Fish soup that’s off the scale… Pompette in Oxford is a bistro to adore
7 South Parade, Oxford
Pompette is the French for pickled. Not as in brinily preserved, rather merry, tight, tanked or trollied. Which seems an odd name for a French restaurant, but one that rather endears. Anyway, Pompette is in north Oxford’s Summertown, a mere aligot’s flick from where that greatest of French imports, Raymond Blanc, first set up shop with Les Quat’ Saisons.
The room won’t win any prizes for warmth. But such is the warmth of the service, a beam of pure unfiltered sun on this most Arctic of days, that any lingering chill soon melts away
And this opening is big news, not just for Oxford eaters but for anyone with a hankering for serious Gallic grub. Because the man behind the stoves is Pascal Wiedemann. Qui est-il? I hear you cry. The name may not be familiar, but his cooking certainly is. He started with Henry Harris at Racine, before moving on to open Terroirs with Ed Smith, and head up Six Portland Road. Phwoar, mais oui and mon dieu! Three of my favourite restaurants in the country, places infused with the spirit of French bourgeois cooking, yet with a soul of their own.
The room won’t win any prizes for warmth. Or charm, or even bonhomie. The lighting is Strangeways-harsh, and despite some good prints on the wall, it has an oddly corporate feel, like the unplanned lovechild of Café Rouge and Le Dôme. The exposed bricks seem a little bleak, the tiled floor utilitarian. But such is the warmth of the service, a beam of pure unfiltered sun on this most Arctic of days, that any lingering chill soon melts away.
A free bowl of cervelle de canut, the coolly lactic fromage blanc, slathered with walnut oil, starts things off, just as it does at Six Portland Road. Then a pair of ham croquettes, the brittle, crisp crust barely able to contain the oozing, mustard-spiked mass within. We move away from France and into an Italian plate of salumi. Mortadella, so often a lurid pulp of offcuts from the abattoir floor, is here as silken as a Casanova come-on. Chewy, boisterous coppa and speck too.
There’s a magnificent beef tartare, coarsely chopped and draped in lardo, blessed with the sudden crunch of rosemary-spiked breadcrumbs, and a sublimely extravagant richness, tempered with pert acidity, that not so much lows as bellows. At the other end of the flavour spectrum are snails with chanterelles, a study in soft, subtle elegance. There’s a nudge of garlic, a grin of parsley and a delicate sigh of red wine. Only a slab of good toast breaks the discreetly immaculate silence. Wiedemann is on flying form.
But then comes a fish soup of such gusto and swagger that I’m tempted to tear off my clothes and dive straight in. But I don’t. Obviously. Instead, I slurp with unabashed lust, revelling in a rust-coloured broth so filthily fishy it would make Poseidon blush. There’s booze, bluster and Mariana Trench depth, plus a rough, intense rouille that’s aching for a brawl. If this soup gave you a look at the bar you’d put your head down and keep walking. It doesn’t even need the fistful of gruyère. One soup to rule them all.
A fish soup of such gusto and swagger that I’m tempted to tear off my clothes and dive straight in. But I don’t. Obviously
Poulet au Riesling is a little more subdued. Thank God. One brilliant barrage is quite enough. The leg, thigh and wing all have the proper farmyard favour of a well-brought-up bird, the lusciously creamy sauce lavished with lardons and mushrooms, and sharpened by a hearty splash of booze. The späetzle soak it all up, lying back and thinking of Alsace.
Hake is dressed in Provençal garb, big, sun-drenched flavours: orange zest, capers and olives. Gloriously forthright. Then a crème caramel, with shimmering wobble and the bitter bite of proper caramel, that cannot be bettered. Anywhere. The room might need work, but the food is deliriously au point. This is a bistro to adore. Pompette would shine in London. In Oxford, it downright explodes.
Lunch for two: £70