If the previous three years of team Christmas lunches had taught me anything, it was not to get my hopes up. This year I’d even told myself I wouldn’t go, but I ended up joining my team after a bit of persuading. The lunch was booked for Brasserie Blanc, and having looked at the menu, I was very uninspired by the vegan options. I say options, but it was couscous or nothing. On arrival at the restaurant, we were each given a little place label with our name and order on it. The word vegan had been highlighted in bright pink on mine to let the waiters know. Cue the conversation from one of the newer members of our team who was curious about veganism and he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to quiz me about it (obviously I don’t really mind this, it’s a good conversation starter and a way to get people thinking about something they may never have considered before). Much hilarity ensued when a slightly confused lady none of us knew sat down at our table and started taking her coat off before she realised she’d joined the wrong party. Not long after she left us, our food started to arrive.
The first course was a sweetcorn fritter with sriracha mayo. It was presented nicely on the plate, nestled on top of a kale salad, which also looked very decent – until I established it was 85% sultanas, which I loathe. Who would do this?! I childishly picked every one out, leaving myself with a couple of shredded leaves. The fritter itself was a decent size, mostly made with mashed potato, then fried, so I couldn’t really complain about that. It didn’t have loads of flavour but with the slick of mayo it was tasty enough.
The main course, which I was feeling very sore about, was ‘Moroccan couscous’. I’d suspected the dish would also be filled with sultanas, and I wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t bring myself to pick them out again so I grinned/grimaced and bore it. The tagine didn’t pack a punch with Moroccan spices as I’d hoped it would. It was made with chickpeas and lentils, and there wasn’t much sauce so once I’d mixed in the mound of couscous it was a bit dry. It was listed on the menu as a ‘jewelled almond and pistachio’ couscous but I could find no trace of them. There were some big chunks of dried apricots which were quite nice, and the couscous was well salted and seasoned, but sadly, it’s just couscous. It was topped with toasted pumpkin seeds which did give a nice flavour, and added a bit of crunch to the mushy bowl. The pastry chips on top were probably my favourite bit as they made it feel a bit more decadent. All in all, it was a perfectly edible meal, but not remotely Christmassy, and definitely not value for money.
It was nice that they were attentive to the fact that I was vegan, and where everyone else’s meals were served with seasonal vegetables, they brought out separate, unbuttered bowls for myself. Both looked a little sad compared to the non-vegan counterparts (haven’t they heard of olive oil)? The sprouts were decent enough, thankfully not boiled to oblivion, although it felt like a very random addition to my main. Then there were some plain boiled potatoes. I had one but I really question why potatoes are served as a ‘vegetable’ side dish when everyone’s main course already involved mashed potato or some other substantial carbohydrate source. We all thought green beans or carrots or some other traditional Christmassy accompaniment would’ve made more sense.
The pudding of cherry and apple crumble did sound up my street, even if it was a bit more rustic and basic than everyone else’s desserts. It was served in a little pot, with very firm large chunks of tangy apple for the base, mixed with almondy cherries. The flavours were very nice, but the crumble topping sadly was cold and there was no liquid in the dish so it felt a bit dry, particularly because the ice cream scoops were half the size you’d expect. I’m definitely being picky because I did enjoy the dessert overall, but when I looked over at other peoples I definitely felt a pang of jealousy.
To round off the meal we were served some mini mince pies and a cup of tea or coffee. I’d left a note on my order about whether they would have a vegan alternative to the mince pie since it was included in the price. In fairness to them, they did actually provide this, although I had some awkward back and forth with the waiter when it arrived as he offered me my ‘gluten-free’ mince pie. When I began to explain that gluten-free and vegan are not the same thing, he looked at me like I was being really patronising and cut me off with ‘It’s expensive to buy different sets of pies for every dietary requirement so we make sure the alternative is suitable for everyone.’ This is a perfectly reasonable explanation but up until this point, he had not actually said that the pie was vegan, so why make me feel bad for checking? It was an out-of-the-box supermarket mince pie so compared to the little homemade regular ones it looked a bit of a let down anyway. They also forgot to bring my colleague’s cup of tea altogether. Not the best end to the meal.
All in all the experience wasn’t terrible, the food was fine, and considering my company paid for it I couldn’t have much to complain about to them. If I’d had to pay the advertised price of £36.99 out of my own pocket though, I would not have been happy. I understand that restaurants are charging you for the chefs’ time, the space, their overheads etc and that the ingredients are only a small part of the costs, but I do take issue with paying the same amount for my couscous, which costs less than pennies, as someone else for their slab of animal carcass, for which the real cost is immeasurable. There are many places in Oxford offering a Christmas menu at a much lower price, with better food and more choice. Maybe I’ll finally learn my lesson next year and volunteer to book the restaurant myself!