Its a queer place, Oxford. I did my England assimilation course there - fresh down from Scotland after the boyfriend had been safely returned to his wife. Happy days when English was a language I hadnt yet mastered and people thought I had a friend called Ken: Oh ye ken what I mean. Years of being too, too thin, when a bra was a padded act of charity, not the swaying Millennium Bridge with frills it has become, and I was blissfully unaware of the existence or use for an underslip. When I grinned cheerily at strangers on buses wondering why no-one smiled back (bloody unfriendly southerners), except Persian students who thought theyd died and gone to Paradise (and who do you think youre calling a houri?). Ah, imagine male heaven as a celestial Starbucks with geisha girls and extra whip - though Im not sure what kind of heaven the women get - fat-free frozen yoghurt and an apron, probably.
But when I go back, its something of a toxic shock not still to be working at St Antonys college, looking up at my friend Alexs window, wondering if hes corruptible. Frankly, all that nostalgia gives me acid flashback creeps. However, despite North Oxford being littered with corpses of the past, La Gousse dAil, the restaurant in what was The Lemon Tree, on the Woodstock Road holds none of them. In the old days I might have washed-up there, but never eaten.
Regular readers (you two at the back, I mean you) will remember that this place is owned and run by Jonathan Wright, previously of Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons and the Great Eastern Hotel. Inside, a lot of attention has been paid to detail without the decor getting up and smacking you in the face - a tray of yellow orchids and lemons set out in the bar, an impressive, Bromdingnagian flower arrangement in the centre of the restaurant, no, absolutely no leather banquettes and tangerine walls hung with those huge modern canvases that decorators buy to match the colour scheme. The restaurant has a relaxed, sunny mediterranean feel without being too contrived, while the menu reaches for a Michelin star and offers serious dining.
Theres a £55 menu gourmand, an £80 tasting menu, a £30 vegetable menu, a £36 Sunday lunch, a double digit a la carte and, phew, a 3 course lunch for £22.50. However, its impossible to come to a place like this and limit yourself to parsimony. As you would expect, a lot of arranging goes on in the kitchen. Dishes arrive as though theyve had a full hour in make up before making their appearance, but never descend into silliness. Though I did feel the pan fried fillets of beautiful, blushing red mullet with vongole was elegant enough without the parmesan waver poised in full sail in the middle of the plate. But thats just me being fussy. The squid ink risotto, however, was treacly rich and the fish perfect. Other notable dishes included my veloute of ceps, a gem from the lunch menu; the veloute as smooth as silk stockings with a dribble of truffle oil, further enriched with a puree of herbs and a chantilly of chives spooned on top. The crab ravioli with ginger and coriander, served in a crab and langoustine bisque was also a delight. Husbands tian of cornish crab - a cylinder of virgin crab meat encased in marinated salmon with a teaspoon of Oscietra caviar was fresh as a sea breeze without the bracing exercise.
Main courses elicited embarrassing gourmasmic moans from everyone - aforementioned red mullet, tender roast Barbary dick with crushed peppercorns and honey, paired with sweet roasted figs dissolving in the mouth, and a roast fillet of Angus Beef with roast shallots and girolles. I liked the dish from the set menu somewhat less - no fault could be found with the buttenut squash gnocchi and haricot beans idling in a red wine and juniper sauce, but the pigeon was unevenly cooked and the blackened breast had a slightly unpleasant flavour reminiscent of my own culinary oversights in the kitchen.
We wimped out on pudding though the choice was a fatsos wet dream: hot fondant of bitter chocolate, served with pistachio ice cream or prune and armagnac soufflé amongst others. Instead we had fine cheese, a slice of lemon tart, and from the set menu, banana soufflé, not as glorious than promised being mostly egg whites with no body, a whisper of banana, and the chocolate ganache idling at the bottom of the dish.
The restaurant deserves to be full. But given the available space it would be nice if they didnt herd all the diners into the same corral. Despite being one of only three adjacent, occupied tables, ours was within sight of the kitchens swinging doors, and within earshot of a loud angry outburst from inside.
Back home still suffering pangs of the past, I e-mailed Alex in Pennsylvania, telling him that I walked past his old rooms and looked for him. I saw you, he replied sentimentally, I was standing at the window watching you pass. And I could see right through your skirt.
*this is an accurate transliteration and means the women that muslims are promised in paradise - hookers for the hereafter - dont quote that or Ill have a fatwa on me