Oslo Court, NW8. An Ode to Overshlog.
People are propped up by formaldehyde, says B, a little harsh, I feel, but it is true that the room is full of people who may not last the year, never mind the decade. This is the place to bring your parents, if you have any and someone else’s if you don’t. If you’re middle-aged and Jewish, you will have already been, with your parents, as it is their favourite restaurant. I note that there is no pork on the menu.
Out with at-my-desk-by-six B, and legal trainer P, we were celebrating nothing in particular. Which put us in a minority. Birthdays, graduations, business deals, even just staying alive: all of these can be celebrated at Oslo Court.
And as you approach the block of flats of the same name, seeking the usual restaurant trappings, perhaps even something resembling a front door, all you will see is a row of ruched net curtains. I last had ruched curtains in 1987. Even that was pushing it, fashion-wise.
From the outside, it looks like your grandma’s flat. Inside, it’s like your grandma’s flat but commandeered by time-travelling party planners, looking to create a wedding, circa 1978. Greeted by a riot of pink tablecloths and fan-folded napkins, there are a number of large round tables in a celebration formation. I haven’t seen this much pink since I was inside the womb.
A large basket of Melba toast sits on every table. And butter curls. Butter curls! I’d have been happier if they didn’t have that weird been-sat-in-the-fridge taste, but the collateral benefit was that I ate less of the very moreish Melba. And I refused a roll. Brown or white and warm and I think I heard the word garlic. No artisan bread or hand-churned organic butter here, indeed those modish words do not appear anywhere on the menu. They were not current in 1975. But there were lovely fresh crudités, with a mayonnaise dip, like the ones I used to serve at dinner parties, when I was trying to be a grown-up. I hoovered them down in lieu of bread.
The specials were recited. I am sure that they were the same ones recited eighteen months ago, and four years before that. It’s part of the whole theatre of Oslo Court. And theatre it is, with the liveried-up waiting staff, many of whom have been there for years, the most famous being Neil, king of cakes, prince of pastries and master of meringue. And the campest man I’ve seen outside a 1970s sitcom.
Whilst checking out everyone walking in (it’s that sort of place) I also scanned the wine menu. That’s copyright, shouts a waiter, as I’m photographing it. I am not sure if he is joking. And it’s a bargain. Not that we had any, mind, showing admirable lunchtime restraint. But you should.
I would have enjoyed a little tipple to go with my Crab à la Rochelle. I can’t find the recipe in any cookbook so I think it’s unique. Crab meat and creamy mushrooms, wrapped in a pastry purse and served with a brandy sauce tasting of ketchup-infused cream. Served from a silver sauce boat, natch.
Because we had decided to embrace retro with gusto, B ordered grilled grapefruit with brown sugar and sherry. Hot or cold, we were asked. Go for the hot I said, it’ll be grilled. You must.
Special grapefruit cutlery (who knew?) heralded the arrival of the grapefruit segments, swimming in a warm pink soup. It was not what we had been expecting. It is not something I am planning to recreate at home. Not even for my Abigail’s Party tribute dinner. It is something you could eat without teeth. P’s Coquille St Jacques on the other hand were a thing of beauty. Fat juicy scallops, under cream and mashed potato grilled to give lovely crisp ridges, with some prawns thrown in, in case you might think that they were not giving you enough.
Many years ago I came here with my father, who, living in Manchester, had never been. He clocked the menu. Dover sole, grilled, meunière or as you like it. I’d like the sole cooked a particular way, he said to the waiter, but you won’t have heard of it. Would that be Sole Colbert? said the waiter, without skipping a beat. Clearly this is Dover Sole à la alter kacker. I’m not sure my father was ever happier. Maybe that time he had the two soufflés at Le Gavroche, but I wouldn’t want to call it.
And not only were we sitting at the exact table, I was sitting at my father’s seat, so it seemed only right and fitting that I order Sole Colbert, in his memory. The dish has a long history. The first reference I can find is in an 1861 cookbook, which describes it as a fried sole, taken off the bone and filled in the middle with maître d’hôtel butter and some maître d’hôtel sauce around it.
Here, it’s deep fried with oozing butter in the middle – like Dover Sole Kiev – and lemon segments resting on top. I’d been fairly superior about it, in a how can you do that to a Dover sole sort of way, but one taste and I was silenced. It was delicious. And given the fixed-price menu, a complete bargain. I will now order it every time I go, because he would love that.
B’s crispy duck (you can have it à la orange, naturally) went down a treat, as did P’s Schnitzel Holstein, which comes with capers, anchovies and an egg; not such a novelty, now that it’s at Fischers in Marylebone, and Boopshi’s. They’ll have to take it off the menu if it becomes too trendy. All mains served with a crescent-shaped dish of beans, broccoli, gratin dauphinoise and some roast baby potatoes.
And then of course there is the whole dessert drama with Neil, an unexpected name for the Egyptian man who controls the trolley. This is the man Matt Lucas wanted as his luxury, on Desert Island Discs. He performs at each table, reeling off classic desserts, as he camps it up to the nines. Apple strudel, Crème caramel, Crème brulêe, trifle, you name it, they have it. We are encouraged to visit the dessert trolley. I am persuaded to choose millefeuille with raspberries and cream, together with a fresh berry and cream tart. Because I needed.
Resistance is futile. On my own at the trolley, I ask Neil quietly whether I can have a picture of him with his famous trolley. The mask slipped. I’m very busy, he says, brusquely, even though I am not suggesting a studio session. Maybe later. Said in a way which made it clear that there would be no “later”. Not such a trolley dolly after all then.
This is the real deal. There is no irony. It’s not a pastiche. It has a loyal clientele who keep it full, week in, week out. It’s booked up on a Saturday for six months, I’m told. It was rammed on the Monday lunchtime of our visit and no wonder: at £32.50 for lunch, and £43.50 for dinner for massive platefuls and all the dessert you can eat, it’s also great value. And you don’t have to be Jewish to eat here. But if you are, you probably already have.