After a hard day’s shopping at Bicester Village, Villandry provides welcome respite from the bright lights and manic rush of designer outlet stores. Its muted tones exude calm and relaxation and it stands out from the neighbouring sandwich shops.
The decor manages to be both modern and rustic simultaneously; the clean lines of dark, booth-style tables with white lamps and black downlighters contrast with the sandstone bar surrounding the open kitchen, comfortable leather seats and overhead lights suspended from wooden logs. The lighting is subdued but not too minimal and the overall atmosphere is cosy yet refined. The large drinks bar and open kitchen provide the main focal points.
There are booth-like tables around the edge of the restaurant with leather seats, or simple wooden tables in the middle with plain wooden chairs. You could be in either a country inn or a smart restaurant, such is the blend of rustic and modern, yet it manages to work well; the brown and beige tones lend warmth and character. Stone columns separate the dining areas, creating more intimate spaces and the large ironwork lanterns scattered around close to the windows add interest amid the otherwise subdued tones. The tables themselves are simply laid, each with its own smart white lamp, and the individual tables are generously sized, making even sitting down for a quick lunch a deux feel more like settling down to a banquet.
The staff are friendly and welcoming, laid back but still attentive. They are sensitive to your needs as a diner and are wary of taking an order too quickly or making you feel rushed. Wine is frequently topped up, empty water bottles replaced and new cutlery provided in between courses. Best of all they are knowledgeable about the menu and seem genuinely pleased to be serving you. There is an atmosphere of calm; no waiter or waitress is too rushed off their feet to attend to you without a smile.
Villandry prides itself on serving French bistrot classics. The presence of dishes such as French onion soup, steak frites, moules frites, croque monsieur and glazed lemon tart lend an unmistakeably Gallic feel to the menu. In fact, there is even a “dictionnaire” at the bottom to help anyone whose French is not up to scratch. Also available, however, are other European-influenced dishes such as potted salmon with crusty bread (£6.95), or an innovative pear and blue cheese rarebit (£6.50). Comprising two generous slices of baguette topped with melted Stilton, slivers of pear macerated in red wine, and a green salad, the starter is a satisfying start to a meal, but perhaps one to avoid if you have a small appetite: the huge baguette slices are rather overwhelming. The sauteed mushrooms on toasted brioche with caramelised red onion (£5.50) arrive full of flavour, the slightly sweet brioche and tart onion providing a nice contrast to the rich, buttery mushrooms.
Main courses are kept simple but hearty and include pork and leek sausages with sage mash, steak frites and grilled salmon. You can also order a half (£12.95) or quarter (£7.50) grilled chicken from the rotisserie, that’s served with a sauce of your choice. The linguine with tiger prawns (£9.95) are spicier than you might perhaps anticipate and it’s really well done with perfectly cooked pasta mixed with succulent, juicy prawns in a rich tomato sauce. Also worth trying is the seared black sea bream (£12.95). Beautifully cooked, with moist, meaty flesh and a delightfully crisp skin, the fish arrives on a bed of sauteed potatoes, garnished with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, a quenelle of tapenade and – a nice twist – a chargrilled half-lemon. The sharp tapenade and tart, sweet tomatoes are a perfect contrast to the flavoursome fish, though the dish is a little oily.
The menu also offers a dish of the day for every day of the week; arrive on a Wednesday, for example, and you can sample duck confit. The side orders are intriguing: try the Aspen frites (£4.50) - chips with Parmesan and truffle oil – the Savoy cabbage with bacon, or the classic Dauphinoise potatoes (£3.50). Portions are enormous, and a little hard to finish after such generous starters and whilst the dishes probably won’t win any prizes for originality, they are nicely presented, well cooked and full of flavour. In fact, superb comfort food. The ‘rapide’ section of the menu also offers quick bites for breakfast (available until 11.30am) and lunch, as well as food to take away that ranges from £2.50 for soup (such as, spiced butternut squash or chicken and mushroom) to £4.25 for a tuna nicoise salad.
The dessert menu is short and simple, and ranges from French classics such as a glazed lemon tart, to a traditionally British sticky toffee pudding. All desserts are priced at £4.50. The banana and butterscotch ice cream with honeycomb and chocolate sauce is deliciously rich and creamy with a subtle caramel flavour; the honeycomb provides a nice contrast in texture, though is guaranteed to stick to your teeth for the next hour at least. The glazed lemon tart arrives beautifully presented, drizzled with a sweet syrup and served with creme fraiche. The filling is tart and the pastry is beautifully crumbly. For those who have perhaps overindulged on the frites, a fresh fruit plate is available, a nice concession to the health-conscious.
An innovative drinks list guarantees that there is a beverage for every taste. Villandry serve a selection of fruit juices, as well as crushed fruit lemonades (£2.95): strawberry, passionfruit, or ginger and lime. St Evremond Champagne and Kir Royale are available by the glass (£4.95) as aperitifs. The wine list is limited but features a good selection of European wines as well as a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Merlot. The Villandry Cuvee Blanc, from the Languedoc (£15.95 a bottle), is a good all-rounder, with citrus notes that nicely complement the restaurant’s fish dishes. All wines are available by the small or large glass, or bottle, and prices are very reasonable, with bottles ranging from £13.95 to £18.95. There are four French Champagnes on offer, from £30 to £55 a bottle, and four European beers, from £3-£4. A range of after-dinner coffees is also available.
The Last Word
For hearty, flavoursome French and European food in relaxed surroundings, Villandry is the perfect antithesis to the hustle and bustle of Bicester Village’s shopping scene. It may not be haute cuisine but both the cooking and the service will leave you feeling satisfied and refreshed after a day of retail therapy.