EATING OUT / Magic of the parrot house: L'Artiste Assoiffe

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The Independent Culture
L'Artiste Assoiffe, 122 Kensington Park Road, London W11. Tel: 071-727 4714.

Open for dinner every day, 7.30-11pm. Average price for meal, including house wine, around pounds 25 per person. All credit cards accepted.

FOR as long as I have lived in London, I've idly wondered about this particular, lovely restaurant. It looks grand and celebratory from the front, especially at night. Two large golden retrievers lounge across the threshold, and there is a large and beautiful birdcage above the porch, in which sit two slightly puzzled looking parrots.

L'Artiste Assoiffe, on Kensington Park Road, just north of London's Notting Hill Gate, is in the very centre of meeja-posing- and-scoffing land. It is surrounded by celebrity-patronised restaurants, from l'Altro to Leith's; 192 is probably its most famous and most glamorous neighbour. You get a lot of cheek-pecking in there, a lot of finely chiselled faces and an awful lot of affected conversation. You also get an excellent Framboise Royale, a drink involving Champagne and some sort of raspberry juice. Very expensive, and very dangerous: many a time I've thought I was only starting an evening there and then have come round to discover that the evening was over. That's why I'd never got beyond it to the parrot house up the road.

Which was silly really, because there's something slightly magical about that parrot place. It's always alive and always appears to stand refreshingly aloof from the twisting and jiving of the networkers on the pavement in front of its elegant portico. There's nothing pared and fashionable about l'Artiste Assoiffe, not from the outside and nor, it turns out, from the inside either: not its food, not its look, not even the layout of its menu. Everything about it is cluttered. Those people who furnish their imaginations and their carpetless drawing rooms with trinkets from the Conran Shop would be shocked.

When Peter and I walked in off the street (having torn ourselves away from the raspberry drink and our lip-puckering neighbours next door), it must have been about 10.30 on Friday night and Kensington Park Road was bustling with the usual trendsetters. As always, the bustle at l'Artiste Assoiffe felt slightly separate. It was still wide awake and full up, without being packed out; we were given a table immediately although we hadn't booked, which was quite surprising. Some sort of invisible sifting process or anti-magnetic force must have been diverting the human traffic at the door, because suddenly the area's frenziedly fashionable were nowhere to be seen. The restaurant wasn't necessarily filled with out-of-towners, but they were certainly out-of-Notting-Hill-Gaters. The drawls weren't quite so smokey; they didn't carry so well from table to table. The faces didn't look so substance-abused. People were older and more conventionally dressed.

We ate on the ground floor, but there was a floor beneath us and another above and a bar to the left, all of which were cluttered with people and illogical objets - carved wooden animals and so on - which had been picked up, one assumes, from various corners of the world. The overgrown golden retrievers helped to add to the clutter: they spent the evening wandering from their lazy positions on the porch in and out of the dining rooms.

Their noses were easily as high as the tables, but for some reason their presence wasn't nearly as offensive as you'd think. They were friendly enough, but they didn't beg and they didn't smell. So it wasn't the dogs that dampened our appetites. But we weren't that hungry - probably because of the framboise and the lateness of the hour - so we broke with tradition (never hurts) and decided to give the first course a miss. There was an unusually large choice of first courses not to order, in fact. Sixteen to be precise. There was parma ham and melon, potage du chef, terrine campagnarde . . . nothing unusual, but as I was to discover later, the hallmark here is classic French cuisine perfectly executed.

So no first course. I ordered the specialite de la maison for a main course, a filet Dijon - a large piece of caramelised beef with a mustard sauce. It was more robust than usual restaurant fare, and absolutely delicious. They didn't ask how I'd like the beef; it came exquisitely tender and very rare. The dish, at pounds 13.20, was the most expensive on the menu. Peter's lamb (tranche d'agneau Catalane), a lamb steak marinated in oil, herbs and garlic, was just as delicious and cost pounds 9.50. We drank a very good, light house red wine and all our senses were pandered to.

Then came the pudding menu. I reckoned the lack of a first course meant pudding was essential. The choice was not large or particularly imaginative but everything on it sounded reassuringly reliable. There were chocolate mousses, fruit salads, fruit sorbets and cremes brulees - to me, the mother of all puds. So, we shared one and spent just a moment or two teetering on the brink of paradise. They were lovely moments. We didn't speak. I think Peter may have eaten slightly more of it than I did, which was annoying because strictly speaking that pud was mine. He said he'd only have a mouthful. But then he had another, and another. Food always tastes nicer when it belongs to somebody else and they're enjoying it.

We drank coffee and squabbled, if I remember rightly, about something - house prices, whether the people on the table next door worked in film or television. But the tension was rooted in that last mouthful of Heaven. Who ate it in the end? I can't even remember now.

The bill came to pounds 57.50 including tip. And in case you didn't pick up on it, the creme brulee is highly recommended.-