’t go to one of Oxford’s many chain restaurants, even if you’re a vegetarian, and even it’s not dinnertime: there are four kinds of vegetarian sausage, and they do coffee and fry-ups during the day. And, for all this, it’s extremely good value, with a midweek lunch currently costing a very reasonable £5. If you want bang for your buck, you know where to go.