When someone says Raymond Blanc and Oxford in the same sentence, your first thought is probably Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons. But let's face it, most of our budgets don't stretch to the two Michelin starred delights on offer at his swanky countryside restaurant. Fortunately for those of more modest means, Jericho's Brasserie Blanc offers a chance to sample the top French chef's cooking without needing prior consent from your bank manager.
'If the Manoir is a delicate waltz then the Brasseries are a Can Can,' says the man himself of his nine restaurants located across the south of England. I can only hope that nobody reading Mr Blanc's description visits any of his outposts hoping for frilly-skirted girls and raucous Moulin Rouge-style debauchery. They'll probably be mightily disappointed to discover a civilized yet buzzing modern restaurant that's far more classy than brassy. As you might expect, it's not the cheapest place to eat in Oxford, but thanks to its excellently-priced set menu, it's a realistic dining option for everyone.
Arriving at 7.30 on Friday evening, our party of 3 were welcomed and seated quickly. The restaurant was almost full, but the staff were efficient and polite throughout. We were offered both the à la carte and 'dine with wine' set menus: I was impressed that the latter was still on offer at such a busy time. Although the price increases from £11.50 for 2 courses or £13.95 for 3 to £14 for 2 and £16.45 for 3 after 7pm, the prix fixe menu offers an excellent opportunity to try more than one course without busting your budget. The options aren't too shabby either; no limp offerings that push you towards the main menu here. There's a meat, fish and vegetarian option for both the starter and main, plus a choice of three desserts. My mum (not the easiest lady to impress) shunned the à la carte choices in favour of onion soup followed by smoked haddock risotto from the set menu, while my grandma and I branched out in favour of a confit chicken terrine and a cheese soufflé respectively, with beef stroganoff and a special of pan-fried haddock for our main courses.
We were served some warm fresh bread (served with both butter and an olive oil/balsamic vinegar combo) to nibble while we waited for our starters. All were well-presented and well-received, my only criticism was that my cheese soufflé was perhaps on the small side given its £7.60 price tag. The flavour of the smoked Lyburn cheese was spot on though, and the consistency of the souffle was perfectly airy. I was less keen on the accompanying celery, but the tiny chunks of apple and lettuce were a decent complement. The other two generations of Turner/Ramsbottom (yep, you read that right) women were similarly impressed with their starters, and I was pleased to note that the set menu portion was no smaller than the à la carte starters.
Things only improved when the main courses appeared. My grandma's beef stroganoff (£12.20) was suitably close to the best one she ever ate (sometime in the seventies) and has been trying to match ever since, although the generous portion ultimately defeated her. I had no such trouble polishing off my special of pan-fried North Atlantic haddock served atop creamy mash potato (£14.50). It had a gorgeous pesto crust on top of a sliver of delicately crisp skin - I normally shudder at the thought of fish skin, but this was worth savouring rather than shunning. My mum's smoked haddock risotto was served with a poached egg perched atop the creamy rice, and again the portion size was equal to the à la carte options. I'm not normally a fan of smoked fish, but the taste was delicate and pretty close to divine: I'm not ashamed to admit I devoured her leftovers. At the risk of sounding excessively greedy, I ordered a dessert (in the name of research, of course): 4 scoops of sorbet, 2 raspberry and 2 lemon, presented between flaky palmier biscuits. Not just any old sorbet then - the Raymond Blanc touch was still decidedly present.
There may not have been a can can but there was definitely plenty of flair on show at Brasserie Blanc. The food was almost faultless, and the service great. The only drawback is the price - unless you order from the excellent set menu, dining here is a touch more expensive than most other Oxford restaurants, especially when the cost of wine is factored in. However, given the cost and availability of the 'dine with wine' menu (to which a glass of wine can be added from £1.95) and the quality of the cuisine, I can't complain. If you're celebrating something or just looking for a smart spot to dine, you can't go wrong with Brasserie Blanc. Just don't expect any dancing.
Brasserie Blanc is at 71-72 Walton Street, OX2 6AG. Reservations recommended at weekends. Tel: 01865 510999.
I'll be talking about budget dining in Oxfordshire on Jo Thoenes's afternoon show on BBC Radio Oxford today (10 February) from just after 1pm. I'll be covering more restaurants that offer great value set menus. You can listen live or for up to one week afterwards here. If you have any suggestions, please do contact the show here.