Restaurants: Home from home

Browns offers a wholesome menu and family ambience, says Vivienne Heller
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The Independent Culture
Everywhere I look there are adorable babies: playing under tables, asleep on shoulders or perched in antique wooden highchairs applauding the patient waitresses. Funny; it seems only yesterday that my cousin was a wee nipper, and now he's into the Finals straight. Well, Paul may have mastered Marx, but he's failed in the art of cooking, so I've dragged him out for a decent meal.

Browns has been catering to university types for many years, its status as an Oxford institution proven by lunch-time queues (no booking) and a liveried doorman. Both were absent on Sunday - it's the holidays, and the usual crowd of undergrads and acolytes has been replaced by a jolly mix of sprawling families, elegant grannies and gossiping friends. Forget your Cafe Rouges and Domes; this is a brasserie par effortless excellence, from its aged wooden floors to the flourishing foliage and creamy custard walls. Add a happy hubbub, and you have the perfect recipe for a Sunday- lunch venue.

We reconstituted our systems with sublime bloody marys before facing the menu. It's an extensive list of uncomplicated dishes, augmented by a specials board that includes a good selection of wines. I began with an innocuous-sounding carrot and orange soup, which jolted my senses with a surprise spice kick. Paul's melting duck pate belied insipid looks with strength of character, and was furnished with toast triangles done to a turn.

A decent wait between courses gave us a chance to catch up on family news: though the place was heaving, strategically placed tables and clever acoustics ensured a degree of privacy. We were stopped mid-sentence by the arrival of our mains. In loving memory of my pet duck Quackers (RIP 1982), I had plumped for poultry. This dish was a fitting tribute: a crispy haunch perfectly complemented by a tart plum sauce. Paul tucked into one of Browns' righteously famous pies. Beneath a light, sesame-sprinkled crust nestled bite-size pieces of succulent chicken in a creamy leek sauce. It was so good that our neighbour, who had bagged the last roast, was spared Paul's wrath - though I had to resist the temptation to spear the man's fabulous cumulo-nimbus of a Yorkshire pudding.

And what better ending to a wholesome meal than a fruit crumble? We had the custard on the side, all the better to admire the blackberries and violet-tinged apple chunks just visible through the cracks in the crunchy topping. This was the best I've ever tasted - a real peach of a pud.

Fat and happy, I dispatched my cousin back to his digs. An Oxford Blue to Browns! Just hope it colours Paul's marks in May...

Browns, 5-9 Woodstock Road, Oxford (01865 319654) approx pounds 20 a head

PRIME SUNDAY LUNCH SPOTS

The Beetle and Wedge

Ferry Lane, Moulsford, Oxon (01491 651381)

The Depot

Tideway Yard, Mortlake High St, SW14 (0181-878 9462)

Essebourne Manor

Hurstbourne Tarrant, nr Andover (01264 736444)

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