It's well known that if you go to a restaurant in France a good way of maximising your chances of eating well at a reasonable price is to choose from the set menu du jour. Such menus have of course made their way to the rest of the world; still, it may not be surprising that lunch at the French-run Pierre Victoire (three courses for £10.90) represents the best quality/price ratio that I've found so far in Oxford.
The restaurant does feel a bit like a little corner of France in Jericho: 'hop là!' the breezily efficient staff exclaim as they bring your (complimentary) basket of baguette, with Président butter, of course. But although steak-frites, duck confit and other such specialities are on offer this isn't merely a French pastiche: even the basic lunch menu is wide-ranging and makes use of seasonal produce and varied flavours. The choice is extensive - six starters and nine main courses - and my experience suggests they're probably all worth trying.
My starter, a coarse pork and ham hock terrine, had a deep, creamy and almost sweet flavour that the little gherkins and pickled onions that came with it set off really well. The Sceptic had chicken liver parfait. The proportions weren't quite right: there wasn't enough toasted brioche and rather a lot of red onion marmalade, and the parfait was also slightly chilly, but it was still rich and very tasty.
By contrast the Sceptic could find no fault with his main course, braised ham hock with buttered cabbage and a mustard and tarragon sauce. The meat was meltingly tender to the extent that it was falling off the bone, and again the tangy sauce cut through the richness. While there was no suggestion of stinginess to any of the dishes we had this was an especially generous portion. I had the rather more summery sea trout with new potatoes, asparagus and a white wine beurre blanc. This was more restrained but the different components balanced each other well: finely cooked fish and crunchy asparagus blended with the delicate sauce.
The desserts are the least French part of the menu, which may not be a bad thing as I find that chocolate mousse, crème caramel and the like soon begin to pall. The Sceptic had vanilla pannacotta while I chose 'banoffee coffee pie'. When the large slice pictured above arrived I was afraid it would be stodgy and indigestible but in fact the billowy topping was extremely light, blending into the banana and caramel below, and the whole thing was ridiculously easy to eat. Amid all that creaminess the coffee and banana flavours weren't that pronounced (not really a bad thing to me, although if you love banana flavouring you might be disappointed) but the thick drizzle of mocha sauce gave the dish a bit more body. The panna cotta was suitably decadent, its wobbly texture just right, even if the Sceptic felt that the rhubarb and ginger compote that came with it was slightly too sweet.
We may have had a couple of minor complaints but they haven't detracted from the lingering memory of a lovely lunch. One of its most impressive aspects was how each dish was so well put together: someone had clearly taken the trouble to source high-quality ingredients and consider how best to combine them. All this - along with good service in pleasant surroundings - for £10.90 each was a bargain.
Pierre Victoire, 9 Little Clarendon Street, OX1 2HP