Guest blogger Richard Beach discovers a North London institution
I went to Oslo Court for the first time last night. What follows is a somewhat individual review of this strangest of restaurants – I can only report on how the experience was for me. Believe me, the food was great. But there’s a few more things to say too.
As most of you probably know, it’s in a block of flats in St John’s Wood. You turn right at the reception desk, and enter a long corridor full of middle-aged and elderly Jews who are greeting, kissing, complaining and handing over their coats to be hung up. It’s almost exactly like arriving at a Shiva house except that none of the men are awkwardly putting on a kippah from the last wedding or barmitzvah that they attended.
Then to the bar – and you see the room for the first time. It’s your Nana’s flat. Or your Great-Aunt’s. And it’s 1974. EVERYTHING is 1974. This theme will continue to run through the whole evening. The barman has a quantum rather than linear approach to serving drinks – when you get served, and whether or not he’s heard you correctly, is very much subject to the Uncertainty Principle. Still, there’s alcohol – if not very much space in which to drink it.
We are shown to our table – pink tablecloth, pink napkins, wafer-thin toast in the middle and knobs of butter in fluted curls. It’s still 1974 and the ‘Nana’s flat’ vibe is stronger than ever. The waiting staff can’t possibly be friendlier – in fact it becomes clear throughout the evening that their sole mission is to fill you with as much food and drink as possible. Just like your Nana really, except (and I stress here that I have no evidence to back this up) I couldn’t let go of a sneaking suspicion that we were subject to an attempt to fatten us up for some satanic ritual. Maybe that’s just me.
The menus are large and weighty, but almost completely irrelevant thanks to the long list of specials which our waiter regales us with, to a great deal of “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing from my fellow diners. “I’ll have that!” is heard a number of times. It’s a short wait – very short in fact (should I have been worried? Is Satan impatient for our fattened flesh?) and the food is here. Lots of it. BIG portions. I ordered soup, and had it served at the table from a tureen. That’s posh.
And the food is very, very good. Excellent, in fact.
But – but – I’m having traumatic flashbacks. I didn’t always enjoy dinners at my elderly relative’s houses (may their memory be a blessing, oleihem hashalom etc) and this is all getting rather too familiar. The fading pastel floral crockery, the baroque cutlery, the foreskin-shaped salt and pepper shakers. Not to mention the oversized portions and the diners at virtually every table. Many of them look almost exactly like some of my elderly relatives, which is worrisome in a few instances where the relatives in question died around 20 years ago. There are moments where I start to feel like a Vietnam War veteran walking through the rainforest bubble in the Eden Project; it’s very nice, but too many triggers are setting off traumatic flashbacks.
Starters are cleared away, and another bottle of wine arrives. Did we order another bottle? No-one’s sure. But no-one really cares. The label says ‘Coq’ – with hilarious consequences, naturally; even the humour around the table is firmly lodged in the 1970s by now. It’s ‘Carry On Up Oslo Court’, and the waiting staff are happy to play up to it. Here come the main courses – again, really excellent food, but watch out as the task of feeding us up to the max is one that the staff are still taking very seriously. You have to be quick while they’re serving vegetables, chips, latkes, mash and the rest if there’s anything you don’t want on your plate.
We’re now getting very full, but the mountains of food need to be tackled and the wine certainly helps to keep away thoughts of how we might feel later on, or the next morning. Main course plates are left in front of us for quite a while – just to make sure we don’t leave anything that we might fancy after a couple more minutes – and we head towards the climax of the meal. For here comes Neil, with a memorable performance piece which happens to double as the dessert menu. We gasp as he simultaneously tortures and teases us with talk of crème brulee, profiteroles, strudel and pavlova; torturing our overfull stomachs which dread the prospect of more to cope with, but teasing our ears and synapses with the enthusiasm he has for these sweet, sweet delights. All the stops are pulled out as he flirts, cajoles and entreats. I was determined to have just a coffee, but I succumb and go for berries with cream. My choice brings a slightly disappointed pout from Neil for a nanosecond, but then the smile his back and off he skips to the kitchen to fatten us all up further.
The berries are juicy, the cream is sweet and the crockery has just got to have been left to the restaurant by my Great-Aunt Sadie as I’m sure I’ve seen it before. Now it’s coffee, served piping hot and with pure white granulated sugar in a pot on the side. There’s no brown sugar – I don’t think it’s been invented yet. The staff’s final offer to us – the Last Temptation of Kitsch, if you like – is for liqueurs. “Lick yours? OoooOOOOooh!” We really are in a Frankie Howerd routine from Edward Heath’s premiership here. Out come the crystal goblets of Amaretto and Tia Maria, and somewhere a wedding list from 1968 is missing a few glasses.
It’s midnight when we finally say a slow goodbye to the staff – by now, our best friends for life – after paying a mildly eye-popping bill (a set price, but drinks as well – oh dear). Out into the dark of residential NW8 we stagger, gasping for air and vowing that we won’t need to eat again for a week. An evening of mixed emotions then – nostalgia, laughter, luxury, gluttony, terror and anxiety in roughly equal measure.
We’ll be back.