Banishing the ghosts of one's undergraduate past, and enjoying an Islington feast
Rationality is out of fashion. People who would once have hesitated to admit to reading their horoscope are now become aggressively evangelical on all manner of absurdities — crystals, acai berries’ anti-carcinogenic properties, the Leave campaign. Adding my drop to the ebb tide of Enlightenment, I should therefore like to announce that I believe in ghosts. I have met several, and very frightening they were too, but the worst of all was encountered in New College Lane on the last day of a wet Trinity term. She was swinging along in the mist, bold as you like, silver miniskirt and hair in pigtails, all exuberance and Juicy Tube lip gloss. Young, as ghosts go, only three years, but that malevolent glimpse of my undergraduate self had me through the quad like Jessica Ennis and I didn’t return to Oxford for 20 years.
By the time a nice chap from Brasenose invited me to come to speak to the History Society, I’d racked up enough roiling poltergeists of regret to cast a mini-series, and besides, Instagram has been invented, so I can confront my demons on a daily basis. There was no rational reason to refuse. The students listened politely as I droned on about gender politics in the 16th century, and a don from Christ Church went to sleep in the front row, so it was all feeling quite calmly like old times until, emboldened, I went for a stroll around memory lane. And there they were: restaurants. Carluccio’s, Shoryu, Byron — all the franchises, and tucked between them even a few places that looked as if they might be nice for dinner. In my silver-mini days there was a kebab van at Carfax, a horrible mausoleum called the Elizabeth where you went with your parents, and aside from the Randolph Hotel and a few dodgy curry houses by the station, that was pretty much the lot. Excepting Browns, on the Woodstock Road. Browns was where you were taken on proper dates, for the chicken Caesar salad and a bottle of chardonnay, followed with Death By Chocolate and the walk of shame in your crumpled Joseph boot-cuts (this was back when students had sex instead of being offended by it). Browns was sophisticated, Browns was cool, and Browns is still there, freshly painted and optimistic, which is more than can be said for yours truly. I had the fillet of salmon with watercress, asparagus and hollandaise and a little cry, and it was all quite healing.
There used to be a branch of Browns on Islington Green, where middle-class Upper Street meets edgy Essex Road. In 2016 it was taken over by Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin of Wolseley fame. I’m a huge fan of their Colbert and Colony Grill restaurants, but I hadn’t fancied Bellanger until the Oxford exorcism. Browns pretended to be a continental brasserie and so does Bellanger, but as with all Corbin and King restaurants, the ersatz is rather nicer than the real thing. Vaguely Belle-Epoquey décor, big well-spaced tables, good linen, excellent staff; it’s a formula, sure, but one which is immediately comfortable and pleasing.
We shared half a dozen Carlingford Loughs with a glass of Pouilly-Fumé while we nosed at what everyone else was having. Carlingfords are an unusual oyster, in that their home waters, between Belfast and Dublin, are at once tidal and fresh, the former providing velvety, fleshy depth and the latter a bright, mineral finish. I could happily swallow them by the bucket, but we wanted to try the tarte flambée Alsacienne, or flammekueche, the pizza-style northern French dish of thin dough with fromage blanc, lardons and onions. I guess you could call them street food, if you really needed to, but this version is nothing like the Carfax ’bab van — crisp, springy dough, the bacon crunchily caramelised, onion meltingly sweet. And then I had to have some snails en persillade, in theory because when I last had them at Colbert they weren’t quite right, in fact because I hate sharing, and they were equally brilliant this time, not overwhelmingly garlicky and the sauce a luscious golden green, crying to be dunked with excellent squashy baguette.
I had veal Holstein as a main course, billowing gaily over the edges of the plate. This is another Corbin and King staple, which I always end up ordering because they do it so well, but I made Pa have the calf’s liver with sage and black bacon so I’d have something to write about and then ended up eating half of it. I think they used to have it on at Browns — it was once fashionable, and is easy for the sous-chef not to muck about with, but this version reminded me how delicate and refined it can be. Rosy and trembling with the faintest whiff of dirtiness, set off by the tougher chewiness of the bacon, the two together as robust and deliquescent as the oysters. Bellanger is a big space, and it was busy on a Friday evening, but there was no sense that this plate had been banged out on the prep-line: it was Michelin quality, and had it not been for the soothing effects of our 2008 Pomerol we might have come to blows over the last forkfuls.
Bellanger feels convincingly neighbourhoody, it’s relaxed whilst remaining a proper restaurant and though the food is undemanding, it’s equally very, very good. Definitely smart enough for a proper date, but old-fashioned ice cream sundaes and a chocolate and banana version of the flammekueche will appeal to children, and the room is expansive enough to absorb the little darlings’ chirping. Since I’ve never lived in Islington, it’s also a ghost-free zone, and I like this reincarnation of Browns so much, I might seriously consider moving there.
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