Jay Rayner A mas­ter­class in un­der­per­for­mance. Plus, wines of the week

The Observer Magazine - - News -

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’

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