The founder of the ever-popular Browns café chain has opened a new restaurant in Oxford. Will it be as popular with students?

A mid-week expedition to Oxford, and what could be more pleasant than a reunion with my best friend from college days? A nostalgic ramble around town, followed by a leisurely lunch - ah, sweet reminder of those distant student years.

A mid-week expedition to Oxford, and what could be more pleasant than a reunion with my best friend from college days? A nostalgic ramble around town, followed by a leisurely lunch - ah, sweet reminder of those distant student years.

Of course, we didn't actually go to Oxford University. But a gastronomic pilgrimage to our own, more obscure, Alma Mater would involve an 800-mile round-trip, with only the promise of a bag of curry chips at the other end. So Oxford it was, and the new Quod Bar and Grill.

It's part of the stylish Old Bank Hotel, the latest venture from Jeremy Mogford, who made his mark with Browns, the ever-popular chain of student-friendly café restaurants. The Old Bank opened last November in a converted branch of Barclays on the High Street, opposite All Souls, and next to agnÿs b. Not to call it the High Street, though; it's "The High" to locals and anyone in the know. Perhaps someone in the know might also be able to explain why the restaurant is called Quod, which doesn't mean anything, rather than Quad, which would have been synonymous with Oxbridge classiness.

The elegant building, part Elizabethan, part golden Georgian sandstone, has been cleverly converted to make the most of the available space and light, while remaining virtually unchanged from the outside. The former banking hall is now an airy, high-ceilinged dining room, with arched windows which allow customers a great view of the passing stream of half-empty tour buses.

The design palette is all contemporary neutrals, with buttermilk paintwork, bare oak tables, limestone flooring and low-slung leather upholstery. The only colour comes from the gigantic canvases which line the walls. Bought from art schools around the country, these are mainly figurative works of the Neurotic Realist style; I was particularly taken by one depicting three sickly junkie types gazing at a brain on a chair, though the brain could possibly have been a carelessly painted cushion.

Striking a rather cosier note is the oak shelving unit in the middle of the room, set-dressed with all manner of faux-domestic paraphernalia, including dried pasta in jars, bottles of olive oil, and - unpromisingly - various Italian cookery books and an Italian-English dictionary.

Given that Quod's chef, Alberto Brunelli, is originally from Northern Italy, and comes via Daphne's and the Red Pepper group, one would assume that he's well beyond the "Favourites from a Tuscan Farmhouse" stage. His menu is Italian accented, and centres on pastas, pizzas and risottos, with more substantial main courses limited to grilled meat and fish.

Cathy began with one of the more adventurous offerings, a Sardinian salad in which bottarga (dried tuna roe) had been grated over a chunky bed of celery batons and mixed leaves, and served with Carasau bread, a kind of Sardinian crispbread made with durum wheat. A little bottarga goes a long way - it looks like dried marmalade and smells like a trawlerman's fingers - but oven-baked tomatoes and the bread's neutral crunch defused its pungency, and the overall effect was fairly successful.

Less so was my ribollita. This magnificent soup is one of Italy's great peasant dishes, a hearty blend of white beans, ciabatta, tomatoes and cabbage. But Quod's version had none of the expected oil-rich chunkiness. Instead, cannellini beans sat in a homogenised vegetable mush, on which a sprinkling of vinegary red cabbage had been dropped as an afterthought, in place of the traditional cavolo nero or Swiss chard.

As we were going in for student nostalgia, I followed through with a pizza, albeit one whose fashionable accessories would have drawn an admiring crowd back in the early Eighties. Nothing so plebeian as mozzarella or tomato paste had been allowed on to its enormous, puffy surface. Instead, there was smoked salmon, rocket leaves, sliced fresh tomato and a drizzle of pesto oil. The base was fresh, the toppings plentiful, but as always when eating pizza, I experienced the vague weariness which comes from knowing that the last mouthful will be identical to the first.

Cathy's spaghettini with mussels was basically a spaghetti alle vongole from which all flavour had been removed. The mussels were OK, but the pasta was overcooked, and refused to integrate with its sauce, a watery broth tasting faintly of tomatoes, and not at all of the chilli which was apparently a feature. She left most of it, and consoled herself with snaffled slices of my seemingly endless pizza, while lamenting the impossibility of finding a really good place to eat in her recently-adopted home town.

Still, Quod is already doing fairly well, judging by the number of tables which were occupied around us. Cathy had asserted that one of the interesting things about living in Oxford was the possibility that perfectly ordinary-looking men and women might turn out to be world-renowned writers and academics. It was hard to imagine, though, from the highlighted-helmet hairstyles of Quod's female patrons, and the mobile phoniness of the men, that they were potential candidates for the Brains Trust, unless they happen to be holding a special edition for estate agents.

On the plus side, Quod's staff are relaxed and efficient, a selection of newspapers is provided for lone diners (or for rude diners in a group) and the coffee and desserts are excellent. A chocolate marble brownie was more like a variegated soufflé than a cake, while a bread and butter pudding made with panetone ( sic) was silky and subtly spiced. (Someone should have looked up the spelling of panettone in that Italian dictionary, and while they were there, perhaps the recipe for ribollita as well.)

At around £20 a head - lower than you might expect from a hotel whose rooms go from £150 to £300 a night - Quod is just about within range for the student population, though it's probably more a lunch-with-the-parents place than a romantic dinner destination. The cooking will have to settle down a bit, though, before Jeremy Mogford can justify his plans to launch further branches around the country. On the other hand, pointing to the success of the Browns chain, which he sold for £35 million in 1998, he might well be tempted to retort " Quod erat demonstrandum".

Quod Bar and Grill. The Old Bank Hotel, 92-94 High Street, Oxford (01865 202505). 7am-11pm. All Cards. Disabled access

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