KATHERINE MACALISTER savours a bargain three-course lunch made by catering students at their college restaurant where the only things lacking are the customers...

‘Good morning madam, can I help you?” the young man in the blue waistcoat asked.

“We’re here for lunch,” we answered, smiling excitedly.

“If you would come this way then,” he said, leading us to our table, as the remaining front-of-house staff busied themselves around the room, “and may I take your coats?”

Nothing untoward there then, and had you been blind-folded, you would have eaten, drunk and left happy and non-the-wiser. But remove your blindfold and you’d notice that The Waterfront Restaurant is no ordinary restaurant because the staff and chefs here are actually 16 to18 year-old’s training at Oxford & Cherwell Valley College (Oxpens) in Oxford and we are their guinea pigs.

So the fact our waiter is absurdly young is clear. And the fact that the maitre d’ is keeping a beady eye on them, and reminding them to serve from the right and clear from the left, is self-explanatory.

Because everyone here, except the clientele, is at work. The students are first, second and third year hospitality and catering students, and this is part of their coursework and work experience. We are necessary fodder, and delighted to be so, even though we had no idea what to expect.

But we played along, studying the simple but ambitious lunch menu on offer. Three starters, mains and deserts. Two courses for £6.50, three courses for £8.50. Bobby bargain.

For us then the cream of parsnip soup and Oxford blue and onion tartlet, seemingly innocuous sounding, but wonderful in reality. The tarts were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and quite deliciously balanced, served with a delicious raspberry coulis and salad leaves. I could have eaten it twice. And the soup was a “genuine winter warmer.” 10/10 so far.

Next up beef bourguignon with dauphinoise potatoes, braised celery and the baton carrots, all for £3.75! You’d pay more than that at Sainsbury’s. And it was delicious. The dauphinoise could have been more decadent, but overall a great effort.

The deep fried risotto, mozzarella balls and herb oil were also fabulous but came with unmentioned large chunks of bacon inside them, an addition that would probably give most vegetarians a heart attack and have them rushing off to their lawyers.

But then this is the point about The Waterside Restaurant. They are learning... from their mistakes, and by eating there, not only are you guaranteed some good grub at ridiculously cheap prices in central Oxford, but without you all this work goes to waste.

And make no mistake about it.

They need you. Because, teaching staff aside, apart from us, the only thing lacking, was customers. So here’s your chance, tell everyone, and try it out.

Open during term time every lunchtime and on Thursday evenings, by attending, you are teaching these students the social skills they need to cope in the cut-throat hotel and catering industry. And to be honest, after a delicious lemon sponge with lemon sauce pudding and the raspberry mousse, with coffee, we left happy and feeling better about ourselves. It’s a win win situation.

* The Waterside Restaurant is at Oxford & Cherwell Valley College, Oxpens Road, Oxford. Bookings on 01865 551549.