Are You Tipsy?
‘Je suis pompette, darling’ – tipsy, tiddly, squiffy, cockeyed, mellow, well-oiled. Oh, the white-heat given off by that second martini, the thwack of booze pulsing through a system that skipped lunch, a tingle in the fingertips, the anticipatory glee of the first chip scooping up a wobble of rouille – the joy, chips and rouille! – and a certainty that this, this my friends, is what makes eating out such a thrill-ride, such a mood lifter, the reason I’m feeling so damn cock-a-hoop about being here for dinner, experiencing the culinary equivalent of the horn.
Except I’m not. Nah, not me. Not this time. Self-imposed booze ban has scuppered all the fun, all the larks, the wide-eyed shenanigans – 92 days dodging ABV % and I’m in this abstinence thing hard.
Chef Pascal Wiedemann first wooed me with his stamp on the groundbreaking London wine bar Terroirs alongside Ed Wilson, with glistening duck rillettes, mesmerising fat quenelles of duck fat rich goodness, and gutsy, rough hewn country pork terrines. He would eventually become Executive Chef, and I’d be returning often for those rillettes rather than the wine. Then at 6 Portland Road in Holland Park, his menu of no-nonsense bistro classics beguiled, from opening bites of cervelle de canut scooped up with melba crisps, devilled eggs, and those terrines again, those memorable barnstorming terrines. So here’s the motivation, the reason I haul myself to Oxford twice within the first two weeks of Pompette opening.
It’s larger than I’m expecting, the site split between a banqueted main dining room and a bar large enough to encourage grazing while necking wine – damn these reminders of ‘normal’ restaurant behaviour. Together with wife Laura – the design mind of the restaurant interior – they’ve taken over a former Italian restaurant in the smart Summertown district of Oxford, amongst a clutch of housing stock that has me muttering ‘hang on a minute, I could happily live here’ on the walk from the station.
‘Chips and rouille’ jumps out from the bar menu instantly, the infernal idea of dredging chips through the Provençal sauce usually reserved as an accoutrement for classic fish soup, clearly begging for an accompanying order of beer – use the force, Luke – an elevated ‘chips and mayo’…. then I’m gunning straight for the terrine of pork, chicken and veal, studded with pistachios. It’s another belter; hefty, rustic, textbook.
An obsessively sourced charcuterie selection – from esteemed Ham and Cheese Co. – features Mortadella with the texture of satin. Why so silky, pig? Turns out it’s the only rare breed Mortadella in the world, from Mora Romagnola pigs. The first visit could end there: chips, rouille, terrine, Grand Cru Mortadella – finis. Halibut with a lascivious beurre blanc sauce is the star at dinner, scattered with brown shrimps and dice of cucumber, humming with dill; handsome tranche of fish, a humdinger of a dish.
Back for a Saturday lunch and the cervelle de canut comes out gratis, the same opening flourish at 6 Portland Road, cooling fromage blanc with chopped herbs, this time with a slick of walnut oil. Potted crab with devilled butter makes use of a huge beast of a cock crab on the menu earlier in the week, featuring chunky, satisfying white flakes of crabmeat. Fish soup has depth and proper honk, that saffron, cayenne flecked rouille this time bringing its mates of grated Gruyère and croutons. Still, chips and rouille, eh?
Poulet au Riesling with spätzle noodles (those cosseting, free-form little twists of dough) showcases an immensely firm boned bird – my guess of French Label Rouge is wrong, it’s an English chook from Wiltshire – with smoky lardons and mushrooms, the whole lot languishing in a creamy sauce brightened with Alsace wine, demanding to be sopped up with bread.
A kirsch choux bun with grappa soaked Griottine cherries (does this count as drinking?) and thick dark chocolate sauce to pour from the jug, convinces this habitual dessert dodger that sometimes, just sometimes, a sweet ending is a good thing.
It’s early days but Pompette already feels like a rollicking bistro – even if you’re slamming fizzy filtered water all night – in the spirit of the model neighbourhood restaurant, displaying an owner operator generosity that is difficult to fake – the butter ratios applied to the anchovy toasts on the bar menu – unashamed thick slabs – is one small indicator.
Oxford is often grumbled about (by Londoners mostly, probably) as not having enough top-draw restaurants to call upon, although my recent visit to Oli’s Thai was outstanding. If Pompette isn’t already doing enough to be counted amongst the top tier in the city, I’ll guzzle a pint of absinthe on Christmas Eve to break the self-inflicted booze ban – yeah, that’s confidence.
I’m not tipsy, I’m the exact bloody opposite…. but I’m going home with a different kind of buzz.