RAYMOND Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons may well be the one of the best restaurants in the world, but for most of us it is just a little out of reach.

Even those who can afford it would concede that it is not the type of place to just drop in on.

Everybody’s favourite French chef, however, does have an alternative venue for us, if we fancy something a little bit easier, quicker and cheaper.

Brasserie Blanc, in the heart of Jericho, is part of a chain but happily doesn’t feel like it. Cosy yet stylish, it feels homely, welcoming and un-rushed – and not only is Raymond happy to put his name to the place, he pops in regularly to dine.

While certainly no secret to Oxford folk, it is certainly worth a repeat visit with the launch of its spring menu.

Lured by the promise of all things fresh and sunny, I turned up earlier this week in torrential rain, shivering a I dumped a dripping umbrella into a stand by the door. North Oxford – its potholed streets dotted with pools of murky water – was cold and miserable and I had regretted coming out at all.

All that fell away, though, as we were shown to a table in the corner by a cheery waitress with a wicked sense of humour. Mind you, she was in the warmth of this lovely Walton Street bolthole and hadn’t spent half an hour searching for a parking place and trudging through the rain, so she ought to have been chirpy.

A quick glance at the menu brought back memories of previous fun nights out here, but, despite the temptations of such delights as escargots, steak tartare and duck leg confit, I ordered from the interesting additions which, given the shocking state of the spring so far, were exactly what I fancied.

First up was a wholesome sounding Mediterranean fish soup (£7.75) – a classic Raymond recipe.

This came served with little pots of gruyere and croutons and was divine.

The soup was smooth but so thick a crab could have danced the fandango atop it. And it was bursting... no... exploding with flavour. Rich, complex and tastebud-tickling, I could have eaten bowl after bowl all night – the strings of molten gruyere stretching from mouth to spoon. It was, alas, gone to soon.

My companion’s pea, broad bean and red pepper salad (£6) was fresh, zingy and colourful. But while it may have been healthy, with its mounds of pea shoots, piquillo pepper, crisp shallots and tomato and chilli dressing, it was no match for my soup.

While majoring on classic French cuisine, Raymond says his new spring menu has been inspired by his world travels (lucky soul!) – and there are some gems.

I went for a lamb tagine. Other than genuinely authentic North African restaurants, many places fail to pull off a decent tagine, and I was curious as to how Raymond’s would shape up. Would it be as good as those he had tasted while gazing over the minarets of Marrakech, I wondered? In fact it was easily as good as those I have tried in Morocco, if not better because of the quality and quantity of the lamb – which, in this tagine, was Cornish.

That, though, was the only local component, I’d wager. The familiar pot, with conical lid, containing a rich, fragrant sauce flavoured with apricots, sultanas, dates – and containing a little mound of pistachio and almond couscous (£18.95).

The lamb was so well cooked it fell off the bone while still oozing fresh flavours. Warming, satisfying and filling, it was the perfect antidote to this soggy English spring.

I also helped myself, purely in the interests of research, of course, to my dining partner’s even more exotic choice of Malabar fish curry (£15.50).

The waiter had volunteered that it was the finest curry he’d ever tasted. We both joked that, yes, he would say that wouldn’t he.

The thing is, he was probably right. It was exceptional. The eye-catching dish consisted of a chunk of roast hake coated with a creamy, aromatic, bright orange, coconut-based sauce. It was topped by a jaunty grilled king prawn in the shell and accompanied by coconut rice.

There was no room for blandness in either dish – even with the carbs.

On this evidence, Raymond should think about opening a curry house.

Almost beaten, I left room for the lightest and fluffiest of desserts – a pistachio souffle (£6.90), served with a dollop of rich chocolate ice cream which the waitress advised me to place inside the souffle. Carefully lifting the lid, I did just that. She knew what she was talking about.

A mixed berry pavlova (£5.90) was also good – great textured meringue and the plumpest of blackberries and raspberries with a fine coulis, making it refreshing but not too sharp.

We saw it all off with a bottle of French Malbec, which was full bodied without being too spicy and aromatic to overpower the food as its Argentinian cousins can be.

It had stopped raining when I left and the world already seemed a better place – and much more like spring already. Thanks Raymond!

Brasserie Blanc
71-72 Walton Street Oxford
01865 510999