Oscar's French Bistro, 39 Chandos Street, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, CV32 4RL. T: 01926 45280
Listen very carefully, I will say zis only once...
The dimly lit back room of a small French restaurant in Warwickshire is the HQ of a very English revolt. Or rather it was until I just blew the gaff.
Ignore the regency facades and genteel ambiance around here because there is seething resentment in Leamington Spa. The protest movement is led by a determined band of senior citizens who wear slacks and comfortable shoes, read The Stratford Herald and consume moules marinières, confit duck and glasses of vin rouge.
I had arrived at Oscar’s in Chandos Street expecting a quiet, tasty but otherwise unremarkable lunch. Oscar’s is a French bistro. (Yes, I’ll come back to that.) Don’t be put off by the Subway emporium on the corner of the street. In fact, don’t be put off by Leamington Spa.
The town, per head of population, has more beggars and thread vein removal clinics than Birmingham. The Parade has the same shops as Kings Heath High Street, it’s just that they are housed within listed buildings so the branding is less vulgar, the architecture more pleasing.
Leamington has plunged into the same trap that has swallowed other towns that once had that thing called character and individuality.
The same chain stores that dominate every other shopping parade in UK plc take centre stage. No one else can afford the rents or the rates and consequently the business that make the town interesting and vibrant – the small boutiques, the delis and cafes – have been pushed to the periphery.
Imagine living in this ghetto of 21st century consumer homogeneity. I get a flavour of the backlash in Oscar’s. The restaurant has two main dining rooms on the ground and first floors. The downstairs space, which you enter via a curtain, is bright and airy with neatly dressed tables. It looks the part, without suffering from bistro Disneyfication. I’d tell you more about the furnishings and decor but I was whisked off to the back room, by the kitchen, which has two tables.
Edith Piaf was playing on the sound system and it soon became apparent why I had been put here, next to a trio of regulars from the Leamington Resistance Force. I was being sounded out. Perhaps they needed a Birmingham safe-house.
I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on a discussion about the council’s controversial neighbourhood plan.
There were hushed references to the “core strategy” and dire predictions of upheaval along the Birmingham Road. Madame X said there would be protests and raised the spectre of “civil disobedience.”
“People will be throwing themselves in front of the diggers,” she said. David Cameron was a “pea brain.”
Later, the chief agitator revealed she planned to visit Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place of Karl Marx, at Christmas. I am not making this up. (Jeremy Beadle is also buried at Highgate but a pilgrimage to his grave seems unlikely for Mme X.)
I calmed my nerves by munching on several pieces of baguette and tried to avoid eye contact. This was too hardcore for me.
Oscar’s is the second “bistro” I have visited in successive reviews although this time I don’t need to use speech marks. The first, in Birmingham, was an unhappy experience. I argued that non-French people could only do French-style restaurants if they had immersed themselves in that nation’s eating traditions. The team behind Oscar’s, happily, has.
The restaurant is owed by catering butcher to the chef stars, Aubrey Allen.
There are plenty of first-rate butchers in the UK but few can do it on the scale of Coventry-based Aubrey Allen. It means the chefs at Oscar’s have a considerable leg up when it comes to getting their hands on superb produce, not least proper dry-aged beef from Aberdeenshire. My own spies suggest chairman Peter Allen, who has passed day-to-day running of the business to his son, Russell, is a gourmand with a heartfelt love and knowledge of dining in France and it shows at Oscar’s.
A basket of baguette arrives unannounced and when I ask for water there is no irritating up-selling of liquid in a bottle. A jug of Leamington’s finest tap duly arrives.