At this time of year, when Oxford is cluttered with noisy teenagers and foreign tour groups eager to tick off the sights on their list, it's easy to forget that colleges, churches and museums aren't the only things worth visiting here, and that the city is more than a few well-trodden streets. Deviating from the usual routes can reveal surprises of all kinds - for example, a traditional English pub with a French chef producing mouth-watering bistro fare.
The Old Bookbinders is a small pub in a street in Jericho so quiet you probably wouldn't stumble upon the place by accident. However, the interior is cosy and bright, and although it feels homely rather than pretentious there are some sweetly artful touches to the decor: the toilets for 'Ladies', 'Gents' and 'Not Sure' (and the signs that say you can choose to spend a penny or a bit extra), the giant crossword on the ceiling, the collection of lighters on the wall. There's a decent selection of beers, as in most establishments of this kind, but what makes the Bookbinders stand out is the presence of Michel in the kitchen.
On weekends a more extensive à la carte menu is available but during the week the pub offers a selection of good value dishes for £5 (all with a Gallic twist: hence La Niçoise, La Charcuterie and, incongruously, La Thai noodles), crêpes, and a few other French specialities. Never able to resist a good crêpe, I had a cheese and mushroom one with added baby spinach and an egg (£7). I also followed the friendly barman's recommendation and had garlic butter added to the mixture. The crêpe itself was a touch thicker than I would have preferred; however, the oozing filling was delicious, rich but with enough vegetables to feel like a well balanced meal.The accompanying vinagrette-doused salad also helped, and the egg had been fried just right. Technical skill was also apparent in the steak frites (£12.50) ordered by the Photographer; as he put it, 'no one knows how to cook steak like a Frenchman'. The meat was juicy and flavourful, and nicely complemented by more garlic butter. The chips were fine although I felt they could have been more crispy.
The dessert menu includes more crêpes, including the tasty-sounding 'bananiers' which are available in maple, toffee sauce and chocolate varieties, but I went for 'Michel's famous crème brûlée' (£4.50). The texture of this was definitely more creamy than custardy - I approved - and added apricot pieces and amaretto saved it from unctuous monotony and probably made it a bit more digestible. Even better, it had been blowtorched to order, and the contrast of cold crème and warm, thick sugar crust was spot on. Clearly Michel knows what he's doing.
The Old Bookbinders
17-18 Victor Street OX2 6BT