Food & Drink: Eating Out - Going underground

Don't let Bistro 20's dubious entrance put you off trying this new restaurant, below Oxford's Randolph Hotel
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The Independent Culture
I don't make a habit of it, but recently I met a property developer. He came up with one illuminating nugget of intelligence about the world of real estate: the old insistence that location, location, location mattered more than anything else has been replaced by atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere as the magic spell for a successful development. This applies as much to restaurants - for which the chant was first coined - as to the frenzied state of loft conversion he is involved in. Food, food and food alone is seldom enough.

One of my favourite places within striking distance of London, the Sir Charles Napier, is beautifully but certainly not conveniently located, on a heavenly ridge of the Chiltern Hills. The still faintly pubby interior, not too tidily matching furniture, nor too neatly manicured garden with slightly erotic sculptures concealed in the undergrowth give it ambience in abundance. The cooking's always been pretty good, too. After 20 years - an eternity in restaurant terms - the chef has moved to Oxford, joining forces with two managers from Raymond Blanc's diffusion range, Le Petit Blanc, to set up Bistro 20.

Their mission is to provide something that central Oxford, like so many other tourist-swamped cities doesn't have enough of: decent, not extortionately priced food that should appeal to visitors or people who live there.

Just over the road from the Ashmolean Museum, Bistro 20 couldn't be more strategically placed to attract them. But for one significant obstacle. It's stuck underneath the Randolph Hotel. Surely no one could mistake the unprepossessing entrance for a public convenience, but a notice at the bottom of the stairs politely explains that the lavatories are for customers - an invitation for students to steal a sign and put it up in their room, if ever there was one. If only there were some students around at this time of year, Oxford, and this underground restaurant, might have more life.

Below stairs some unnaturally bright colours make up for the lack of natural light. A lurid blotchy green, not so much a paint effect as an affliction covering the bar area, drove us straight to a table in a more soothing cream-coloured alcove, lightly populated with cream- coloured tourists. We had glimpsed other rooms off the bar, one a gory crimson, the other an alcove like our own, but couldn't tell whether they were occupied. As at so many student parties, the number of separate rooms gives rise to the uneasy feeling that the action is elsewhere. Although it was an uncomfortably steamy summer's night, the basement was pleasantly impervious to the climate. So, more disappointingly, is the menu. It's not unappetising, and the prices are appealing, with very few main courses for more than pounds 10. It's just that it was distinctly, almost uncannily unseasonal. Nevertheless, though wild mushrooms might not suggest summer, padded out (we suspected) with tamer ones, and piled on and around a kind of grated potato cake, they formed one of two irreproachable starters.

"This is lovely, and not like anything else I've ever had," said my friend. "Are you sure that's a compliment?" I asked her. It more often applies to some horrible combination that every other chef has thought better of. So she added: "But it's not too different, either." With plenty of fresh herbs in the potato and a meagre dribble of tomato sauce, the ingredients were all trusty enough to get on together well.

Bread, for which you pay pounds 1.40, shows the kitchen cares about basics: from a spectrum of very fresh slices we'd already tried the herby ciabatta and pain de campagne. I'd eyed up the dark rye, but noticed too late that the rather zealous staff had cleared the basket away. Still, the other starter had convinced us the kitchen had a light touch with starch. Unstodgy gnocchi with lemon and sage was said to be a 200-year-old recipe: it proved that simple, delicious ideas don't date.

Bistro 20 was doing well at delivering good food, fast. Pre-theatre suppers and post-sightseeing restoration are clearly what it's pitched at. But since our main courses arrived with such speedy efficiency, how had they managed to overcook them both? Meaty slices of pork belly rolled around a modicum of mushroom stuffing and surrounded by flabby, not crackling, skin sat on rather wet mustard-seed mashed potato, along with a wedge of cabbage, a whole leek and a carrot that seemed more soggy than braised. Mushy didn't matter as much with the spiced lentils intriguingly sweetened by coriander seeds, turmeric and cumin, but it was a shame the cod had been roasted too long. Though we might have been better off playing safe with what's claimed to be "Oxford's best salmon fishcake", we weren't prepared to be put off two-thirds of the way through.

Puddings proved to be the deciding course. Chocolate fondant, the cake- on-the-outside, melting-chocolate-sauce-within confection that's fast becoming a classic, was divine. Burnt lemon cream with raspberries was also top of the range.

With a bottle of Pinot Grigio, from a dull list on which almost every other wine is a Chardonnay, coffee, water and service we clocked up almost pounds 70 for two. For food, food, food Bistro 20 acquitted itself well in two out of three courses. For location, location, location it can hardly be beaten. All it needs is a little more of the elusive atmosphere that every new business is after.

Bistro 20, 20 Magdalen Street, Oxford (01865 246 555). Daily lunch and dinner. Set-price lunch and pre-theatre menu, pounds 9.50 two courses, pounds 12.50 three. A la carte around pounds 18. All major cards. Disabled access through the hotel