Love at first bite in Oxford
Le Petit Blanc: 71-72 Walton Street, Oxford OX2 6AG. Tel: 01865 510 999. Open daily 11am-11pm. Lunch served 12-3pm, three-course set menu, pounds 14. Dinner served 6.30-11pm. Average price per person, pounds 15. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 08 September 1996
When I got there, I had my doubts. The bar on the left and the few tables in the well-lit room facing Walton Street were only partially occupied, the male bar staff with their shorn heads and blue shirts seemed eager to please, but very young and not very experienced. I ordered a glass of Chambery to show off; they'd never heard of it. I had a dry sherry instead to remind me of the parties at Oxford when we drank nothing else. The sherry at Le Petit Blanc was certainly better than that.
My guest, a witty academic whose views on most subjects I admire, arrived at that moment, and we were shown through to the back of the restaurant, a wide space designed by Sir Terence Conran, with a polished floor and decorated in terracotta red with about 20 tables. Ours was one of a row of four - a little too close for any real privacy but, with the atmosphere crackling with the kind of competence and efficiency the French call "seriousness", it didn't seem to matter. I then fell in love with the French waitress, a crop-headed Goddess of the Revolution with blue eyes and perfectly modelled lips, and abandoned myself to the gastronomic roller coaster.
My academic friend is not one to muck about. He scanned the dozen or so starters and two dozen main courses on the menu in a few seconds, said "Looks very good, nothing too heavy," and began expounding his theory about the Prime Minister, whom he considers one of the craftiest men of the century. Other politicians made the mistake of appearing too clever by half, or at least cleverer than most other people. John Major's genius lay in giving the impression he was a great deal more stupid than anyone else, in convincing even the most dimwitted of back-benchers that they were far more intelligent than he was, that their every idea was fascinating.
The Spirit of the Revolution appeared and asked if we knew what we wanted to eat. We realised that, apart from having decided that there was nothing too heavy, we didn't, and she promised to come back. My friend again scanned the list at speed, saying that dons didn't deserve good food. At one high table he pressed the Master to introduce butter instead of marge, and the Master told him none of his people could tell the difference. It made him weep, the Master said, to see them drinking decent claret. I begged him to make a decision.
To begin with there were various soups, a goat's cheese souffle with marinated grilled pimento and matured balsamic vinegar, an expensive pan- fried foie gras with a French bean salad, pasta and risotto.
For the main course there was duck, guinea-fowl, rabbit, lamb and beef, sausages, herb pancakes, Gruyere cheese and semolina dumplings, brill, salmon and bream. On top of that there were sardines filled with spinach, coriander, ricotta and parmesan cheese.
The Spirit of the Revolution had returned, and I asked for watercress and spinach soup, followed by Oxford sausages and parsley mash, Madeira and sweet onion sauce. My friend said he'd like the cheaper pate of foie gras and chicken livers with Madeira and port, and then, like a man in a skittle-alley bowling blindfold, that he wanted the sardines. He was not joking. I wished him luck, ordered a bottle of Crozes Hermitage and a jug of water, and we returned to the political anecdotes.
The watercress and spinach soup was an alarmingly bright billiard-table green, but absolutely fresh, delicious and retaining the flavour of both watercress and spinach. My guest, taking the restaurant reviewing work seriously, suggested we swapped in mid-course, and the Flag-bearer of the People brought an extra spoon with a smile that would have undone Robespierre. He was wildly enthusiastic about the soup. I was equally impressed by his pate and toast. We were engrossed in Harold Macmillan and the question of whether anyone with a genuinely satisfactory private life would go into politics in the first place, when his sardine arrived. I tucked into my wholly satisfactory sausages and mash, hoping that he would forget about sharing it, but when he said "A bit bony!" I knew there was no escape. It was not by any means as bad as I feared: real untinned fish, pink and quite meaty, baked on whole slices of potato and tomato in a kind of mild-Mediterranean stew.
For pudding he asked for a blackcurrant and vanilla vacherin, and I had the floating island, known here as "Maman Blanc". The floating island was as good as you could imagine, and my friend was by now so wrapped up in what we were talking about that he finished all of his without taking as much as a spoonful of mine. By the time we left, Le Petit Blanc was full to bursting, with some of the most glamorous women I have ever seen standing in the bar waiting for a table, though none of them as stunning as the waitress. My friend said I had to remember that Jericho was the Islington of Oxford. To me it seemed more like the smarter end of Milan or Venice.
Our dinner for two, with coffee but minus tip - 12.5 per cent offered with a smile of senile Morse-like resignation - came to pounds 51.45. !
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