French food in Oxford is, whilst perhaps not the most prolific cuisine around (as that somewhat dubious honour goes to Italian), still common enough to require evaluation on a sliding scale. Towards the bottom, we have a handful of chains, including the perennially disappointing Brasserie Blanc which, despite bearing the legendary name of the Besançon native, was pitifully unable even to produce a steak at dinnertime when I visited, judging a fatty pork cutlet to be an acceptable alternative.
Towards the top are the one or two independent establishments which really shine, bastions of honest-to-Dieu French fare which exemplify the cuisine, but at a price which perhaps takes them off the menu for students à la recherche de a midweek dinner. Enter Côte of George Street, sitting comfortably three-quarters of the way along our spectrum; one branch of a chain, yes, but without the distasteful earmarks of one of those horribly overindustrialised ‘authentic’ French chains who, by their very use of the word ‘authentic’, assure you that the exact opposite is true.
We are greeted at the door by a personable manager and shown to a table, where she swiftly presents us with the menus, including a handful of daily specials. Looking around, I notice that the décor is really rather distinctive: I no longer feel that I’m mere metres away from rainy Oxford or the rabble of The Four Candles next door, but neither do I feel that I’m in a Parisian brasserie. For one thing, the staff are far too affable and attentive. No, Côte feels very much like the bar of a stylish Central London hotel, with steely greys and gleaming mirrors all over – as well as the few tables of businessmen laughing over a lunchtime drink – giving the place a professional yet not-too-serious sort of air.
Anyway, je divague. The food. As our amuse-bouche of a pissaladière accompanied by a bottle of Breton cider (sorry: cidre) arrives and we take that first bite of the unbelievably crisp flatbread, its caramelised onion base paired wonderfully with creamy Reblochon cheese and fragrant thyme, I realise that the bar-like food is a wonderful match for its equally bar-like surroundings. One could easily while away an afternoon or an evening here with a couple of friends, indulging in their cidres and nibbles as a break from the usual lagers and crisps.
Our actual starters would be no less suited to such a convivial format, as the charcuterie platter – peppered with interesting variations on the standard – was both delicious and quite shareable; a paper-thin sheet of salty jambon and (surprisingly) thick-cut rounds of chewy saucisson sec were, whilst tasty, not the stars of a dish which boasted slices of smoked duck breast, pink with gobbets of velvety white fat, and duck rillettes, a sort of slow-cooked pâté which was very pleasant indeed with a bite of cornichon and a chunk of pain de campagne to accompany it. The moules marinières, meanwhile, were relatively disappointing, as their natural flavour was covered up by quite a strongly flavoured sauce which was more cream and parsley than anything else; still, for the refreshingly ducky twist on an oft-rehashed classic alone, the starter very much won our approval.
Côte’s main course offerings cater for a range of tastes, from ‘light mains’ which go against the traditionally French disdain of (or downright refusal to recognise) vegetarians with similarly un-French dishes such as ‘risotto vert’, though their crêpes and salads bolster the menu’s Gallic identity. For those of us with more of an appetite, there is also a selection of fish and meat, grilled or otherwise, from which we chose a roast duck breast and one of the day’s specials, a brace of roast quail. Duck breast is a personal favourite, entirely irresistible, my hamartia (or rather duckartia), and so I was delighted to see it arrive uniformly pink. It tasted as good as it looked, succulent and slightly gamey, with a sour griottine cherry sauce – the flavoursome cherries clearly having been macerated in kirsch or another such liqueur – cutting through the rich duck nicely.
It was served with a gratin dauphinoise, a dish of creamy layered potato which oozes cheesy richness – but the fact is that, delicious as it was, it simply didn’t go with the duck, which requires something a little more verdant to accompany what is quite a bold, individual flavour. If I had to describe the dish (and indeed most of the other dishes too) in a single word, it would be ‘concentrated’; Côte distils the most indulgent aspects of French cuisine and combines them, largely successfully, though with the occasional slip-up.
The quail did not suffer from this flaw: it was presented elegantly, wrapped up in crisp bacon and laid on a bed of mixed vegetables and melt-in-the-mouth potatoes, all drizzled with a heady mustard seed sauce. Quail is a dainty little bird, cute to look at and an enjoyable novelty to eat, but perhaps not perfect for someone with a hearty appetite; despite these minor qualms, the course left us satisfied and looking forward to dessert.
The jewel of any French menu, the last course is one of pure indulgence at Côte, featuring classics such as crème brûlée and pain perdu, the latter of which was my choice. And a good choice it was, too: a small puddle of warm caramel played host to a golden tower of the brioche pudding, which was buttery and crisp on the outside, yet fluffy inside, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop it; it even attenuated the unexpectedly harsh aftertaste of a glass of Muscat dessert wine. Palatable though the pain perdu was, I somewhat regretted not having ordered for myself the praline crêpe with chocolate sauce, Chantilly cream and caramelised banana rounds, all the flavours of which worked together like the most harmonious of symphonies: nutty, rich and sweet, clouds of cream and crackling caramelised sugar. Just absolute perfection.
Maybe it was just the combined sugar and caffeine high, but at the end of the meal we felt that Côte was certainly a place worth revisiting in one of its many guises: breakfast bar, offering such classics as eggs Florentine and croques monsieur and madame; eatery perfect for a lunch or dinner as rapide or drawn-out as you please; or merely social hub – somewhere to come with vaguely peckish friends for a glass of wine and a little cured meat. True, it’s not the pinnacle of French gastronomy, but what it sets out to do, it does magnificently, with a charm and atmosphere unrivalled by any of its neighbours.