polo ralph lauren hoodies The Oxford Times
That jovial Italian Antonio Carluccio ought to be smiling even more broadly than usual at present. Not just because it’s autumn time for all the delectable funghi that he so adores but because his catering business is booming. Profits at his chain of restaurants (styled ‘caffes’) and integrated food shops rose by a very satisfactory 24 per cent during the past year. There are 27 of them now, scattered across the south east, generally in the most pukka places Tunbridge Wells, St John’s Wood, Hampstead, Esher and Windsor, for instance. And if you’re thinking that Bicester doesn’t quite fit into this category, let me remind you that this branch’s neighbours at Bicester Village include Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith.
Carluccio’s second caffe in Oxfordshire, which opened just before Christmas last year, is in a no less smart location, in a prominent corner of the Oxford Castle complex. This appealing development, in and around the former prison, was officially opened by the Queen in May. On the last day of last month, I learned from last week’s Oxford Times, her grandson, Prince William, dropped in to see what was on offer there. He dined with nine friends (including girlfriend Kate Middleton) at Pizza Express, eating pizza fiorentina and drinking Chardonnay.
The prince’s choice of a much mocked wine demonstrated that a king to be need never worry about enjoying what’s thought to be naff. Nor, for that matter, need a restaurant reviewer. Had William laid aside his glass for a moment, and popped around the corner, he would have found Rosemarie and me quaffing glasses of another WAGs’ favourite tipple, Pinot Grigio.
We were standing at the bar in Ha! Ha! at 8.30pm on this same Saturday night, killing time before a table came free next door at Carluccio’s. The manager had suggested we go away for a quarter of an hour. We might have tried a drink at Pizza Express except that I didn’t like the look of the heavies lurking about outside. Now I know why they were there. The odd thing was that no one in Ha! Ha!, or later in Carluccio’s, appeared to have got wind of the prince’s presence. Or perhaps they had and just kept quiet about it, for in these celebrity obsessed times, refraining from discussing celebrities is becoming one of the surest signs of class. Yes, I truly have none.
I credit myself possessed of taste, however, and find at Carluccio’s much able to satisfy it. This Saturday night was my first chance to sample the fare from the Oxford branch (except for a fine picnic ‘carry out’ taken to Garsington Opera in the summer) and in most respects it passed muster.
True, there were some hiccoughs. The sliced breads (walnut and raisin) that came with focaccia, grissini and Ligurian ciappe (a bit like a Bath Oliver) in the savoury bread assortment were so stale that I was able to beat a clattering tattoo with them on the side of the tin that contained them. Rosemarie’s main course of chicken saltimbocca was so overcooked and tough that far from hopping into the mouth (as its name translates) it remained almost untouched on her plate. It presented her with a trial of strength the next day when she came to cut it up for Billy the Jack Russell.
Completing these whinges, it seems hard to believe that in these days of rigorous health controls it can still be legal to place open dishes of salt on the tables, as is done here. The practice dates from the time when it was customary for a gentleman to carry his own salt spoon. Carluccio’s clearly expect people to use a knife; but, inevitably, they dive in with their filthy fingers. When Rosemarie, a user of salt (as I rarely am), asked for a fresh pot, our very helpful waitress quite obviously knew why she wanted one and brought it without comment.
Now to the good things. These included all before the meal proper began the aforementioned foccacia and the flavoursome olive oil I dipped it in, the shiny black olives I ate with the bread, and our first sips of the good value, gluggable and refreshing Arpeggio wine from Carluccio’s native Sicily.
There were excellent starters. Rosemarie had a plate of vitello tonnato, thinly sliced roast veal topside, with capers and a creamy tuna mayonnaise. I wondered about tuna fishcakes but rather greedily settled on one of the pasta dishes, the classic spaghetti alle vongole, which was presented on the menu as a main course. The pasta was nicely al dente and the sauce, heavily flavoured with garlic and with fiery touches of chilli, was generously studded with clams.
My main course was Pesce spada ‘Muddica’ a grilled swordfish steak coated in Sicilian breadcrumbs flavoured with parmesan and parsley. This tasty outer shell had kept the pearl white fish within beautifully moist. It was presented with a small salad of crunchy green beans. Perfect!
While Rosemarie finished her meal with a gooey lemon tart, much enjoyed, I went for a rather healthier fresh fruit salad.
I enjoyed the evening so much that we returned ten days later to try it again. I could not resist reprising the swordfish which was every bit as good, having begun with a pair of juicy sardines. Rosemarie had a bowl of superb mushroom soup, featuring little chunks of pancetta,
and a portion of excellent lasagne. This is our kind of place.