Cathal O'Philbin is one of the most intelligent, witty and charming people I know. He has been physically handicapped from birth to the extent that he is able to do very little unassisted; except, that is, for thinking - which he has always done absolutely for himself, having a blazing desire for independence - talking, writing, and jaunting about in an electric- powered wheelchair which he manages to steer with his less bad hand.
He has in the last few months been to Ger-many, Australia, and his native Ireland, always to speak or to advise at international conferences on public provision for disability.
I mentioned his wheelchair when I booked the table, and was telephoned twice by the restaurant apologising that they had at the moment no suitable lavatory, though they were thinking of building one. Cathal said he wasn't sure he'd be able to wait that long, but assured me there would be no problem.
15 North Parade is a smart restaurant with an open kitchen at one end in a little row of bright shops just off the Banbury Road. It has pale blue walls and darker blue water glasses on the tables, and as Cathal steered his wheelchair in, beaming all over his face, I realised for the first time what an obstacle course restaurants must be: people push their chairs back, waiters can slide past, wheelchairs can't. His helper, Caroline, came with him, a pretty girl in her early twenties doing a postgraduate course at the university, and we settled down to the jokes and an examination of the menu.
There was a set lunch, two courses for pounds 10 or three for pounds 12, offering chicken and goose liver pate, spicy Thai pork and jasmine rice, then pear Helene. We all decided against this, and there was an immediate clash between my own metropolitan fat-cat attitude and the Real World. I already had my eye on a Moroccan salad - cracked wheat, oranges, olives, cucumber and mint - and was banking for research purposes on one of the others having another salad - mussels, smoked ham, avocado, croutons and chervil in a vinaigrette sauce. No luck. Cathal said he didn't really want a starter, and Caroline said she'd be having a big dinner that night - fat cats take note - and only really wanted some bread and cheese.
Fortunately, this appeared on the menu as British farm cheeses, home- made biscuits, plum and ginger chutney, so I ordered that, as well as both the salads for myself, partly out of duty to the newspaper, and partly hoping they might be tempted when they saw them. They also agreed to share half a bottle of red wine.
I managed to persuade them to taste a bit of the cracked wheat and cucumber from the Moroccan salad, and they agreed that they were light and tasty and quite original. The other salad, with flakes of smoked ham and mussels and avocado, was all right but a bit fussy and affected. Caroline meanwhile tucked into her cheese, slightly mystified by the plum and ginger chutney, which came in a little white pot in the midddle of the plate with slices of cheese arranged in a fan shape round it.
By that time Cathal was relating their adventures on board a Welsh-Irish ferry from Swansea, when he couldn't get his wheelchair into either a private cabin or the public restaurant: "So in the end we made them bring the restaurant to us." He also complained about the crew staring at him from the moment he went on board: the other people having lunch at 15 North Parade were admirably uncurious, and the Moroccan waiter perfectly sophisticated. I noticed an early tendency to ask me or Caroline what Cathal wanted, but Cathal himself soon established who was boss.
His best memory of the ferry was of when they went into the bar for a glass of Guinness. The barman cleaning glasses was singing along to the piped Irish music so successfully that Cathal asked him what part of Ireland he came from and he said Poland.
For the main course Cathal chose shin of beef, oxtail and spring vegetables in consomme, which came with a little mound of flat pasta; I had grilled lemon sole "dusted with polenta, zucchini, tomatoes, capers and flat-leaf parsley"; and Caroline pressed on virtuously with the cheese. At that point we were joined by Ulrike, a girl from East Germany who helps Cathal when Caroline is at her lectures. She was equally abstinent and asked only for a cup of coffee.
Cathal and I discussed the food. He found the beef full of flavour and well cooked; I was less generous about the lemon sole, which was more like a dab, ungenerous and mostly bone, dusted with what looked and tasted like yellow supermarket breadcrumbs and served with slices of little boiled potatoes that had not been boiled for long enough.
Despite my pleas that he would be doing it for the sake of the newspaper, Cathal refused any pudding, so I had to choose between a tarte Tatin with cinammon ice-cream, bitter chocolate with amaretto mousse cake, rhubarb parfait or caramelised rum banana pavlova with vanilla cream, and went for the last on the list, fresh fruit sorbet churned today. It came as two dollops, one with a little meringue hat, with a twisted fan of biscuit rising between them, but it tasted very good.
We finished with camomile tea, and the bill for everything came to pounds 53.35 without the tip.Reuse content