Formal Hall: Emma

RIVKAH BROWN gives the ‘infamously variable’ Formal Hall at Emma 2.5 stars

asparagus emma food Formal formal hall Hall rivkah brown

Formals are weird. Not the oddly ‘Informal Formal’ or the lavish ‘Super Formal’ but the strange in-between term that is just ‘Formal’. What’s weird about this sort of Formal is that it is normal. At least, it is at Emma: at around £6 a pop, it’s not unusual to find yourself at a candlelit meal for thirty around once a week. Though of a generally high standard (at another college’s Formal I was served a tarted-up version of bacon and eggs), formal is laid on at Emma almost every day, so it’s no surprise that the food can be infamously variable.

Last night’s food trod a careful tightrope that only Emma can between roaring success and miserable failure. Incredibly, some of the failings of the main menu were compensated for by the successes of the vegetarian menu: where the salmon pâté was stodgy and bland, lacking salmon flavour and ending up a creamy nightmare, the asparagus with watercress jus and balsamic vinegar dressing was deliciously crisp – if looking remarkably like ‘Asparagus à la Asparagus’, as a friend pointed out. The fact that a number of people took the liberty of asking for more bread with their starter was a damning sign.

Asparagus à la asparagus

Salmon dance anyone?


Next came an unfortunate main course. I refrain from going as far as disastrous because there were some redeeming elements: the lamb was well sliced, the broccoli passable…but everything else a was a bit of a mess. The meat was damnably underseasoned; the ratatouille a startling combination of chewy kidney beans and crunchy celery; and the boiled potatoes, well, boiled. Serving boiled potatoes with red meat is an unforgivable sin: they were crying out to be roasted, sautéed, dauphinoise-d even, to complement the richness of the meat. Only with fish are boiled potatoes even marginally permissible. A wasted opportunity. Yet again, however, the vegetarian option outdid the meat by miles. The polenta cake with summer veg roulade and a pea purée looked exquisite (or at least very edible), and apparently tasted just as good. The vegetarian gods were clearly smiling that night.



Why the boiling?

Finally, and most pleasingly, dessert. You can’t go wrong with a good cheesecake. Actually, as I have a deep-seating loathing of all things lemony, you quite easily can, though thankfully this was of the chocolate and vanilla variety. My only objection was with the puny amount of red berry compote that it was served with, more of which was required to counterbalance the creaminess of the cheesecake (not to mention the cheese of the birthday speeches that followed).

Thankfully not lemony.

So, what have we learnt from this, kids? Very little: vegetarian food is by and large abysmal at Emma, while the meaty stuff is usually a tad better. All this has shown is that it’s nigh on impossible for a twenty-one-year-old to review a would-be gourmet meal without sounding like a ponce. Bon appetit!