Jay Rayner A masterclass in underperformance. Plus, wines of the week
Behold, the Oxford chattering classes at play. To my right is a senior gentleman, being talked at by a chap who must be at least two years his junior. So far, he has ranged across the deep valleyed landscape of human atrocity: from the Armenian genocide to the situation in Gaza, with minor digressions into what Aristotle might have thought on the matter. The more elderly of the two leans in, as if cursing his functioning hearing aids, and says: “Perhaps we could move the conversation on to something rather cheerier.”
At the far end is a trio of grey-haired men, who really should know better, discussing their Instagram feeds. Other tables ripple with a chorus of “Really?”, “What’s Sophie doing these days?” and “How lovely!” Indeed, how very bloody lovely. It’s one long, perfectly lit Jack Vettriano painting, only without the butler randomly holding an umbrella or the undercurrent of faux eroticism. Except here am I, seated before a plate of burrata, figs and hazelnuts, suffering from free-floating gloom. Really? Is this it?
I scan the list of starters again. Gravadlax or steak tartare, crab with avocado or a salad of kohlrabi, celery and sheep’s cheese. My plate of burrata. A parsley and ham hock soup. Finally, it dawns on me: what I think all these dishes have in common is minimum effort ort considering the prices involved. They are an edible e time and motion study. They are an efficient system for r the extraction of profit. There’s not even any cooking if you don’t count the soup, which I really don’t (simmer, r, blitz, pass; yours for £8, and think moistly of the gross profit). The rest is nothing more than shopping and assembly. mbly.
On the plate it all looks nice enough. Ooh, the carnal arnal pink innards of a fresh fig; ah, the toddler bum-cheek heek curve of burrata. Chuck on some nuts so the punters ers have something to pick out of their expensively crowned owned molars for the rest of the afternoon, dribble over the he honey and send the sucker out. Double the portion n and you could call it a main course for £15. Perfect for those people who don’t really do food.
Bitching about what appears, on the surface, to be a perfectly civilised, grown-up restaurant happily feeding eeding the well-heeled middle classes, is a tricky business. s. It’s like turning up at one of those weddings where all l the ritual has been specifically designed to disguise the various families’ poisonous dysfunction and pointing out that the bride’s mother has just slept with the best man. Tricky it may be, but I’m willing to give it a try.
Parsonage Grill is a slick restaurant, as it should be
given it belongs to Jeremy Mogford, who launched the chain Browns. He sold that in 1996 for big money and now dominates d Oxford with this place, Gee’s and Quod, all of which w are engineered to keep the world at bay. They are what privately educated Oxford undergrads do with their t divorced parents at weekends. The banquettes are comfortable. co The art on the walls is to die for. The flagst flagstones are polished. There’s a high front wall to stop the riff-raff rif looking in. Scan the menu and it all seems fine. But B drill down and quickly it becomes clear. It’s design designed for the sort of person who, questioned the next day, couldn’t co for the life of them recall what they had eaten and who, crucially, wouldn’t give a toss that they had dropped d £50 on something so utterly unmemorable. It feel feels like cynicism dressed up as English politesse.
The main courses are dominated by a bunch of grills for f the th best part of £30. I ignore those and have the relatively cheap chicken wellington, which matches the model of the starters in that it is prepared before service and then flashed through the oven. It’s a huge torpedo of a thing, with a massive plug of white breast meat, wrapped in ham to give it some flavour, and a nappy
‘Chicken wellington is a huge torpedo of a thing,thing amassiveamassive plug of breast meat wrapped in ham to give it some flavour’
smear of diced mushrooms. It’s relentless and, being so, extremely dull. It costs £24.
There is a cheaper lunch menu at £23, with two choices at each course. A starter of a hand-raised raised pork ork pie is only half the item. The pastry is dry, the filling g overminced, the jelly nonexistent. On the side is an underpickled pickled quail’s egg that has been for a bath in crimson beetroot juice. It looks like something hi that hath should be placed gingerly in a kidney dish with forceps ceps after an intimate extraction. A smoked haddock tart t on hollandaise sauce fits the same model as the wellington, ngton, being something that can quickly be flashed through gh the oven. Spears of broccoli sit to the side, brooding; they hey are the unintroduced guest at a party. Will this do? No.
The dessert menu reads better and supplies the best thing we eat all day. It is a take on lemon tart, but flavoured with caramelised oranges. There is a scoop op of a lightly bitter marmalade ice cream. The pastry is thick and heavy but if you leave that behind, it’s a cheery hit of citrus. Another dessert of sticky toffee pudding is s just a wad of dense, texture-free sponge of a sort that could be used to seal up gaps in brick walls. Discs of sliced banana on the top have been caramelised. There is the broken promise of a very thin salted caramel sauce on the side, which is the equivalent of your dad eventually saying “No” when he originally said “Maybe”.
What’s at issue here isn’t just a badly made sauce or pie, or an enthusiastic pricing system, or a lazy approach to cooking (which is to say, don’t do any). It’s the whole damn thing. If the bill at the end had been £70, then I’d have shrugged and said, fair enough. But it was £103 103 (with two glasses of wine each) and the only reason on I know what I had is that I took notes and photographs. graphs.
I’ve said it before. Oxford is an odd place. Its citizens tizens have taste and money. The pricing regime at Parsonage sonage Grill certainly suggests they don’t mind spending g it. But it’s short on great choice. And please, rival restaurateurs, don’t whine. I had to be there on a Monday lunchtime. The fact I couldn’t find anywhere where else to review that was open isn’t my fault. It’s yours. urs. Which is why Parsonage Grill flourishes. ■
Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights: a Journey Deeper er into Dining Hell by Jay Rayner is published by Guardian Faber at £5. Order a copy for £4.30 at guardianbookshop.com om
Third degree(from left) chicken wellington; the restaurant; burrata and figs; lemon tart; smoked haddock tart with hollan hollandaise; pork pie; and banana sticky toffee pudding
‘The best thing we eat all day is a take on lemon tart, but flavoured with caramelised oranges. It’s a cheery citrus hit’