It was the desserts that did it. After a few weeks of walking past and being tempted by a menu that included lemon meringue pie cheesecake, warm mini doughnuts and marmalade and brown bread ice cream, I had to try Bill's.
Bill's in Oxford is the latest branch of a chain that began on the south coast, in Lewes, with a café that was also a greengrocer's: not much more than a decade on, branches seem to be springing up everywhere. The shop element has been retained, although the fruit and vegetables have become gourmet jams, sweets, beers and other goods that are stacked on tables and shelves throughout the restaurant. Bill's have taken over the Northgate Hall on St Michael's Street, and clearly plenty of cash has been spent on converting this high-ceilinged old building into a shabbily chic, warehouse-style space.
Apart from those desserts, the menu is fairly wide-ranging and has a distinctly summery air at the moment: there are lots of salads and sharing boards. There was also a short list of specials, although I'm not sure how special dishes that change every three weeks (as we were told they do) can be, and in any case the sole main course wasn't available when we were there. I began with a watermelon and crispy feta salad (£4.95), a compact but very tasty starter: the feta had been deep fried in batter and had a wonderful melting texture without being too salty or sharp. The Photographer had a special, scallops with smoked bacon and cauliflower purée. This was another well-thought out dish, but he found it a touch bland.
He felt that the same was true of his main course, pearl barley risotto with chestnut mushrooms (£9.95); it did have an distinctive nutty flavour, but lacked the depth of seasoning to make it really impressive. I didn't quite know what to think of my marinated chicken skewers (£9.95). Especially on a warm early summer's evening it's hard not to enjoy grilled chicken, couscous and pitta bread, and there was tzatziki to bring it all together, but I found myself focusing on the components rather than the dish as a whole (and I'm not sure there was much of the promised coriander and lemon in the couscous).
Then at last it was time for desserts. Unfortunately, they didn't live up to their promise. A chocolate brownie (£5.95) was fine but lacked a proper chocolatey flavour. Meanwhile, the main reason why I wanted to try the marmalade and brown bread ice cream (£4.95) was my recollection of the amazing brown bread and marshmallow version the Broad Face in Abingdon used to serve, which was outrageously creamy and full of granular sugary swirls. This one, however, looked anaemic and tasted like bitter orange ice cream with a few bits in it that I assume were brown bread; it was quite nice but very unexciting, and the accompanying chocolate sauce didn't change that at all.
Although I had minor reservations about most of what we ate at Bill's, I did like it: there's an interesting selection of dishes and I wouldn't mind returning to try more of them. I can also confirm that they do a very good breakfast of the 'posh fry-up' (and priced to match) variety. The one thing that did get to me was the service, as it was very much of the 'I'm X and I'll be your waitor tonight', 'Are you sure you wouldn't like any extras with that?' and 'Let me interrupt your conversation to ask how your meal is with no expectation of a negative answer' school. I don't blame the staff: they're only doing their jobs, and they were all nice, efficient people, except at the point when we wanted to pay and they all seemed to disappear. To be fair, I also think our waiter realised that we'd prefer a more subtle approach. But why do chains do this? Does it really make that much more money? Is there anyone who doesn't find it irritating? It all feels a long way from that greengrocer's shop in Lewes.
St Michael's Street
Oxford OX1 2DU