A Retro Restaurant

From one extreme to another. A few weeks back six of us ate at Caravan in the Kings Cross Regeneration area. The restaurant styles itself as offering "Well-travelled food and mighty fine coffee, in an old grain house."

It was worth travelling to enjoy the experience, mixing with the 20 and 30 somethings in a relaxed, efficient environment with its minimalist fit-out. Jest you may over exposed brickwork and pipework, but it does work.

And naturally, no tablecloths. The generation above me would have peremptorily written it off for this factor without as much sniffing at the food. However, the sight of tablecloths, nay linen tablecloths, nay pink linen tablecloths, would induce an immediate sense of comfort for mature folk entering Oslo Court.

That is, once they have found the place. The restaurant is on the ground floor of a 1930s St John's Wood block of flats, and you enter via the front lobby.

The entrance to Oslo Court
Approaching Oslo Court Entrance

There is no external signage for the restaurant. The sign in the bollards-protected forecourt counsels respect for the residents.

Sign showing the rules of Oslo Court
Please repect the residents!

Inside the lobby the enigma doesn't let up. If you don't know the entrance to the room, you have to supplicate the security guard to guide you.

You then move through a narrow corridor, with coat-racks on one side. There were apparently many fur coats deposited on visits in the 1980s, When I went for a recent family birthday celebration lunch, our party only deposited one, but fittingly it belonged to the birthday lady.

Warning - if you are after a quiet tete-a-tete, this is not the ideal place. There are smaller tables around the windows, and we noticed an odd corner one over the way - its role seemed to be as a waiting point for new arrivals, but when we arrived a sole diner was munching away after an early start. We guessed that he was probably a resident of the block.

It would be wrong to say that dinner-suited waiters hovered over our table. There was little time for hovering, as the team worked at elegant speed to take orders, serve, and generally schmooze the guests.

Oslo Court has a discerning clientele, so the staff coped smoothly with a member of our party whose steak was sent back once through carrying unforeseen pepper, and a second time through not being well enough done.

On to the food, and here is the time-warp moment. Starters of Coquille St Jaques, Crab a la Rochelle, and Grapefruit Grilled with Brown Sugar and Sherry, would be unlikely to feature in a contemporary North London dinner party.

Main courses of Halibut and Salmon en Croute with Pernod Sauce, Steak Diane Flambe with Shallots, Mustard, Worcester Sauce and Brandy, and Veal Escalope Oslo Court with Mushrooms, Wine and Cream, took me back to the Wiener Schnitzel I enjoyed on a teenage birthday dinner at a "proper" restaurant.

But do not think that vintage belies quality. Our party's dishes were consumed with relish, and the vegetables were, where needed, decently al dente, although there was a pregnant pause while we eyed our main courses and the waiters circled with cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, sauteed potatoes, and chips.

I sentimentally chose the Veal Schnitzel. "With anchovies, capers and fried egg, Sir?". Nod. Approving nod back. My Veal had now moved from Plain to Holstein.

The anticipated piece de resistance was the dessert trolley. not so much for the content but for the promised performance of desserts waiter Neil reciting the options. Neil has been at Oslo Court even longer than the family of Spanish owner Tony Sanchez, who have been running the place since 1982.

Sadly Neil had no chance to do his stuff, as he was tied to his trolley despatching orders. His substitute first just asked what we wanted, not entirely daft as your regular would probably know the choices as well as would the staff. But his patter was a plain shopping list recitation. Shame.

More shame as the orders were strangely taken in batches of two or three, then served, and then on to the next group. Not top-class.

Overall we reflected that maybe service was a touch uber efficient - not much gap between starter and mains, and even the desserts were out after little pause. Only after coffee could we relax, as group members enjoyed some seniors networking with faces they recognised from other tables.

That moan might sound churlish, when often the complaint is of slow service, and true enough there were other parties there, but there was a feeling of being got out of the way as an early sitting.

We counted four waiter singings of Happy Birthday during our stay. Experienced attendees counselled that it could have been as many as six or seven, so we were lucky - barber shop quartet they ain't, and our table ducked out.

But there is a lot about which one can be positive. At £34.50 per person three course a la carte lunch (there is the odd supplement), and £45.50 same for an evening, Oslo Court is good value for what it offers, and this is a slick team doing what they do, well.

Thus I'd recommend it, and I would take my 20 something children there for a special occasion to see how British middle classes dined out in years before my kids were born. But I might bulk up to a bigger group so as not to be overwhelmed by the dining competition.

I might also get real on the reservation system. The website is up front on how it works, proclaiming that Tony "...rarely needs phone numbers as most of the reservations come from people he knows, whom he considers to be his friends." There are rumours of booking notice being longer or shorter depending on how well you are known, but that isn't unusual for popular places, so no cause for carping.

Thus for a Life on Mars dining experience on that special occasion, Oslo Court deserves its place alongside the latest "Have you been to?" establishments. Just ensure you practise delayed gratification after perusing the specimen menus online.

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