Bicester Village: Oxfordshire’s home of eye-wateringly high-end fashion, the third most visited tourist attraction in the UK, and paradise for those who consider a £1,450 lambskin Versace jacket to be not just a possible purchase but an irresistible bargain.
But, you’d be forgiven for imagining, not quite a gastronomic paradise – surely the outlet centre’s average customer would just grab a coffee in between treating themselves to pocket squares with three-figure price tags, no?
But, naturally, those who demand luxury in their walk-in wardrobes can quite rightly also demand it on their plates. The Wolseley, in Mayfair, has catered to the discerning West London crowd for 15 years. I’ve never been, but the late Sunday Times restaurant reviewer and the greatest critic and feature writer to have ever been born, A. A. Gill, ate breakfast there most days, so I’ll go ahead and deduce that it does an alright plate of food. Now, in what is certainly a shrewd business move, they’ve opened a satellite outpost at Bicester Village, opposite Fendi and Dolce & Gabbana.
Having an attractive older sibling doesn’t guarantee the new venture’s success, of course, but Wolseley Jr. has taken all the right cues, from the interior, to the uniforms of the achingly polite waiting staff, to the tastefully weighted cutlery. The décor and the menu both echo the original: vaulted ceiling, black gloss paint, salade niçoise, coq au vin. It’s French in both cuisine and attitude – you feel certain that after the doors shut, it’s opening a 2011 Burgundy and lighting up a Gauloises.
The vast majority of the brasserie classics served here are delicious in that shamelessly rich, unmistakeably Gallic way: there is an impossibly delicate chicken liver parfait, that needs no more than a touch of Sauternes jelly; there is tarte flambée, that irresistible Alsacian white pizza analogue with lardons and onions; there is soufflé Suisse, which achieves its deliciousness through usage of the perennial formula ‘cheese plus cheese’.
Smoked salmon is enthusiastically heaped onto the plate and delivers subtle smokiness. Avocado vinaigrette uses fruit that must be timed for ripeness to the minute. A salmon fillet is grilled orchid pink, the skin setting free its oils over chopped tomatoes and olives. Veal schnitzel… You get the idea. Café Wolseley does classics, and does them to a pitch-perfect standard.
There is one disappointing let-down on the menu, and a perplexingly simple one: chips. Yes, a kitchen that can nonchalantly raise a perfect soufflé Suisse, fire an exemplary tarte flambée and grill an impeccable salmon, somehow, serves limp, chewy and underwhelming chips. How these frites décevantes escaped through quality control here, I don’t know. You’d expect a £4.75 portion of chips to come rustling in the bowl, with that glassy crunch on the outside and a steaming, soft inner. These don’t – and when you’re dredging them through a gorgeous homemade mayonnaise, it feels more than a little incongruous.
Still, one slip-up – albeit an obvious one – is forgivable when the overall experience is this good. After an obscenely chewy treacle tart (in a tragedy of biblical proportion, they’d run out of crème brûlée) and an obligatory cognac, the French immersion is complete, and you’re released back into the upscale arms of the fashion designers. Given that Café Wolseley will hardly have to rely on repeat business, they’ve done a remarkably good job. This may set the blueprint for further rollouts of the Wolseley brand – let’s hope they can keep up the standard.