16 Turl Street, Oxford OX1 3DH. Tel: 0865 793396.
Open daily for lunch and dinner except Sun dinner. Set menu pounds 23.95- pounds 29.95, including wine.
Vegetarian dishes. No smoking in one room. Access/Visa/Diners/Amex.
NOW that I've been doing this column for a few weeks, I've been longing for someone in one of these restaurants to recognise my name. When I book a table by phone I always spell out the surname, give the Christian name, take every possible precaution that they don't mistake me for Davey Wall, who seems to be following me around.
I used to fantasise about what would happen next. Would they give me a free drink? Would they curtsey? Would they (even better) give me an infinitely redeemable eating token? But nothing. Never. Not a squeak of recognition from anyone. And then . . . suddenly, last Saturday, it happened.
It wasn't nearly so much fun as I'd imagined. In fact, even though nothing was said, it was no fun at all. No curtseys, nothing free; all I got was a feeling that I had to put on extra manners. I felt pressured into sitting with my shoulders back and looking delighted by the turn of every event. When my companion Peter said of his first course: 'It's all right. It's just annoying to eat. It keeps breaking up into bits.' I said: 'Ssshhh]' with pursed lips and metaphorically patted my hair-do, if you get the gist. I think we may have begun the evening talking in whispers. So, the moral of that tale, the moral of most tales in fact, is: Don't Show Off. And, if you're a restaurant critic, book in someone else's name.
Whites is an elegant couple of rooms in the middle of Oxford: big windows, high ceilings, as you would expect. And walls painted a very comforting earthenware red. Rich French tourists sat at the table beside us, dressed in the sort of clothes Jeremy Irons wore in Brideshead Revisited. They looked like French people who'd dressed appropriately for an evening in Oxford - bright tweed jackets with handkerchiefs sticking out of the top pockets. Nobody made me stare, particularly. Not an especially interesting bunch.
But the food was outstanding. It was the best I've eaten since New Year. Everything on the menu made the mouth water. Even more exciting, nothing on the menu needed to be explained. It was comprehensible, unpretentious and (it has to be said) pretty expensive. There was a choice of two set menus and a short a la carte. Both menus (we opted for the more expensive one, at pounds 29.95) used what I thought was a brilliant system. Serious wine experts might object to it; they might like to choose their own wine - and I'm sure they could. But those who like good wine and who don't really have much idea about how to order it should love the system as much as I did. A separate glass of appropriate wine was served with each of the three courses and was included in the menu price. Every glass was infinitely better than anything I would have known how to order myself.
Both menus only offered two dishes per course. But I've never experienced such difficulty in choosing. We both wanted everything. And because there were two of us and four dishes to choose from, we got it. I can't remember why we opted for the more expensive of the menus, but it certainly proved a good choice. There were mussels in spiced coconut sauce on the pounds 23.95 menu and I was sorely tempted. But perhaps I've eaten mussels on your account too often already. It was time to try something new.
So, Peter chose the irritating crumbly potted crab, lobster and foie gras. I didn't mind the crumbly element myself. In fact I thought his first course was almost as good as mine. We couldn't actually identify the foie gras in this dish, but it didn't matter. I chose the exquisite fillet of turbot with fig tapenade and winter leaves. It was slightly sweet, as you would expect, incredibly delicate. It couldn't be faulted in any way.
But there was one tiny problem. Poor waiter. There he was, knowing why I was there, and there we were in this posh Oxford restaurant and he couldn't offer us any bread. What a disaster. We'd arrived late in the evening, around 10-ish, and a fresh lot of bread was still in the oven. It didn't arrive until the main course. It didn't matter. In fact I think it made me treasure the turbot all the more. We drank 1990 Mercurey Olivier Leflaive. Delicious.
The main courses were even better, if that's possible. I had the roast breast of duck and cep butter sauce. The duck was perfectly tender, the sauce was perfectly subtle. Peter had the fillet of beef with wild mushrooms and roast garlic. Just as tender and subtle as the duck. We drank 1986 Domaine du Roudier Montagne St Emilion. Delight.
Peter went on to lick the hazelnut marquise platter clean. He said it was the most delicious pudding he'd ever tasted. In fact he was still talking about it days later. I didn't even try it, I'm afraid. I couldn't. But I drank the 1989 Chateau Piot-David Sauternes; not for any very respectable reason, because I don't even like pudding wines, but because it was free. Which might explain why I can't remember what I failed to finish for pudding. It had a lot to do with chocolate, that's for sure, and the handsome head waiter was very put out by my inability to finish it.
They forgot to give us the truffle wot came free wiv our coffee. But honestly, it didn't matter. Dinner at this restaurant is so good it's worth saving up for. We spent pounds 78 in all (we had a couple of glasses of house Champagne that weren't included in the menu price). We've already got pounds 17.30 in the Returning to Eat at White's Fund.
PS. Tragedy has struck in West London. The chef at Number One restaurant, which I reviewed very favourably recently, has returned to Thailand to do his national service. The food is now unrecognisable and my recommendation is sadly withdrawn. Sorry about that.