TEN minutes before guests were due to arrive for the opening party of La Gousse d'Ail on 23 November, the front door of the north Oxford restaurant was still being painted. It was the culmination of a frenetic six weeks of gutting, designing, sourcing, installing, decorating and recruiting - and for Jonathan and Jayne Wright the end of a three-year search for their own restaurant.
"It was such an intense project," says Jayne. "We got the keys to the place on Friday, got married on Saturday and started painting on Sunday. In six weeks, we did what should have been a three-month project." She has taken on the role of general manager while Jonathan, who opened the Great Eastern's restaurants for the Conran group in London in 1999, rules the roost in the kitchen.
The Wrights bought the property, a 1930s building formerly home to the Lemon Tree Restaurant, on a 30-year lease and, with financial backing from friends and contacts, have spent more than £1m to open the place. They sourced every item themselves, using magazines, contacts and trade shows to find exactly the right teaspoon, wine glass or bud vase.
Three months down the line from opening, they are serving modern French haute cuisine to locals and visitors to Oxford. The local press has been enthusiastic and the Wrights feel that they are filling a gap for a Michelin-standard restaurant in a city dominated by high-turnover brasserie-style eateries that target the student and tourist population. The restaurant is regularly doing 35 covers at lunch and 60 at dinner, with diners spending an average £40 and £70 respectively, including wine.
The food is simpler than the dishes Wright has been used to cooking. He spent six years, three of them as chef de cuisine, at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton with Raymond Blanc, two years at Raffles hotel in Singapore as executive sous chef, and was executive chef for just over a year working on the Great Eastern project. Despite industry rumours to the contrary, both he and Conran insist that their parting of the ways early in 2000 was mutual.
The job, says, Jonathan, was always a stop-gap position. "We were looking for a site before I went to the Great Eastern but we couldn't find one and I had to take the job," he says. "It was a great experience on the business side and helped me to open this in six weeks."
The Singapore experience exposed Jonathan to some of the world's top chefs. "We had a guest chef every month - people like Alain Ducasse, Georges Blanc - and you can't help but absorb some of their passion," he says. "To see what makes them tick, how they use ingredients, their techniques, was amazing."
However, Raymond Blanc is clearly his most important culinary influence. "As far as palate is concerned, Raymond's a genius," he says. "I learnt from him that the skill in cooking is to understand flavour and taste, and always question why something is on the plate. Does it make the dish better? If not, take it away."
Jonathan doesn't now have the luxury of 26 chefs as he did at Le Manoir, far less the 110 he managed at the Great Eastern, so he has to be realistic with the menu at La Gousse d'Ail. He'd like to increase the brigade from six to 11, but recruiting, particularly pre-opening, has been difficult. "We were interviewing in a building site in hard hats, so it was hard to convey our vision," he says. "We've been through staff either because they couldn't cope or weren't right, but the people who have stayed are the ones mature enough to see the long-term objective, and their work is fantastic."
Typical of Wright's approach is a terrine of foie gras with confit duck, Riesling jelly and quince. He says: "We layer foie gras and confit duck and put confit gizzards in one layer and confit shallots in another. There's a Riesling jelly, some quince - and that's all it needs." A red mullet dish, one of three fish main courses, is similarly illustrative of his style. "We confit the mullet in lemon oil and serve it with a fricassée of squid, clams, mussels, cockles or whatever shellfish we can get," he says. "Sometimes, it's sea urchins, queen scallops or razor clams."
Popular meat dishes include crisp Barbary duck roasted with crushed peppercorns and honey, roasted purple fig, foie gras and Banyuls wine sauce; and roasted fillet of Angus beef, which is carved at the table and served with a purée of parsley and spinach, roast shallots and girolles and a red wine jus.
The venison dish featured uses small saddles of local wild venison that are marinated for two days and served with baby navets, baby Brussels sprouts, girolles, trompettes and lardons and a sauce Grand Veneur. "All the vegetables are individually cooked, then warmed through in a light almond emulsion," says Wright. "There's a good balance between the richness of venison and the sauce and the emulsion."
Most guests have pudding - largely, says Jayne, because the single-sitting policy means they can linger - and classics are ever-popular. A seven-strong menu, listed with suggested wine accompaniments, includes a prune and Armagnac soufflé with its own ice-cream; a hot fondant of bitter chocolate, pistachio ice-cream, espresso sauce; and a classic lemon tart, fromage blanc ice-cream, cassis sauce. Jonathan explains: "We use a goats' fromage blanc, which has a nice acidity to it, and sprinkle it with caraway seeds."
The restaurant also runs a five-course menu gourmand, made of dishes from the à la carte, priced at £55 without wine, or £80 with recommended wines. A lunch menu du jour, available Tuesday to Saturday, costs £19.50 for two courses or £22.50 for three. "We've done that to promote business lunches," says Jayne. "But, in fact, more than 60% of customers eat à la carte at lunch."
Diners seem unfazed by the London prices, and in the evenings the restaurant operates at 85% capacity. Lunch is quieter, at just 50%, but Jonathan is adamant that prices are a "bare minimum". He explains: "Scallops cost £1.70 each, cäpes are £22 per kg and langoustines £25 per kg. To make the oxtail [ballotine of boned oxtail, braised in Hermitage wine sauce, poached ox tongue, parsnip mousseline], there's half-a-bottle of wine per portion, plus three days' labour."
Both he and Jayne are confident that business will grow through proactive marketing - "we're not sitting back and waiting for business," she insists.
A Michelin star would certainly help with marketing, and Jonathan has set his sights on gaining the accolade. "Michelin came in after seven weeks," he says,"but consistency is the key. We close on a Sunday night and all day Monday, so that we have just one set of staff. Eventually, I'd like to close all day Sunday so everyone gets two days off."
The Wrights are clearly not letting the exhaustion of a six-week opening, or an 8am-2am working day, halt any plans for expansion, either.
"In the next five years, our aim is other sites and other businesses," says Jayne. "We won't be a chain but we could open a brasserie or delicatessen or oyster bar, something that doesn't need us to be there all the time. Gousse would then become a training school to feed the other businesses." n