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Review: Branca

“Dribbling flavour and oozing taste”; editor-at-large Jeremy Smith finally gets excited about a Rump steak at Oxford's Branca
"Indeed, it's one of those rare restaurants where value for money, service and aesthetic-wallop combine effortlessly to leave diners feeling like they've spent £100 when only £50 is on the bill."

Rump: I can't say it's ever excited me. Sure, from time to time I've jumped in, both feet (and fork) but always been disappointed, which is why over the last 10 years I have, for the sake of economy (I don't like waste) plumped for fillet. But last month, on a Thursday evening, seated in Branca on Walton Street, I thought: what the hell, am I really so old I can't change my spots?

Consequently, in an act of pure, carefree spontaneity, I turned to the waitress and said: "Yeah, why not? Medium rare please with a red wine sauce and skinny fries to accompany." In truth, I can't say there are many restaurants where I feel this A) liberated and B) cocky, because hands up and heart on sleeve, Branca is unique – a restaurant that manages to be savvy and chic, comforting and neighbourly in equal measure. Indeed, it's one of those rare restaurants where value for money, service and aesthetic-wallop combine effortlessly to leave diners feeling like they've spent £100 when only £50 is on the bill. Bright and airy in summer, cosy and glowing in winter, if Texas prisons offered last meals at restaurants, I'd hold out for a Governor's Gastro-pardon.

I have always believed if you can read, you can cook. Just follow the instructions and what would have you cost you £20 out can be served up for half that (except you only get to eat it off your dining room table or worse still, your lap). However, for me, food tastes better when there's a vibe, a smorgasbord of other diners to look at, a sense of 'welcome' that's smart but genuine with an ambience combining Graham Norton and Sofia Vergara. This is the environment you get in Branca. Onto the dishes and starters for myself and guest were king prawn bruschetta, lemon, aioli and spring onion (£7.50) and chicken liver pate, iberico chorizo, Parma ham, flatbread and celeriac and chickpea coleslaw (£7.75). The bruschetta, I gather, was divine and disappeared – elegantly I should add – in the time it took me to acknowledge the full panoramic of my particular dish. Beautifully realised, it was right up there with the opening titles to 'Vertico" and 'Catch Me if You Can' (if there is such a clinical method of measurement); every single forkful exploding in flavours I'd have slobbered over if my company hadn't been wearing white.

But nothing could have prepared either of us for the main feature: my eight ounce rump (£19) and her chargrilled lamb steak, served with salsa verde, salad of aubergine, crispy chickpeas, cherry tomatoes and spring onion (£15). I'm no gastro-groupie and regularly stumble at culinary eloquence, but if I simply say this about my steak, hopefully you'll taste and embrace the picture rather than nitpick the cuisine-light critique: it was filthy (in the porno sense), dribbling flavour and oozing taste while my guest's lamb was a three-ring circus of flair (yes I know, I should be throwing in terms like 'mouthfeel' and 'aftertaste', 'dulcet' and 'gustatory' but I haven't a clue what they mean).

Surprisingly, dessert wise wasn't quite so good – more standard textbook than Nigella Lawson. I had the Eton Mess (£6), my guest the warm banana cake (£6.50) and although nice, they both lacked the unity of the iris's sphincter muscle reflex and mouth's saliva glands (which sounds messy but should be read as 'mouth-watering').

So, all in all, out of 10, how best to rate this visit? Ten actually, because frankly who cares about puddings? It also should be added that the wine – Prosecco in both our cases – was spot-on and very reasonable priced (Glera del Veneto, £4.75 a glass). Whether a romantic tete-a-tete, a family celebration or, and this is rare, a single diner moment, Branca is unbeatable.

- Jeremy Smith


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