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Flammkueche at Bellanger: Crisp springy dough with bacon, onions and fromage blanc (©BELLANGER RESTAURANT)


Rationality is out of fashion. People who would once have hesitated to admit to reading their horoscope are now become aggressively evangelical on all manner of absurdities — crystals, acai berries’ anti-carcinogenic properties, the Leave campaign. Adding my drop to the ebb tide of Enlightenment, I should therefore like to announce that I believe in ghosts. I have met several, and very frightening they were too, but the worst of all was encountered in New College Lane on the last day of a wet Trinity term. She was swinging along in the mist, bold as you like, silver miniskirt and hair in pigtails, all exuberance and Juicy Tube lip gloss. Young, as ghosts go, only three years, but that malevolent glimpse of my undergraduate self had me through the quad like Jessica Ennis and I didn’t return to Oxford for 20 years.

By the time a nice chap from Brasenose invited me to come to speak to the History Society, I’d racked up enough roiling poltergeists of regret to cast a mini-series, and besides, Instagram has been invented, so I can confront my demons on a daily basis. There was no rational reason to refuse. The students listened politely as I droned on about gender politics in the 16th century, and a don from Christ Church went to sleep in the front row, so it was all feeling quite calmly like old times until, emboldened, I went for a stroll around memory lane. And there they were: restaurants. Carluccio’s, Shoryu, Byron — all the franchises, and tucked between them even a few places that looked as if they might be nice for dinner. In my silver-mini days there was a kebab van at Carfax, a horrible mausoleum called the Elizabeth where you went with your parents, and aside from the Randolph Hotel and a few dodgy curry houses by the station, that was pretty much the lot. Excepting Browns, on the Woodstock Road. Browns was where you were taken on proper dates, for the chicken Caesar salad and a bottle of chardonnay, followed with Death By Chocolate and the walk of shame in your crumpled Joseph boot-cuts (this was back when students had sex instead of being offended by it). Browns was sophisticated, Browns was cool, and Browns is still there, freshly painted and optimistic, which is more than can be said for yours truly. I had the fillet of salmon with watercress, asparagus and hollandaise and a little cry, and it was all quite healing.

There used to be a branch of Browns on Islington Green, where middle-class Upper Street meets edgy Essex Road. In 2016 it was taken over by Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin of Wolseley fame. I’m a huge fan of their Colbert and Colony Grill restaurants, but I hadn’t fancied Bellanger until the Oxford exorcism. Browns pretended to be a continental brasserie and so does Bellanger, but as with all Corbin and King restaurants, the ersatz is rather nicer than the real thing. Vaguely Belle-Epoquey décor, big well-spaced tables, good linen, excellent staff; it’s a formula, sure, but one which is immediately comfortable and pleasing.
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