This isn’t somewhere you’d go on a whim. It’s more of a place you might go with your granny, boyfriend on an anniversary, or a rich consultant you met on Tinder. But if you do have a grandmother, boyfriend or suitable equivalent, you should give it a try.
And if your grandma’s worried that it’s a Raymond Blanc restaurant and he’s a bit fussy for his own good, you can tell her not to worry. Although the food, décor and service all gesture at an awareness of French haute cuisine, the whole experience is comfortably grounded somewhere on the English south coast.
The décor carries this impression unassumingly with largely bare, sea-on-a-cloudy-day-blue walls and elegant white tables. A touch of abstract, Matisse cutout-inspired stained glass gives a touch of Parisian flair, while a solid fireplace at the centre of the room provides the sturdy reassurance of an English country house.
It gives the room a sense of cross-Channel balance which is reflected in the menu. Gravadlax and escargots sit side by side as entrées, with a number of conservative ventures into fusion food: coarse-cut burger in a brioche bun, coastal cheddar cheese soufflé.
Light and citrusy scallops are given substance and sweetness by a rich tomato mash; bold strips of gravadlax are counterpoised by the dynamic swirl of atomised raw vegetable salad surrounding it. The flavours are subtle but assured, the presentation unpretentious, and the portions surprisingly substantial.
The mains are similarly pared down but effective. Two large cuts of duck dominate one plate, with dauphinose potatoes and carrots squeezed into a corner. It all looks a little brown and stodgy, but is vindicated by the taste and quality – both cuts are tender, complex and surprisingly light, balanced by sweet and buttery dauphinoise that manages not to be too rich, and robust, earthy carrots that give interesting textural variety.
The quail with new potatoes and spring vegetables looks more impressive but is less inspiring; although the meat is crisp and perfectly cooked, subtle but rewarding, the slightly heavy sultana pate doesn’t stand out and the spring vegetables don’t lift the dish as much as they might. The flavours are still superb, and the amount of complexity achieved from simple ingredients is astounding.
After the richness of the mains, the lightness of the desserts comes as a relief. The pistachio soufflé arrives puffed out of its ramekin and alarmingly large, but the inside is fresh, feather-light and surprisingly refreshing. The crème brulée’s creamy vanilla custard is lifted by a tart and delicate swirl of stewed rhubarb – another subtle reminder of the firmly English heritage behind the menu.
Three courses with (excellent) wine comes to around £45 per person, but for the right occasion, the price is justified by the quality of the ingredients, the understated inventiveness of the menu, and above all, the vibrancy and depth of flavour in every dish. It’s the overall best-tasting food I’ve had in Oxford, and well worth experiencing once.
PHOTO/ Brasserie Blanc