Tim Hughes is impressed by the great cooking and Gallic flair of a romantic, yet reasonably-priced, Oxford institution

The French have a saying which, I’ve always thought, more of us should adopt as a personal manifesto.

It goes something like this: “Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup” – which, if my schoolboy grammar serves me right, translates as “Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly”.

Our Gallic cousins have always had an enlightened approach to food, of course. Not for nothing is French cuisine still regarded as the best in the world. Even the lexicon of cooking is dominated by their language.

Yet, while everyone from the Italians to the Danes may lay claim to world-class culinary excellence, I would argue none but the French so effortlessly marry fine dining with sensuality – and, cue cheesy accordion – romance.

Like all good things in life, great cooking, on both sides of La Manche, can be prohibitively expensive. But, it needn’t be.

For devotees of high quality, yet wholesome, French cooking here in Oxford, one establishment stands ‘tête et des épaules’ above the rest. Occupying handsome redbrick premises in Little Clarendon Street, Pierre Victoire is something of an Oxford institution. Favoured by couples, theatre-goers, students and anyone else looking for a decent meal close to town, this bistro has quietly been going about its business for years.

The fact it has always been there, is perhaps why I, as a local and a lover of French cooking, had never been, and why, ridiculously late in the day, I decided to give it a go, to prove that, despite reports to the contrary, good food and reasonable prices are mutually exclusive. I was wrong.

We were sat at a small table, softly candlelit, and surrounded by couples, many of whom, judging by their body language, seemed to be on first dates. This is clearly not a place for boisterous parties.

The atmosphere is warm and relaxing – more cosy provincial than snooty Parisienne – and the picture was made complete by a charming and attentive waitress from the South of France, who possessed an accent as endearingly thick as crème fraîche. So far so good.

The menu offered an excellent value prix fixe menu of three courses for £22, with a wide choice of 12 starters and 17 main courses, including a sharing plate of meats and a great-looking fondue Savoyarde (though supplements are required on some of the pricier dishes).

The evening being all about ‘la belle France’ however, there was only option: escargots.

Served in the shell with parsley, garlic and Pernod butter, they were fun to eat and had a pleasant bite without being overly chewy. I would have preferred more garlic, though, to mask their pungent ‘snailyness’.

My Francophile friend, being a coward when it comes to land molluscs, instead went for a ludicrously healthy pear, chicory and walnut salad with a light Roquefort dressing. It packed a formidable crunch, though the chicory was a little bitter for my taste. Both, however, were perfect starters, being enough to ‘amuse’ our ‘bouches’ without being too filling.

We both followed with fish; mon ami selecting the salmon, while, on our waitress’s recommendation (I being unable to choose between the fish and mussels), I went for a ragoût du pêcheurs.

The perfectly cooked fillet of salmon was baked, and served, with a very generous baby prawn mousseline and stacked atop green beans, mange tout and cherry tomatoes – and finished with big wedges of lemon. It was tender, juicy and hailed as “parfait”.

My seafood was even lovelier, with meaty chunks of cod and salmon, mussels in the shell and juicy prawns cooked in a rich white wine and cream sauce. It burst with freshness and flavour without being overly fishy.

We accompanied it with the house white (£14.75), but being unimpressed, switched to the Pinot Grigio (which at £16.90 is a much better buy).

Determined to try the desserts, I was glad I had held out, being presented with a fabulous crème brûlée dusted with icing sugar and topped with a fresh strawberry and homemade biscuit. It was probably big enough for two, but was just too good to share. But that’s just me.

After all, as Mark Twain, said: “When the time comes that a man has had his dinner, then the true man comes to the surface.” C’est vrai!

Pierre Victoire Bistrot
9 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford
pierrevictoire.co.uk 01865 316616