Many restaurateurs, like many actors, dream of transferring to the West End: Mr Oo of the Burnt Chair in Richmond confessed as much when I enjoyed my solitary dinner there some weeks ago, and the wild-eyed proprietor of Caligula in Bromley (to which I made a memorable visit last September) is, I believe, taking steps even at this moment to paint the ceiling of another brassiere-hung operatic Aladdin's cave somewhere off Bow Street in Covent Garden. This is very understandable: rents may be higher, but you can charge more and make more money.
But although you may have to work a great deal harder out of town - as we discovered last year when we failed to carry E F Benson into the West End with Make Way for Lucia! - customers there are often more demanding yet more appreciative than the tourists and visiting spivs waiting to be fleeced in the centre of London. And, as theatrical touring managements and provincial restauteurs have both discovered, there are fortunes to be made, if only on a smaller profit margin.
One such fortune, I suspect, is being made by the Chiswick restaurant. It is next door to a garage in the Chiswick High Road, in an area of west London that - apart from the presence nearby of a few successful new businesses and one international publisher - might seem to the metropolitan eye a bit unpromising. Nevertheless, since it opened 18 months ago the Chiswick has flourished, attracting a great deal of praise from the critics, and if the evening we went there was anything to go by, has found a loyal local following of civilised and discriminating people any restaurant would be proud of.
It was a wet night. Umbrellas and red buses gleamed past outside, across the road there was a shop window full of luridly lit dummies. Inside, however, the Chiswick could have been the restaurant of some sheltered Danish university. The decor is extremely simple. The walls are painted a warm grey, the ceiling creamy white, and the chairs are plain Fifties Scandinavian Functional, backs and seats bent out of a single piece of pale wood.
We got there early as they only had a table available until nine, and from the moment the next party followed us in I knew we were on safe ground. There were three couples, the men all in well-worn suits, the ladies in shawls and spectacles, all in their sixties, the kind of people who can be trusted to nose out good food anywhere. Later, the restaurant filled with justifiably self-confident young women, all accompanied by quite amusing-looking men. No one raised their voices, the place hummed with quiet enjoyment, and the food was everything that the atmosphere promised it would be.
There was a choice of nine starters, all of which sounded highly appetising. Among them were spiced aubergine salad with focaccia; lamb's brains with black butter and capers; chicken liver terrine, toast and pickles; marinated squid salad, french beans and saffron dressing; potato pancakes, parma ham and celeriac remoulade.
I started with parsnip soup, which was creamy, tasted of the purest essence of parsnips and was served at exactly the right temperature. My wife had steamed mussels with curry, cream and coriander, which she said was very good and herby and asked for some more bread to wipe the bowl with.
The wine list is economical, with a few wines from each producing country, ranging from pounds 9.50 to pounds 45 a bottle, the most expensive being a Barolo "Granbussia" '89, pounds 10 more than Chateau Lango Barton '76 or Chateau Palmer '78. They also have Czech Budweiser, draught Guinness and Shepherd Neame Bishop's Finger, as well as one good malt whisky, one good Mirabelle, one good Armagnac and so on by the glass. We had an Italian red at pounds 9.75, which was light and very good.
There were seven main courses: papardelle with cep cream and parmesan; a bourride of red mullet and cod; fillet of brill in a herb crust with pepper dressing; roast pheasant with red cabbage and braised celery; rump of lamb with aubergine, anchovy and rosemary; grilled calves' liver with mashed potato and bacon and onion gravy; or rib-eye steak with chips and Roquefort butter.
My wife had the red mullet and cod. An authentic bourride, according to Larousse Gastronomique, is a sort of light stew from Provence, made by cooking the fish in a pan with garlic and bitter orange peel, which is finally thickened with the yolks of two eggs, and the fish served separately. In this case the fish arrived in its stew, and was delicious.
I had pheasant. Whether or not it was entirely free range it was a huge, tender meaty leg notably free of tough muscle or lead shot and it came on a bed of rosti potatoes and cabbage as well as the red cabbage and braised celery, all very good indeed.
For pudding my wife had Amaretti cheesecake. I asked for a glazed lemon custard, and the waiter brought three scoops of lemon sorbet. Both he and I looked at it, he said that wasn't the way they normally served it, then he got an urgent message from the bar and raced back with the real thing, which was a lemon creme brulee and well worth waiting for.
The service throughout was quick, charming and unobtrusive. Altogether meriting an alpha minus mark and not very expensive. Dinner for the two of us, with the wine and with peppermint tea afterwards, but without the tip, came to pounds 52.50.Reuse content