Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Gee's, Banbury Road

Apparently it's not always a good idea to visit a restaurant on a Sunday evening: the staff can be tired, stocks may be low, and everyone knows that it's the end of the weekend. But this time of the week is a bit of an occasion at Gee's, with a jazz trio in situ and a special menu (two courses for £25.95, three for £28.95) replacing the √† la carte. Several of our group had previously eaten from the latter and enjoyed it (while the other week I was very impressed by the sibling of Gee's, Quod). Tucked away in north Oxford, in a cosy conservatory, this is one of the city's most atmospheric places to eat, and as we trudged up the Banbury Road on a cold, snowy evening, the restaurant lights twinkled invitingly. Expectations were high.

Unfortunately we left a couple of hours later nursing a niggling feeling of disappointment. Gee's is certainly a pleasant place to have dinner, and seems well run, with most of the little touches in place that make for a comfortable meal (including excellent bread, in contrast to last week at the High Table). The service was professional, albeit with the occasional small error and an attitude that wasn't aloof exactly, but wasn't particularly engaging either. However, the food, while competent, just didn't live up to the surroundings or justify the price charged for it.
(the low lighting isn't great for photos)
The Sunday jazz menu has five choices for each course, most of which looked inviting, but our mild dissatisfaction began with the starters. The Administrator's Parmesan souffl√© was appropriately cheesy and savoury, while curried parsnip soup was fine but unexceptional (there was little to differentiate it from something you'd get in a simple cafe). Escalope of salmon with chive cream sauce looked pretty, all delicate pink slices and white sauce on the plate, but according to the Firestarter 'tasted of absolutely nothing'. 
 My apple, fennel and radish salad was enlivened by an unadvertised additional component: grapefruit. Unfortunately, this is the one foodstuff that I can't eat (I don't mind it, but let's say that it doesn't like me). I couldn't complain because - as usual - I hadn't mentioned this when ordering, but it seemed odd to list three of the four main ingredients. Once the offending segments had been removed, what was left was refreshing and overwhelmingly green but not much else: the apple wasn't especially sweet or the radish sharp. Finally, the Dark Destroyer's chicken liver parfait was velvety and rich. I thought that it had an unpleasant, almost bile-flavoured aftertaste but no one else agreed.
Things looked up slightly with the main courses. Lemon-coriander lamb with chickpeas came in a smart white tagine dish. The casserole inside looked less beautiful (and the photo even worse, so it's been left out) but was well seasoned, and the lamb had been cooked to a melting, pleasing texture. Bibury trout with baby gem was the highlight of the evening for me. The flesh was moist and tender, and its skin beautifully crispy. The lettuce, stewed in a lemony sauce, was adequate as an accompaniment despite being extremely hard to cut with a fish knife (that's hardly the fault of Gee's, although it did spark a discussion on the way home about what the point of specialist cutlery is). Finally, however, the Administrator was disappointed with his artichoke gnocchi. They were more lumps of mashed potato than dumplings: not unpleasant, but hardly a worthy main course.
 Our desserts elicited, once again, qualified approval but not much more. Three of us went for the crowd-pleasing honeycomb ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. The self-pour sauce in a jug was a nice idea, but I found the sauce itself a shade too bitter and oily. It's hard to dislike anything that includes honeycomb, but I also thought that the ice cream lacked the creamy richness that tends to be a sign of really good quality. Whisky and marmalade steamed pudding was reported to be too spongey and not pudding-y enough and - perhaps a graver sin - didn't taste of whisky. There were more mixed opinions about a pear tart with vanilla ice cream. The pastry was fine and buttery, clearly made by an adept chef, and went well with the fruit, but the Firestarter, perhaps remembering his salmon, thought that it was all too thinly sliced to taste.
Having arrived early, we might have lingered afterwards, but the jazz had begun by then. I'm sure the trio were great musicians, but their playing was far too loud for the comparatively small room with its echoey glass walls. Normal conversation was soon impossible; given the number of couples dining at that point, I fear that any whispered sweet nothings may have been drowned out too.

Our bill came to around £200 between six, without alcohol. This included an automatic 12.5% service charge for groups of any size: there was nothing wrong with the service and we weren't unhappy about leaving a tip, but there was some resentment at its being foisted on us like this. Thanks to the generosity of the Firestarter, who had a voucher to use, we didn't pay the full amount each, but we agreed that over £30 a head for what we were served at Gee's would have felt like too much. There was nothing really wrong with what we ate, but with perhaps a couple of exceptions it was all rather uninspiring. There were no flashes of brilliance or originality to counterbalance what came close to mediocrity at times, and I felt no desire to go back and explore the rest of the menu. Perhaps the warning about Sunday evenings is true, but from a restaurant that has a substantial reputation in Oxford, and is often spoken of in glowing terms, I would have expected better.

61 Banbury Road OX2 6PE


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