Eating Out: A delicious dilemma

EVERY restaurant critic likes to think that one day they will "discover" a restaurant - somewhere that no one else has yet written about, which hasn't been launched with a massive PR fanfare, yet which just happens to have this amazingly talented chef. It's the apogee of an essentially undramatic profession (you sit, you eat, you write) so when it happens, and we break the story, we expect congratulations all round. It's the nearest we'll ever come to actually opening a restaurant ourselves. So not that near then.

Our other professional conceit is the one that begins, "there's this little place I know". It's supposed to be a hush-hush aside to friends, on the basis that it's privileged information, a trade secret, unsuitable for dissemination to our readership. God forbid that we might not get a table because they turn up in droves.

These opportunities for professional vanity come but rarely, so when both come at once, and clash head-on, one may consider oneself both blessed and cursed at the same time. I have recently become the victim of such a double bind. On the one hand, I think I have discovered a new restaurant. On the other hand it falls distinctly into the category of "little places" whose pleasures I am sorely tempted to keep to myself. Woe is me, what shall I do? The wrong thing, obviously.

I chanced on the eaterie in question about five weeks ago. It really was chance. Marie and I were wandering around near our flat, undecided as to which of the usual suspects (Pizza Express, Ragam, Chez Gerard) we would favour with our custom, when we spotted the pleasingly lit vitrine of this new establishment, and felt beckoned inside.

The fact that we had our three week old baby with us (Oscar, I promise not to mention him again), and that he was made at least as welcome as we were (not so much as a semi-scowl from management or clientele) got us off to a flying start. It turned out to be only their second day of business, so the sense of happy hazards working in our favour was further enhanced.

We weren't up for a big one, and I wasn't even thinking of reviewing, so I ordered a plate of bresaola and a salad, and Marie went for the risotto of the day. My bresaola, home-cured, was arrestingly different from the beast that habitually goes by that name. For once you could really taste the spicing (crushed coriander), and it had a deliciously gradated texture - hard, almost crusty on the outside, then increasingly yielding until meltingly soft in the middle. This was easier to appreciate because it wasn't sliced, as it so often is, too thin.

Marie's risotto was of wild sorrel, and generous enough for me to get stuck into as well. We both agreed within a mouthful or two that it was one of the best risottos we had ever tasted. Intuitively, I wouldn't have bet on the lemony tang of sorrel mixing well with Parmesan, but somehow the two came together like rhubarb and custard. On top of that the rice was spot on - still just faintly chalky in the middle.

That's all we had on our first visit, and as we walked home I felt the prick of the horns of my dilemma. To review, or not to review. Not for the time being. I decided. We went back a week or so later, when Marie had the sorrel risotto, again, and I had one of the tastiest rabbit dishes I have had in a long while. A slow-cooked affair somewhere between a pot roast and a stew; it oozed peasanty authenticity, almost overdoing the cornerstone ingredients of rosemary, garlic and salt, and almost overcooking the meat of the wild rabbit. As any aficionado of burnt toast will tell you, taking a dish to the brink, and almost-but-not-quite spoiling it, is one route to absolute perfection.

Should I break the news? Not just yet. A third visit would give me an opportunity to check out the fish cookery. A salad of baby octopus and cuttlefish tossed together with a few green leaves was pleasingly simple, and cleverly lifted by a touch of chilli in the dressing. Marie's tuna carpaccio showed the chef a master of the difficult art of buying good fish, and resisting the temptation to do anything with it.

My fish of the day, a fillet of bream simply grilled and served with a lemon butter sauce, showed he could cook the stuff as well as buy it. Marie, ever adventurous, chose for her main course ... a risotto of wild sorrel. "Just as good as the first time," was the verdict.

Time to come clean? Oh, all right then, I guess I'd better. But allow me one indulgence. "Look there's this little place I know. We happened on it a few weeks ago. It's in Charlotte Street, but you could easily miss it. Only seats about 25. Italian and family-run I would guess. The staff are absolutely charming. And the cooking - just delightful. Simple. Magic risotto, great fish, lovely bit of rabbit. Go and check it out. But hey, don't go mad and tell everyone. If I stroll in there next week and can't get a table, I'll know who's to blame! What's it called? Hah, almost forgot to say. Passione. Sshhh! You heard it here first, right?"

10 Charlotte Street, London, W1, 0171 636 2833. Lunch Mon-Fri 12.30-2.30pm. Dinner Mon-Fri 6.30-10.30pm.

Dinner Sat 6.30-11.00pm.

Closed Sun and bank holidays.

Three-course dinner about pounds 30.

Credit cards accepted, except Diners

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

Richard Ehrlich's selection

Vernaccia di San Gimignano, 1998, Bruni, pounds 14.50

Passione's wine list doesn't inspire true passion in the oenophile's heart, but it has the efficiently compensating virtue of being cheap: all these bottles are pounds 14 to pounds 16. While Vernaccia di San Gimignano can be diabolical or delicious, it wouldn't cost much to see which version this big producer came up with

S&M is the biggest producer in Sardinia, and Vermentino is one of the island's better whites. I'd drink this

Aglianico del Vulture 1996, D'Angelo, pounds 16

This wine from Basilicata seems to be popping up on a lot of lists at the moment, and that's no bad thing: big, dense and highly enjoyable

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