119 Old Brompton Road, London SW7, 0171 373 7774. Lunch Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm, dinner 6-11pm, Sunday brunch noon-4pm. Three-course set dinner, pounds 19.50. Service charge, 12.5 per cent
IT'S RARE that one visits a London restaurant without harbouring any preconceptions. Most new eateries are launched with such a PR fanfare that it's pretty hard to get to the door without having taken on board, however reluctantly, that the place is serving Pan-Pacific this, or Neo-Classical that, that the decor is by Clive Cliche or Dodi Doodler, in MDF and sand-blasted zinc, and that the waiters wear sackcloth, or Armani, or some such.
But every now and again a place slips through the net. The other day someone mentioned a restaurant called . They hadn't been there, but wondered if I had. I hadn't even heard of it. The only further information they could give me was that it was "apparently, London's only Danish restaurant". This immediately threw up a question I hadn't previously pondered: "What do Danes eat?" I racked my brains for a few minutes, and all I could come up with was herrings and bacon. And I wasn't even sure about the bacon.
Still, I'd forgive them anything for the herrings. I would be prepared to go a long way, even as far as SW1, in the hope of finding a really top-class rollmop. So I set off for , my girlfriend Marie and her mother Denise in tow, with a relatively open mind, my palate a blank canvas ready to be daubed with the fresh and flavoursome marks of Danish gastronomy.
We all liked the look of the place. I would go as far as to say that the venue ranks as one of the most charming small restaurants in south- west London. The entrance is discreet, except for a tell-tale plaque confirming 's claim to be "London's only Danish restaurant". It leads directly into a small but high-ceilinged dining-room plainly painted in a lovely bluebell mauve. The feeling is comfy-but-smart, casual-posh. And there is a particularly nice table - worth requesting, it would seat six - just inside the window, partitioned away from the rest of the dining room by a screen of glass and white-painted wood.
The most notable thing about the menu, and the first sign of trouble, was the glaring lack of herrings - an absence so surprising that I couldn't refrain from drawing it to the attention of our waiter. "We sometimes have them at lunchtime," he said. "But in the evenings our aim is to show that there is more to Danish nouvelle cuisine than herrings." This was done with a modest show of pride that was rather endearing.
So what do they have instead? Well, they have salmon. A whole section of the menu is devoted to it, with heavy hints that this is the speciality of the house, and ought to be tried. I asked if the salmon was wild, and was very surprised to be told, quite emphatically, that it was. Surprised, because wild salmon is pretty hard to get hold of at this time of year, and very pricey, and yet offers great tranches of it, grilled, for a mere pounds 8.50. Naturally, we all ordered salmon. And I'm afraid we were all disappointed. I probably did best, with a generous plate of gravadlax as a starter. But even this, a Scandinavian staple, was no better than adequate - too greasy, not enough salt, not enough pepper, too much sugar, just enough dill. And these, of course, are the only ingredients of gravadlax, besides the fish.
Denise had a trio of cold salmon as her main course, which included my gravadlax, alongside a pile of underseasoned (practically unseasoned) raw fish, which was called a tartare, and a few strips of smoked salmon, lame in both taste and texture. Marie had the grilled tranche for her main course. It was, like so much farmed fish, greasy and bland, but for a mildly muddy aftertaste. If these fish really were wild, I dread to think what ecological misfortune had rendered them so dull and flabby.
Marie had ordered a starter of "feta mousse". I could just about see the logic to this dish, as I remembered a statistic along the lines that Denmark produces more feta than Greece. (Apparently the Danes also make more mozzarella than the Italians, but hadn't thought to put pizza on the menu.) Danish feta isn't really feta at all, being made with cow's milk, not sheep's, and this was a bland and buttery affair, with none of the sheepy tang you would expect from Greek feta. All three of us had a go, but it didn't get finished.
Marie's mother had a crack at the "soupe a l'oignon". How this bistro classic ranks as "nouvelle Danish cuisine" I couldn't say. But to be honest it wouldn't have taken Gallic taste buds to discern the palate-deadening aftertaste of MSG-laden stock cube, and the acidic crunch of undercooked onions sliced too thick.
Not everything was this grim. Despite a viscous and suspect gravy, and overcooked potatoes, and red cabbage that was far too vinegary, my meatballs were absolutely delicious. And the puddings, in a rather irritating way, were outstanding: I had a delicious trio of chocolate mousses, and Denise had an outrageous dish of creme brulee, spread over a wide plate topped with two scoops of home-made vanilla ice-cream. Everything you could ever want from eggs, sugar, cream and vanilla pod on one plate.
Our evening was not an entirely negative experience. We liked the place and the staff, loved the puds, and certainly couldn't complain about the bill. On Thursday night the place was humming; it seems to have earned a loyal clientele. But wouldn't they, like me, prefer to see a serious overhaul of the menu, the return of the herring, and an end to salmonoid misery?
Hugh's series, 'Escape to River Cottage', is on Channel 4 tonight
WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST
Richard Ehrlich's selection
De Bortoli, pounds 20.50
This wine list is mostly dreary and unimaginative, but I'd be happy to try this serviceable Yarra Chardonnay. The name is misspelled on the list (as De Bartoli)
Cannonau di Sardegna 1994, Sella e Mosca, pounds 18.50
Even with an ungenerous mark-up, this is one of the most interesting choices on the list under pounds 20. The producer makes some of the best cheap wines in Sardinia
Sandalford, pounds 26.50
This Cabernet would benefit from more bottle age, but the price is not too punishing. Sandalford uses fruit from several areas of Western Australia