If Oxford were caught in the throes of some kind of apocalyptic disaster, with people drugged up on hysteria wandering the streets in the faux security of large groups, then I would head to Gee’s for my final meal.
As it was, last week resembled this chaotic, dystopian vision, as unknowing first years tried desperately to cling on to the image of Oxford they gained in Freshers’ Week. So in a desperate attempt to cleanse the taste of sour alcohol from my mouth, I trekked down Banbury Road with a fellow foodie to see what alternative communes of hedonism there were beyond the city centre.
The glass structure of Gee’s restaurant, although quite clearly a converted greenhouse, appeared an almost Orwellian edifice after my experiences on the streets of Oxford the night before. Seeing my hung-over face reflected in the glass, a translucent spectre of student life overlaying the distinctly well-to-do clientele inside, I almost turned around to head back to the safe fold of the University, but the lure of good food was too great.
Now I’m sure that there is many a cynic reading this and crying out in indignation – not because of my ridiculously fatalistic and hyperbolised extended metaphor, but because Gee’s is ‘expensive,’ or more precisely, too expensive for your average indebted grant-begging student.
I learnt long ago that preconception is scarcely any different to misconception the majority of the time: the set lunch at Gee’s costs about the same as a bottle of Sainsbury’s economy vodka – it’s up to you which you spend your money on.
The light is cool and cleansing inside Gee’s; it penetrates the glass and bounces back around the room, which is filled with white tablecloths that act as a simple canvas for the food. The set menu changes weekly, and is basically a chance for the head chef to flex his creative muscles. it contrasts sharply with the more conservative a la carte options, and for me at least it was far more appealing.
I started with the tian of smoked salmon with lobster oil, and briefly dreaded that the moulded monstrosity of a badly made tian would reward my optimism. However, when it arrived with tactile slabs of fresh crusty bread and dusted with micro-herbs all my fears vanished into the celestial air. It was succulent and flaked gracefully onto my fork; the salmon was well balanced with the intense notes of the lobster oil. Quite simply, it was an elegant dish.
Feeling the need to fully replenish my omega three fatty acids, I had the mackerel ballotine with lentils and aubergine to follow. Every element of this dish is hard to prepare and takes a certain amount of technical skill and flair to execute well, so again my expectations were erring on the cautious side, and again my doubts were groundless.
The ballotine was a perfect cylinder of rich moist fish and the lentils were cooked perfectly. The aubergine puree that came with it was a real surprise; the chef had managed to sidestep sliminess whilst managing to maintain the earthy flavour, with just the right amount of piquancy to contrast with the other elements of the dish.
Desserts didn’t quite manage to live up to the savoury dishes or even to their descriptions of plum crème brulee with Granny Smith sorbet, and parsnip tart tatin with caramel ice cream, but despite this I’ve got to respect a chef for trying to push the boundaries of the rather conservative culinary palate in Oxford.
I will be returning the next time I need to treat the self-destruction of student life with a good dose of refined, aesthetic pleasure.
Price: Set lunch for £12.75; dinner for more
In a word: Elegant