A reviewer's fear of Fulham

FULHAM ROAD; 257-259 Fulham Road, London SW3. Tel: 0171 351 7823. Open Mon-Fri 12-2.30pm and Mon-Sat 7-11pm. Two course set lunch, pounds 18.50. Average a la carte pric e, pounds 35 without wine. Major credit cards, except Diners, accepted
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The Independent Culture
Most Londoners have a (more or less) irrational prejudice against a particular area of the city. Mine is against Fulham. It's a tough one to explain. I don't dislike the people who live, work and play there - although I certainly dislike the fact that I find them so hard to dislike.

And somewhere in that paradox is the raw nerve that jerks my knee whenever I find myself drifting south of Brompton Cross. What gets me, I think, is a scary feeling that Fulham has a secret recipe for happiness, passed around like glandular fever, perhaps by the act, so often observed outside the ABC cinema, of people flinging their arms warmly around their friends whom they clearly haven't seen since the night before. Symptoms of the disease include a glow which suggests an unfeasibly satisfactory sex life, and the ability to drink with cheerful impunity (none of the Soho boozer's involuntary premonition of the hangover to spoil their fun).

I used to visit Fulham occasionally, on the spurious pretext of seeing a movie, in the secret hope that someone would momentarily mistake me for a member of the tribe and bestow on me the magic joy-disseminating hug. But try as I might, I just can't seem to get infected.

My immunity to the local feel-good fever didn't exactly endear me in advance to one of Fulham's most serious gastronomic ventures. Can Fulham Road come up with no better name to express its culinary mission than that of the street in which it is situated - as if the best thing about it is the fact that it is on the Fulham Road?

I cast aside these reservations to check out the cooking of a chef who used to ply his trade locally to me. Until a few weeks ago, Eric Chavot was at Interlude de Chavot, a formal but pleasingly intimate little dining- room in central London. I enjoyed one fine meal there and was ready to go back for more - until I heard that Chavot had been snapped up by Fulham Road. It seemed the least I could do was to see how he was getting along in the land of the terminally chirpy.

Our meal there began with a complimentary amuse-bouche - a touch that, as an aficionado of food for free, always tickles me. The neat ovoid form of a brandade quenelle was accompanied by a small garlic crouton. The blend of salt cod, garlic and olive oil was almost too salty. But with a delicious bottle of Rully on hand to rinse away the lingering brine of each mouthful, the experience was in fact delightful - like a sophisticated version of doing tequila shots.

This punchy appetizer presaged an interest in hefty southern flavours that keeps Chavot's cooking out of the danger zone of so much posh French food, where everything tends towards the taste of some heavily reduced sauce. The starters were equally zesty. Marie had roasted scallops, a shellfish she adores but is ruthlessly unforgiving with when either optimum keeping or cooking time is exceeded. In the event there was nothing to forgive - they were sweet and barely warm in the middle. But what she really liked was the accompanying mash - creamy smooth and tingling with the slow-burning fire of a freshly grated horseradish root.

If my pan-fried foie gras had been 20 per cent more generously sliced (and given the pounds 12.50 price-tag for the dish, one might reasonably have expected it to be) the cooking time would probably have been perfect. As it was, it could have been a bit more unctuous. There was some compensation in an accompaniment of endive tarte tatin, whose intriguing bitter-sweet note was achieved without the cavalier use of sugar which can sometimes spoil savoury versions of this classic upside-down pud.

I never expect to be blown away by main courses, they are so often less inventive than starters and puddings. I don't necessarily mind this - a good piece of fish or meat nicely cooked with one or two complementary flavours, will keep me happy. My char-grilled wild salmon came with a "nicoise garnish", which meant perfectly cooked baby French beans, sweet tomatoes whose sunny flavour was condensed by a light roasting, and a few other Mediterranean bits and bobs. Just the job on a plate whose main attraction was a fantastic fillet of immaculately grilled fish: rare proof that wild salmon can be (it often isn't) far superior to farmed.

In contrast Marie was getting to a grips with a dish of extraordinary flamboyance. What possesses a chef to stuff the leg of a wild rabbit with a mixture of finely diced (and surprisingly tender) squid (yes, squid), minced black olives and chopped tomatoes? Why does he accompany it not only with a subtly cheesy barley risotto, but also a single raviolo of home-made pasta, filled with a seasoned forcemeat shot through with chopped fresh mint? It's more than sufficient, but how much of it is necessary?

I tasted and enjoyed each of the separate elements but frankly I was having too good a time with the salmon to get bogged down in a debate on the wisdom of putting it all on one plate. Marie paid it the compliment of eating more than half of it, but it would have taken quite some guts, literally, to finish it.

It was probably a measure of our enthusiasm for the menu thus far, rather than any sense of space left to fill, that goaded us to order a pudding each. Marie's pleasingly seasonal rhubarb souffle was nicely tart and, although it looked enormous, mercifully light. My "three little puddings" made me feel like three little pigs (or one big one) when it arrived. But somehow I managed to put away a pyramid of caramel parfait, a tower of warm bitter chocolate cake, and a sphere of white chocolate ice-cream, without the corresponding geometrical shapes appearing under my shirt.

This was not a perfect meal, and I suspect perfection is not, at this stage in his career anyway, Chavot's quest. But this is exciting food well worth travelling for - even to Fulham. If only the locals weren't pathologically incapable of misery, this would be a nice place for them to come when they needed cheering up.

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