Tim Hughes revisits a classic Oxford restaurant – and finds it even better than he remembered, with elegant decor and excellent cooking
DRAPED along a broad frontage at the business end of Woodstock Road, Browns has long been the default go-to restaurant for people looking for good quality food in the centre of Oxford.
Reliable, good value and safe, it is the first choice of parents visiting student offspring, out-of-towners and family and work parties.
Of course, Browns used to be anything but safe. Friends of a certain age still roll their eyes and smile as they recount wild nights out at the brasserie – once the hip and trendy hangout for Oxford’s beautiful people.
Now branches of the brasserie can be found everywhere from Glasgow to Bluewater shopping centre. The good news is Oxford’s grande dame is still cool and sophisticated – if, perhaps, not the racy wild child of its youth.
It’s also immensely popular. Visiting late-ish on a Saturday night, the place was heaving – largely with couples, but also a pair of well-mannered birthday parties. It’s easy to see why: the place is spacious, far bigger than I’d remembered – spreading out like the inside of Dr Who’s Tardis – but still intimate.
Elegantly decorated with enormous bunches of fresh flowers, fancy lights and a large vintage clock, it is sleek and just the right amount of minimal.
And while purely a restaurant, it still has the air of a rather exclusive cocktail bar. It feels youthful and buzzy, without being busy, for which, all credit to its super-efficient staff – who are chatty, relaxed and informal but, to the trained eye (this former waiter’s, at least) are part of a well-oiled machine run with military precision.
We were there to try the new menu, though ended up mixing and matching with its seasonal Tender Beef menu, which promised all manner of meaty delights – such as my starter of slow braised beef shin and pan seared scallops (£9.95).
It was a delight, and satisfyingly generous, served with a rich and hearty beef broth. It was a symphony of flavour: the sweet shellfish countering the robustly flavoured but precisely cooked beef – the whole ensemble given a satisfying crunch by a topping of crispy shallots and a sprinkling of fresh peas.
My sidekick’s more traditional starter of asparagus and prosciutto ham (£6.95) proved a lighter delight, topped with a neatly poached free range egg and a dollop of warm hollandaise. A satisfying combination of taste and texture.
As for the mains, there was really no contest, with the promise of a whole grilled lobster with garlic & parsley butter, avocado mayonnaise and chips (£24.95).
Served split down the middle, it looked wonderful and tasted just as good. It came with a surgical assortment of cracking, picking and scraping tools – which proved fun. No scrap of that sweet flesh remained, from its firm, meaty tail to the sweet pointy tips of its claws. Admittedly, most of the biomass was in the shell, by the end, scattered across the table (and floor), but it was a light, clean and satisfying, if labour-intensive, feast.
It went well with a richly textured, vanilla and lemony Journey’s End South African Chardonnay.
Wines start at £20 for the whites (a White Waters Chenin Blanc) and £33 for the reds (a Finca Andinos Malbec) – excellent value.
My accomplice pushed the boat out with a sirloin steak (£18.95) – 8oz of juicy loveliness, a corner of which, in the interests of research, I was forced to steal. It was smothered in a tangy peppercorn sauce and accompanied with baby cress and the thickest-cut chips I have seen since I left home as a callow youth.
Pudding was a satisfying trio of chocolate (£8.50) to share – the warm fondant, white chocolate pot, and ice cream, with hazelnut praline being far too generous for one.
A fine meal indeed, in lovely surroundings and a buzzy atmosphere. Browns is back, But then it never really went away.
Where and when: Browns, 5-11 Woodstock Road, Oxford. Book at 01865 511995
* Full credit to Browns for its awareness of food allergies and intolerances – still shockingly rare in Oxford restaurants. An entire gluten-free menu is available on request.
* It’s worth bearing in mind, that early birds can get a particularly juicy worm, with a fixed price menu offering two courses for £11.95, and a third course for an extra £4, if you dine between noon and 7pm on weekdays.