Published 1 June 2019
We work in an industry in thrall to the new, so sometimes old-school restaurants get neglected. Loyd Grossman celebrates one of his all-time favourites – the fabled, idiosyncratic Oslo Court
Frank Bruni, the estimable former restaurant critic of the New York Times, recently hymned the pleasures of being an over-fifty diner. ‘It’s not just sex and sleep that change as you age’, he observed. ‘It’s supper.’ Without wishing to know too much about his sex and sleep habits, I recognise Bruni’s cri de coeur that ‘Loud is no longer exciting. Trendy is overrated.’
I still can’t help wanting to visit the latest, but I am swiftly reverting back to an old habit of sticking with the tried and tested and remembering the adage that my first editor taught me:’ No restaurant is a democracy and the best restaurant is the one that treats you the best.’
When I was an undergraduate, I ate lunch in the same Greek restaurant in Cambridge (Massachusetts) three to five times a week and sometimes supplemented that with dinner there and even the occasional feta omelette for breakfast.
Like Frank Bruni, I want chairs with backs, reservations with no queuing, consistency, and, if not peace and quiet, certainly enough tranquility to be able to talk to, not shout at, my companions. Every visit to a restaurant ought to be a holiday not a boot camp.
Unfortunately, novelty is frequently confused with excellence, inventiveness supersedes professionalism and the restaurants that carry on with the unexciting business of just being really good rarely get the attention they deserve. In spite of it’s sometimes terrifying prices, when I slip into a booth at Wilton’s, I feel that the world can be a pretty benign place: it’s a comforting and important, if short-lived fantasy in our new era of political viciousness and all-around instability.
In the 70s and 80s, not that long ago but a world away in terms of restaurants, only half of the British public ate out more than once a year – and the annual Egon Ronay and Good Food Guides held a prescriptive sway.
One of the few restaurants that featured in both of them and still flourishes is the Oslo Court: nothing to do with Norway but on the ground floor of an elegant 1930s north-west London block of flats of the same name. I can’t remember when I first went there, but it must have been even before the current owners acquired it in 1982, the year of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Culture Club.
The interior is a sea of pink nappery, there are bud vases bearing pink roses on each table top and an army of tuxedoclad waiters bustle around the dining room. Every now and again all activities stop for a rousing round of ‘Happy Birthday’. You are presented with a plate of crudites and garlic mayonnaise, there is melba toast and the butter is shaved into little curls.
Once upon a time many smart restaurants looked and felt like this, perhaps they still should. The menu is an encyclopaedic or maybe more accurately an archaeological affair, featuring dishes from the meal that time forgot – grilled pink grapefruit with brown sugar, seafood crepe with cheese sauce, halibut and salmon en croute with Pernod sauce, steak Diane, roast duck with orange cherry and apple sauce.
If you aren’t young enough to be puzzled by them, just order. In many years of eating here I have never had anything that wasn’t beautifully cooked, generously presented and proficiently served. My most recent supper kicked off with plump scallops simply cooked with olive oil, garlic and lemon and moved on to duck with apple sauce. The duck was roasted in the old-fashioned way with crispy skin. My friend’s grilled Dover sole was huge, fresh and masterfully filleted. They probably do the best latkes – the Jewish potato pancakes which make rosti look effete – in town.
I am most definitely not a pudding person, but it is de rigeur here. First because it is served from a doubledecker pudding trolley of a vintage which almost qualifies for a preservation order and secondly because of Neil, the Egyptian-born pudding waiter who has worked here for, I think, 40 years. ‘You must try my juicy mangoes’ is among his many memorable catchphrases. There is of course, creme brulée and crêpes suzette followed by chocolates and florentines and sugary fruit jellies.
You will not wish to run a marathon afterwards. Prices are a paragon of moderation at £48 for three courses at lunch with the occasional supplement of, say, £5 for Dover sole or £10 for lobster. It is a joyful and pampering place. I wish I could go there more often.
This article was first published in Issue 19 of CODE Quarterly.
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