Branca is sleek and sexy and is cut like a crystal into the face of Walton Street. The curved glass wall is of a lovely street-lit sheen and when you enter, the loudness of a mid-range restaurant on a Friday night envelops you like a cocoon. Merlin the Manager (that’s his name… yes it is) would later say this is an intended effect. But more of that later.
My companion Howard and I are led to the back of the restaurant past a mass of tables where an astonishingly wide range of people are eating. Wide in terms of age at least. They all look kind of alike. Glossy shirts, sharp haircuts, languorous body language – they suit the restaurant, which is all smart marble top tables and miniature chandeliers.
The service is almost overbearingly quick; the waiter has shown us our table and set down two pieces of bread before bums hit chairs. The bread is soft, sweet and square with a saltiness that blooms in your mouth. With the balsamic vinegar it’s lovely if a tiny bit stale.
We proceed to order what the waiter recommends: I get the crispy fried prawns and squid with alioli cicheti (£4.95), and the lamb rump with roast veg (£16.95). Howard (who is vegetarian, for tonight at least) gets the buffalo mozzarella with almond pesto cicheti (£3.75) and the tagliatelle with goats cheese (£12.75).
The slab of wood bearing the bread is whisked away and returns with my prawns atop it. Cicheti is basically tapas and when it is set on the table the smell of charred shellfish is immediate. The plating is beautiful until I destroy it. The prawns are fresh and pleasant but lack the twang of burnt goodness the aroma promised. And the iodine flavour sea-food lovers crave is amiss.
But Howard’s cicheti, the buffalo mozzarella, is gorgeous. I curse vegetarians everywhere. I’ve never had almond pesto and it complements this cheese beautifully. Pine nuts have been crumbled on top giving the dish a contrast of texture that mine lacked. Round 1 Howard.
Then the mains are brought out. My lamb is overwhelming. Reading from my note book (which is seriously greasy) I find a part which says “It’s wobbling while I write this!”. This refers, I’m sure, to the thick medallion slices of meat that are, as the menu promised, served pink. They are sandwiched between some salsa verde, of which one only wishes there was more, and slow-roasted vegetables of a softness that makes chewing obsolete. It’s like baby food. In a great way.
The meat, again, smells slightly charred but this time the first bite delivers. It is sweet, and the lightly crisped exterior sets it off perfectly. I am full after two bites, and anything further becomes pure indulgence. This is good – if you are paying £16.95 for one dish, you want to go home clutching your belly. Howard’s tagliatelle is, in his words, “cosy”. It tastes and looks much more like home-cooking, which is welcome after the intimidation of the previous course. The goat’s cheese however is a bit of a no-show.
The two most popular desserts are the chocolate torta and the warm banana cake, both with ice cream (£6.95 each). We order them both and an espresso apiece. I expect a gooey mess but when they arrive they are deliciously restrained; identically and elegantly sized slices with a dab of ice cream.
The banana cake is the clear winner, and my mouth waters at the memory. Super-moist with a delightful nuttiness, it comes with half an actual banana that is absurdly good (“This banana is absurd!” says Howard). The chocolate torta on the other hand depends too heavily on the ice cream, which is over-crystallized. The espressos are like a kick in the face after the heaviness of the food. The coffee here is clearly very good.
At the end of the meal I talk to Merlin, the aforementioned manager, in the garden. Branca is in its thirteenth year and the devastatingly handsome Merlin, a born-and-bred Oxford local, has been around for five. He describes the emphasis of Branca as having developed in his time towards a focus on quick and flavoursome food.
He intends to have a friendly, well-spoken staff and décor that emphasizes the shift from rustic to modern chic, much like the rest of Walton Street and Jericho as a whole. This I think is achieved. For some reason I remember that my glass of water was refilled for me at least two hundred times so the service is definitely very good.
Branca does what it intends well and it indeed delivers exactly as much as you are made to pay for it. The service is sleek and the atmosphere is shiny. If you want somewhere that is vibrant, loud and young, if a little pricey, go here. With food that isn’t very complex it is definitely not a foodie’s paradise but in my limited experience, places that look this good rarely are. If you feel a little shabby, enter and be ejected feeling hip and warmed.