Restaurant: With all jus respect

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The Independent Culture
CHAVIGNOL

7 Horsefair, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. Tel: 01608 644490 Open for lunch 12 to 1.45pm, and for dinner 7 to 9.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Set lunch, pounds 18.50 (2 courses) or pounds 25 (3 courses). A la carte lunch/dinner, pounds 25 (2 courses) or pounds 35 (3 courses). Gourmet dinner menu (7 courses), pounds 42.50 Credit cards accepted

I'D HEARD whispers about a new restaurant in Chipping Norton, but it was the courtesy bus that first caught my eye back in early September. There aren't many places that offer a courtesy bus to their customers, certainly not one splashed with bold circles of red and black. It stands out a mile in the picturesque market town of Chipping Norton. The town is too far from us to merit regular visits for its own sake (and unfortunately too far for us to take advantage of the courtesy bus), but we drive through occasionally on the way to my uncle's place in Wiltshire. Or at least we did, until he sold the house a few weeks back.

The one and only time we stopped in Chipping Norton, we were reduced to snacking in a miserable Italian restaurant, which seemed the least objectionable option. Here it was that Florence, two at the time, uttered her most memorable toddler faux-pas. At full blast, quite unbidden, she launched into a discourse on the anatomical differences between the sexes, finishing with a rousing, triumphal sally directed at the dour proprietor: ."And I bet you've got a willy too!" Judging by the dismayed, unsmiling reaction, I have my doubts.

My latest trip to Chipping Norton, as final destination this time, was altogether a different kettle of fish. My friend Wendy and I were off to enjoy a rare treat: lunch a deux with no children around to embarrass or distract us. Just as well, really, as I doubt that any of our offspring would have sat demurely at table throughout a lunch that trailed on for a full two hours, and might have continued after that if we hadn't insisted on rushing the pudding and refusing coffees or teas.

The service at Chavignol is not speedy. In fact, it was distinctly tardy, given the handful of customers. Luckily they have a mere half a dozen tables to contend with.

As it happens, we didn't mind the snail's pace too much; we had time on our side and the place, the food and the young proprietor proved most congenial. However, it is apparent from the outset that this is not somewhere to bolt down a quick snack, and confirmation comes in the form of the prices. The choiceless "verbal" lunch menu is a fairly steep pounds 18.50 for two courses - round here that is more or less classed as daylight robbery. If you choose from the a la carte menu, you're looking at no less than pounds 25 for two courses, and another tenner on top for the full monte. But the lemon tart I chose for my third course was exceptionally good of its kind, with a soft, rich, sharp filling, the type of perfect thin crisp pate sablee that I just cannot seem to reproduce at home, and lamina of burnt sugar glaze burnishing the whole, partnered by a scoop of divine chocolate sorbet, so I could hardly grumble.

It proved the grand finale of a lunchtime memorable for its glazes. There are so many glazed dishes to choose from, that we wondered if the chef moonlights as a double-glazing salesman. Our menu-speak mirth, was, we realised later, sparked off as much by surprise as anything else. You just don't expect glazes (at least four, if not five), nages (two), jus (three we think), essences (one) and reductions (one) in this part of the world.

Terminology apart, Chavignol comes as a breath of fresh air in an area that is not blessed with a surfeit of good restaurants of any size, shape or description. Let me spin you briefly through the delicacies that appeared before us. The first little notable mouthful came in the form of an elegant rendition of Welsh rarebit "glazed" with plum chutney. Not your home-style rarebit either. The base was snappingly crisp, fried perhaps, but not greasy, and the thin layer of glossy topping brought a surprising intensity of cheesiness, offset by the sweet dark flecks of plum. Another amuse- bouche arrived as we awaited the meal proper, a dainty coffee-cup filled with a haricot soup based on a sterling ham stock, glazed again, with a hazelnut slick on the surface that echoed the nutty undertones of the beans.

I envied Wendy her first course of a snippet of hot foie gras perched on top of a mound of moist, sweet, melting onion scented clearly but not overwhelmingly with sage, in its crisp tartlet, surrounded by a moat of sweet chicory jus. As it turned out, the jus was just one sweetener too many, lacking the bitter edge that one might have expected from the chicory. I, meanwhile, settled for a turret of sea bream diamonds surrounded by comparatively dull mussels moistened with a clear broth. Probably the least interesting concoction of the whole meal.

Beef is not actually one of my favourite meats, but every now and then the thought of a tender juicy nugget of really good rare beef seems irresistible. Fillet is always tender, though hardly renowned for flavour, so very sensibly they bring that in other forms - first of all the wonderful vivid puree of celeriac and horseradish that cushions the little round of beef, and second the delightfully unexpected combination of shreds of oxtail and tarragon that fills the crowning ravioli. Wendy's noisettes of lamb went down smoothly and swiftly, oiled, or as they would have it, glazed, with a delicately minty paloise sauce - the French take on our time-honoured partnership of lamb and mint. It left her with sparse space for the dense chocolate marquise she had ordered with determined enthusiasm. She did her utmost best, working the cooling Campari and orange sorbet, but unable, mournfully, to breach the last half.

It has been six months since the Chavignol team opened their doors to the unwary inhabitants of Chipping Norton. Faithful regulars from their old restaurant, Lovell's at Minster Lovell, make a pilgrimage to their doors, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that new customers will breach the price- barrier every now and then to keep them afloat. The food seems ambitious in this corner of the world, but with any luck and justice they will hang on long enough to gather up a sizeable band of adherents. Thanks to them, Chipping Norton is certainly back on my own map.

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