Gees is easy to miss, there’s no doubt about that, but behind the conservatory just next to North Parade on Banbury Road is the Mediterranean outpost in the eclectic Oxford Collection. A revamp last year has enhanced this continental image even more with garden dining matching the fresh dishes across the menu.
Chatting with the team at Gees, it really is clear just how much the history of this place matters to them. The current recognisable conservatory was built in 1897 and in 1985, Raymond Blanc opened his first ever ‘Petit Blanc’ here. That chain would go on to morph into the now famed ‘Brasserie Blanc’ and perhaps that is where that drive to create a Mediterranean atmosphere comes from.
That revamp last year wasn’t just to Gees. As well as adding the Gees Gallery room here for private dining of up to 40 guests, the entirety of The Oxford Collection underwent a rebrand back in 2020 with more cohesive marketing and branding. That group is home to Quod, Parsonage Grill, and both of their respective hotels. It is fascinating then to reflect on just where Gees fits into that picture overall. The price point is similar, with mains ranging from £18 to £32, but Gees strikes me as a more laid-back lunch spot than its compatriots. The only problem there of course is that prices that high are more reminiscent of high-level nighttime dining.
As always, I wanted to let the staff guide me through their favourite dishes and to start we went for the Asparagus Vinaigrette, Grilled Orkney Scallops, and a soft shell crab dish. Without a doubt, the fresh asparagus was a good recommendation. Locally sourced and in season, they were served with a light vinaigrette that gave the vegetable room to shine itself.
Soft-shell crab is a difficult thing to find in the UK so I was really excited to see it make an appearance. The crab itself was full of flavour and the paired aioli full of flavour — my only suggestion would be for a lighter batter, if you are to have one at all. Soft-shell has such a refined taste all on its own that it is a shame to cloud it with that batter, however ‘dusted’ it might be.
Scallops were definitely the pick of the starters. Dill, capers, and brown butter within the shell enhanced the distinct flavour and the scallops themselves were perfectly grilled. £15 though? That might be a bit steep for some.
Pastas, and in particular the duck ragu, are very much a signature but owing to the 27-degree temperatures we steered clear. Instead, the fish of the day (a whole grilled seabass), and burrata beetroot dish arrived in earnest. These are two vastly different dishes but both are absolutely superb in their own right.
The bass came alongside a pleasingly light mixed tomato salsa and lettuce salad. As regular readers know, I’m more than a fan of fish when served whole and this is a prime example of why. Kept brilliantly simple, it is baked with slices of lemon and rosemary. As a result, the fish itself takes centre stage and the light sides complement it perfectly.
The burrata and beetroot dish was far more complex and brilliantly constructed. Vegetarian dishes often force chefs to think more about what they are putting together and this is no exception. Varying beetroots are chopped alongside chicory and blood orange before being topped with burrata and a fennel pangratto. The creaminess of the cheese complements the punchy beets and blood orange perfectly and the balance of flavours is bang on. At £17.50, this is for me by far the best value dish on the menu.
We kept things classic on the dessert front with Tiramisu and Pedro Ximenez affogato. Here, things were a little disappointing. The tiramisu was fine but just fine — it may well be personal taste but I am always a fan of less sponge and a boozier tiramisu.
Affogato is such a treat and, in my opinion, one of the great desserts — that is even more the case when served with Pedro Ximenez in place of coffee. Somewhat tragically, the restaurant had no vanilla and the stracciatella substitute simply didn’t pair as well as the classic. As well as that, much of the ice cream had already melted when it arrived at the table — a problem easily resolved by pouring the shot tableside.
All in all, Gees is no doubt a refreshing presence on the Oxford food scene. The refurbishment has only further enhanced its offering. The private dining space is a brilliant and novel edition and the new garden a no-brainer for summer afternoons. Dishes are generally very well thought-out and constructed and the ingredients are of the highest quality. The only thing holding it back is the price point. Very much at the high-end, this strikes me as a place to come with the parents, not somewhere to treat yourself with a friend on a weekend afternoon.