Eating out: Never mind the monkfish

THE LEMON TREE 268 Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 7NW. Tel: 01865 311936. Open every day from midday to 11pm. Average a la carte price, pounds 25 per person, withou t wine. Major credit cards except American Express and Diners accepted
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It takes almost exactly 50 minutes, door- to-door, from our house to Le Petit Blanc in Oxford. It seems a moderately long distance when you live in the country, though I remind myself that in London I would have considered it virtually on the doorstep. Despite the lengthy rural drive, we head off to Oxford and a great lunch in child-friendly surrounds every few months or so, with considerable glee. The journey takes us down Oxford's Woodstock Road, past the Lemon Tree Restaurant and Bar. As you trek towards Oxford's heartland it is hard to miss this landmark. The exterior of the building and the courtyard walls are all painted a noticeable and very nearly tasteful shade of ochre. It brings to my mind some sort of Greek taverna gone haywire. This may also have something to do with the name.

Several acquaintances have recommended it to me. A hairdresser once sang its praises. She had eaten exceedingly well there, she said, and Raymond Blanc was hosting a small party across the room. I took this as a good sign. With hindsight, I realise that there are many restaurants where I have eaten well, including his own Petit Blanc, and never caught a glimpse of him. Besides, you need a minimum of two sightings to prove some sort of Blancian approval. One alone tells you nothing. What you really need to know, is whether he came back a second time, or even a third. Press releases from the Real Meat Company, tell me, with more regularity, that this is one of the few restaurants that make a point of using their free range, naturally reared meat. Surely this is good news too.

Empirical evidence, however, is not always reliable. The lunch began with a down-pour as we bolted from the car. If there was a real lemon tree out on the paved courtyard, we weren't going to stop and admire it. We made it, damp but hopeful, to the taverna door. What a surprise met us on the other side. The place is unexpectedly enormous, like some kind of Dr Who's tardis, but infinitely more stylish. Before us was an elegant sweep of a horseshoe bar, ochre (this side of door it is definitely tasteful) colour washed walls, tubular twisting tangles of lights, little squares of gold paint highlighting wall sconces, sassy floral arrangements, comfortable cushion-strewn banquets (the children loved that bit) and so on and so forth. It was all a very welcome sight. The dining room glimpsed from the bar is lovely, with huge mirrors reflecting other tables, massive French windows leading out to pretty miniature landscaped terraces, split- levels and more sassy flowers. Very exciting, I thought, all in all.

The food, as it turned out, was not, falling far short of the promise of those swish walls. The duck soup that I had ordered with out hesitation, I downed with decreasing enthusiasm, stopping way short of the bottom of the bowl. Shards of spring onion, coriander and lemon grass were well enough, but the duck (not from the Real Meat Company, as it turns out - and nor are the guinea fowl or rabbit) was more tasteless than duck has a right to be, while the broth tasted duller still, and the noodles retained a less than salubrious toughness. My husband's fluttering pile of pasta squares, that masqueraded as a ravioli of goat's cheese "masked with a warm pimento coulis" tasted, he said, as if it had been dawdling in the oven for the past week.

Les enfants were faring marginally better. They had quite rightly rejected the tomato, basil and sweet pepper sausage, which might have passed for late millennium pebble-dash, but had tucked into the goat's cheese sausage with some enthusiasm. I liked the fried red onion rings and luckily they didn't. My roast fillet of sea bass was "blistered with a sweet chilli sauce" and, I've just discovered as I read a copy of the menu, served on salsa verde. The blistering I recall, because you could hardly taste the sea bass underneath, but I have absolutely no memory of the salsa verde, which leads me to believe that it was not vibrant, piquant, lively, not for that matter awful, inedible, slimy, or anything else of any note. The medallions of monkfish that graced William's main course were tough and bland, and it was at this very point that I stopped bothering to take notes.

I yearn, at the moment, for a really superb restaurant pudding. The kind of thing that one doesn't make at home - rich and devastating and blissfully over the top. I thought, for a second or two, that I might have found something that almost reached that description in the chocolate raspberry truffle, but was again met with disappointment. The truffle bit was altogether too solid, too sickly, too redolent of chilled butter and not much more, to stand more than a few mouthfuls.

Florence and Sidney had given up by now and were squabbling under the table, so there was no pudding to raid from their plates either. William's hot treacle sponge was curiously square and flat. Plenty of treacle I'm glad to say, but it did genuinely have a bouncy, spongy texture which felt most peculiar in the mouth. Still, he had no problems downing it with considerable alacrity. Best thing about the whole meal, he pronounced.

Coffee arrived in those glass Pyrex teacups and saucers, which are, I suppose, trendy. The trouble is, that they make the coffee look deeply uninviting in a murky sort of way. Give me a bit of white porcelain, or even a battered mug, any day.

If any fellow diners have told their friends in the interim that they spotted Sophie Grigson lunching at the Lemon Tree, so it must be good (okay, so perhaps I flatter myself), can I just point out, regretfully, that this was the first and last time I shall be making an appearance there. May I also take this opportunity to apologise for the presence of two rather whiny, bad tempered children. I hope that they didn't spoil your meal, and that you fared rather better, food-wise, than we did. If this is a favourite haunt of yours, you may be thankful to know that the Grigson family will be transferring its custom back to that older favourite, Le Petit Blanc, with a sigh of relief.

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