If British food in the 1980s was so bad, why is Oslo Court still going and remains so popular?
If you haven't been there don't fool yourself into thinking that this place isn't a representation of what is considered a dark age for food in London. This is the apotheosis of 80s dining. It's got the menu with over a dozen starters and mains, plus the 'specials' that miraculously are the same every day. There's the salmon wallpaper, the entrance through a cloakroom and the obsequious staff. Oh and it's located in a block of flats occupied entirely by alter kakers, on a street that if we're honest, is lucky to be able to call itself St Johns Wood. Nothing about this place screams success. There are no burgers, it's not east London, nor is it part of the Soho House group, tight jeans and dodgy moustaches are not de rigeur and neither is ennui.
And yet, it is a roaring success. Or at least, it's always busy and everyone comes away raving. I think I've cracked their rather complex formula, so for those not mathematically minded please bear with me:
a + b = c
where a = good ingredients well cooked; b = hospitable service (focused on the customer) and c = a good meal.
So yes you do have to walk into a block of flats and yes it does remind me of grandma's and papa's in Golders Green. It's a bit like that block of flats in Poirot. Then there is the entrance via the cloakroom into the Hyacinth Bucket inspired salmon wallpapered dining room. But, there are also the staff who seem genuinely pleased to see you, the melba toast on your table that is crisp and the balls of butter that are well salted. Also on the table is a large plate of crudités and a punchy aioli. Soon enough the menus arrive, so does some warm bread. It's all so slick, pleasant and enjoyable.
The cynic might think that they're filling us up to sate our appetite before the measly/insipid food arrives. The cynic would be wrong. I started with a fish soup, that was good, although not the best I've had and did leave me with diner's regret for not ordering the salmon and trout terrine. Main course was a large, perfectly cooked sole meunière. The sole was firm, but came away from the bone in large slugs with a small tug of the fish knife (I know).
The one duff note was the famed side dishes. The restaurant is renowned for serving an obscene choice of sides and if you so much as raise an eyebrow in interest, they serve it to you. I found all the sides we tried a disappointment, largely through oversalting. The roast potatoes had been sitting around too long. The deep fried courgettes were soggy and salty. The cauliflower cheese lacked flavour and was also soggy, as was the spinach. Despite my high expectations being dashed on the rock of reality, it wasn't enough for me to write off the meal. It was a disappointment but given it was just the sides, I will let them off. Perhaps I'm getting soft.
Desserts are another highlight if only because they are served by Neil, who is surely the campest man alive. Camp or not, he loves his dessert and has a certainty rarely seen that whatever he is selling is the greatest dessert known to man. I can vouch for the very good, but rather too-large strudel. Flaky pastry and well flavoured apple filling. A fitting end to the meal.
It was mostly well cooked food, served with care and at times passion. At just over £40 per head, it is reasonable for what it is. Perhaps the 80s were a high point for British food, we just forgot for too long how to do the good bits.
Oslo Court, Charlbert Street, London NW8 7EN, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7722 8795
What others think
Matthew Norman - ...so far as serving precisely what the punters want with warmth and patience, the Spanish family who run it are in the premier league.
Howard Jacobson - I don't say that eating at Oslo Court proves his ordinariness, because there is nothing ordinary about the place, but it shows an unconventionality and daring, not to say exuberance, we don't normally associate with him.