Oxford classics

Raymond Blanc's new brasserie offers food for the educated palate
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We can do tea rooms, tandoori houses and pizzerias, but English provincial towns rarely have interesting, all-purpose places for families, business lunchers, groups of friends and anniversary diners to eat out under one roof. The most serious eating often takes place in the country - and nowhere more seriously than at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons outside Oxford. Which is fine and dandy, but no use to those who want to eat well at less cost, without leaving the city.

Before it closed in 1989, the Le Petit Blanc in north Oxford was Raymond Blanc's urban version of Le Manoir, and fostered two extraordinarily talented chefs, John Burton Race and Bruno Loubet. (Even then, the cost of a meal was around pounds 30 a head.)

But his new Le Petit Blanc, which opened earlier this month a short distance away from the first version, where bohemian, studenty Jericho meets donnish residential north Oxford, should not be confused with its predecessor.

First, it has been designed by Sir Terence Conran, leader of the metropolitan democratic eating-out party. Secondly, it's a real brasserie, which means it's open all day long from breakfast (continental or English) through tea (full afternoon, at the rather full price of pounds 8.30) to dinner, with a daily, three-course menu for pounds 12 and a long, all-day and evening carte. Children are positively encouraged, and are offered their own pounds 6 menu.

There's a cafe, and a small, chrome and mosaic bar; the restaurant behind has smoking and no smoking areas. Vegetarians are well provided for, and the food is described by Raymond Blanc as: "French provincial cuisine, thoughtfully peppered with Mediterranean and Asian accents". All bases seem pretty well covered. But can anywhere really be all things to all people, as Le Petit Blanc sets out to be?

At lunch time on its second day of opening - an unintentionally early visit, for which allowances should be made - the pace in the sparsely occupied cafe was sleepy. From a small herb and water garden, light streamed into the nicely air-conditioned dining room. In this bright and boldly coloured restaurant, with rust, mustard and royal blue chairs, bare tables and cream walls, a garden party of ladies in flowery frocks seemed as much at home as a tableful of blokes in singlets. The room was not full, but dinner was apparently fully booked, and I hope they sorted out the service by then.

After we'd played a round of Pelmanism with wines by the glass - from a varied list of Old and New World styles with tasting notes for each but, strangely, no producers given for the Europeans - we watched and waited as dishes were haphazardly matched to customers.

At the back of the restaurant is the open kitchen - a Conran characteristic, that should set up an energetic interface between chefs and customers - with a rotisserie glowing in full view. So how come most dishes seemed to arrive from the opposite end of the restaurant, without being seen to leave the kitchen? Can they all have taken a circuitous route via other tables?

Never mind, for whatever turned up was as hot or as cold as it should have been, and rewarded the wait. Having chosen a cross section from a diverse and appealing menu, we found our three very different main courses all had some sort of stuffing. It's hard to avoid proper skilled cooking here: there are no short cuts or skimping on time and technique, not much quick, easy chargrilling and pan-frying, no fail-safe squid, or chicken breasts. Not that the food is precious, or fiddly, but the kitchen understands the boning and stuffing and saucing that underpin established cuisine. Even simple comforts such as a hamburger and sausages are likely to be made with absolute correctness.

Maman Blanc's hors d'oeuvres - dollops of crunchy, colourful vegetables marshalled around egg mayonnaise - were just the sort of simple treat you'd go to a French routier for. Only on the Asian accent did the kitchen come slightly unstuck. Crab ravioli on quick-fried vegetables with lemon grass sauce, a single rather tough and slippery raviolo on a stir-fry, was described with slight distaste by its consumer as "a bit Chinesey".

But the confit of duck, boned and stuffed with spinach, made a fabulous match with braised fennel. A couple of large sardines, buckling under a stuffing of ricotta, Parmesan and spinach, were baked with slices of potato and bubbling with bay-flavoured juices. And the spit-roasted quail with blistered skin, stuffed with forcemeat and cherries, with a sweet, spicy sauce of cherry and cinnamon, chunks of beetroot and carrot and dauphinoise potatoes, was splendid: so successful, it made one wonder whether it's time to rehabilitate canard a l'orange and other classics that have been traduced by English attempts to bring French sweetness to meat.

Puddings were on best French provincial form. Glistening strawberries and raspberries spilled out of a chewy meringue Pavlova case. Maman Blanc won another fan with her floating island, the egg white only just firmer than cloudy lightness, surrounded by a fine egg custard; and chocolate feuillentine, a layered chocolate cake with hazelnut sauce, nut brittle and ice cream created a cascade of delicious textures.

Espresso in jazzy little cups rounded the bill up to pounds 25 each, including service. With Raymond Blanc as a town and country caterer, Oxford is now lucky enough to have somewhere to eat well all day, whatever the occasion. The flat above Le Petit Blanc is for sale. Caveat emptor. You could all too easily find yourself living in the brasserie below Le Petit Blanc, 71-72 Walton Street, Oxford (01865-510999). Open daily, 8am-11pm. Table d'hote menu, pounds 12. Three courses and wine, around pounds 25. Children's menu. Disabled access. Smoking and no smoking tables. Major credit cards

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