No sane critic has reviewed Oslo Court since 1983 because, well, what would be the point? The throwback menu, the pink-napkinned tables, the manic waiters who look like they’re catering the Belgrano. It’s all so yuppie Middle England. Eating in Oslo Court feels like getting a thrashing from a Thatcher look-a-like with a handbag made of peach cobbler.
For whereas over the last 30 years most restaurants have been modernised, homogenized and civilised to ensure they don’t capsize, Oslo Court has a certain dogged insouciance. Rather like an octogenarian in spandex and a Day-Glo headband, it won’t grow up. No one told Oslo Court that the Cold War is won and it’s time to move on.
And yet, and yet. As I sit in my siloed flat reminiscing over the embarrassment of restaurants I’ve visited in my life, it’s the only one I truly care about.
It was my grandma’s fault really. Her of the Yiddish humour and kvelling charm. She wanted to take her bubalas out for dinner and she loved Oslo Court. So we booked a table for six at 7 Newcourt Street and arrived at 8.00.
Walking in, it looked like Liberace had thrown up. Rounds of pink-dressed tables with pink swanned place-settings swirled around the Benidorm-wink room. An overly-familiar waiter in a tin-tight tux showed us to our seats. The floral curtains hung frozen in time around the alcove windows. It felt like a breakfast room in Torquay.
And then I looked up at my grandma and she was smiling and I remember that.
Grandma and I started with the smoked salmon, which tasted silky smooth like a philanderer’s flirt. It arrived in thick tongues over boiled asparagus, as buttery as a charity plea.
My sister Lucy went for the pink grapefruit with brown sugar and sherry, a starter that should have ended when men stopped retiring to the cigar room for Hamlets. My Grandpa and cousin Rachel both went for the minestrone soup, a lean lather of Norfolk carrots and stock, and my other cousin Jonny ventured the deep-fried mushrooms, which were tender as the driven snow.
The room was soft and warm and inviting. We felt at home. Every joke was funny.
The plates vanished and the main course flashed before us like an Indian summer.
I can’t remember now who ordered what but we got through the dover sole meuniére with buttered spinach, which had a lightness of touch and a touch of light lemon. We had the house-branded chicken princesse with caramelized onions, mushrooms and cream, full of hearty comfort like a mother’s love.
Someone ordered the veal schnitzel with fried egg, anchovies and capers, which blazed a siren call to our Polish ancestors, channelling a link in the culinary continuum. Eating it was our two generations around the table calling out to those who came before.
And my cousin Jonny ordered the rack of lamb with creamed asparagus, runner beans and fat-finger chips, which brought us thumping back to ol’ Blightie. As main dishes go, it was All England, John Bull, gossiping-over-wicker-fences, Professor Plum in the drawing room, patriotism. It was being licked by a bulldog while blindfolded with bunting.
As for the plonk, the sommelier kept on refilling our glasses with Crossings Pinot Noir 2013, all oak and tobacco like French-kissing Charles de Gaulle.
The restaurant had a soothing effect. We eased into it. My grandma kept on laughing in lively peals. My grandpa sat with his stoic authority. The walls fell down and the other diners disappeared and it was just us. Somewhere in this timeless dining room we found something lost.
And as any local will tell you ad nauseum, you don’t go to Oslo Court for the hors d’oeuvres and main, you go for the vaudeville act of dessert. A theatrical waiter in a magician’s blazer wheeled over his trolley of Willy Wonka wonders. He gave us the rehearsed shtick he does every night and we were his captive audience. “You, madam, want a nibble on my home-a-made lemon pie!” he propositioned my grandma. “You, sir, want my creamy crème brûlée!” he shot me with a smile. He’s a one-man, rooty-tooty, pudding clairvoyant. Famous in North London circles. A legend in his hunch-time.
And his guesses were spot on. The desserts were sugary redemption.
We feasted on mountains of shortcut pastry and cheesecake filling and chocolate ganache and cream. Thick splodges of happiness and silliness and pithiness with tea. They were everything that every dessert at every time should be.
Desserts shouldn’t be works of art. They should be coarse, messy, slap-it-on-your-plate, get-it-down-your-gob gooeyness. A flashback to your childhood. A celebration of your present. Your very own ticket to ride.
So I’m sitting in my flat mulling over which mouthful of quarantine-clean austerity to cook tonight and all I can think of is Oslo Court. That retro, up-tempo, pink-washed place.
Maybe it’s because Oslo Court has never tried to be anything it’s not and that’s earnt it a scintilla of my begrudging respect. Maybe it’s because in these vacillating times, I’m caving in and just want some fixed North Star of familiarity to cling to before the world changes too much and I can’t change it back. Maybe it’s because we lost my grandma this year, and my grandpa in the last, and we’ll never again sit round a dining room table with pink napkins on our laps trying each other’s desserts.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t pick Oslo Court, my grandma did, and that means something.
Just before I went to LA for a few months this year, my parents asked where I wanted to spend my last night in London. “Oslo Court”, I said.
The tables were still a brilliant pink. The waiters’ tuxes still a charcoal black. We sat at the same table as before with my grandparents only now they weren’t there. The room filled up with the same yuppie-types – the North London chatterati with their trust fund smiles and well-heeled lives. The waiter in the magician’s blazer started up his act, except with less vim in his eyes. Without my grandma there, it just didn’t seem that funny this time.
We didn’t know that night that a Covid-storm was coming. All we knew was that we had already lost all the people we could bear for one year and we hungered for easy familiarity. And I guess that’s all you can hope for from a restaurant. That you leave feeling like you’ve tapped into something lost and found, and your troubled soul feels right again. I don’t know how our lives will change after the pandemic, but I hope that Oslo Court stays just the same.