People say the High is one of the most beautiful streets in Europe; the curving vista embraces the 18th century facade of the Queen’s College, after which the eye is directed along All Souls, the University Church and onto Carfax. But I love the broadly generous St Giles with its avenue of plane trees and its collection of religious houses- Blackfriars, Pusey, Friends Meeting House- along the west side; then St John’s (reputedly the richest college) and the Sheriff’s House flanking the east. It has an urbane, somewhat cosmopolitan European air about it, so that one of the newest additions to the Oxford eating scene has the advantage of a fine prospect, despite the rows of cars.
The owner/chef (“call me Baz”) has cultivated the period greasy spoon that was there for many years by cleverly tweaking it to become a dining area with a slight forties feel. The Eagle and Child pub (Bird and Baby of Inklings repute) further complements the understated décor and one can imagine that C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien might have rather liked to slip in for a perfectly made bubble and squeak and a St Giles cordial, which is slightly gingery and mellow on the palate.
The chocolate cheesecake was a little heavy after bubble and squeak so perhaps the waiter should have recommended something else. Next time I will try their own ice-cream.
However, Alberto knows how to wait and serve with just enough charm not to be cloying. He showed me a picture of his village in Aragon, between Madrid and Saragossa, surrounded by a high medieval wall. Last week they were serving a membrillo tart, so there is a Spanish influence in the menu.
My first experience at the cafe was a private function- a wine-tasting dinner arranged by Dr Hanneke Wilson who runs the wine club at my church, St Barnabas. The wine was absolutely wonderful (five sorts including a heavenly Gruner Veltliner and Chablis) well complemented by ham hock terrine, chicken casserole and chocolate mousse (with a stunning dessert Maury) to finish.
Good to know one can enjoy dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday with a two or three course prix fixe (£17 and £23, BYO wine charged at £3.50 corkage). Once a month Baz the owner arranges a one-table communal feast which has an interesting speaker to entertain guests.
The music is acceptable: cool jazz, Pink Martini, Bach and Mozart and there is enough space between tables to enable a peaceful enclave to eat in peace and read the paper.
From well-kept secret, St Giles is bound to become wildly popular. Let’s hope success will not alter its unpretentious atmosphere.
Baz has now sold up to the charming Henrik Andersen who will soon be offering Scandinavian open sandwiches. His new menu continues the all-day breakfasts, with interesting fillings for bagels and an excellent Nordic fish plate (various smoked/pickled fish and rye bread). He does cream teas and is open for dinner on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
The cafe is still peaceful (“Much cleaner now” says Henrik) but the quality of canned music is a bit on the boom-boom side. Baz had better taste, but the new owner will obligingly turn it down if you ask. I still like the cafe.