Eating out: Neighbourhood watch

VILLANDRY; 170 Great Portland Street, London W1N 5TB. Tel: 0171 631 3131. Open Monday to Saturday from 7.30am to 10.30pm and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Average dinner price per person, pounds 25 without drinks. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
Since the early summer the old architectural HQ of Sir Norman Foster in Great Portland Street has been boarded up. The painted plywood panels have remained remarkably free of bills and flyers, but painted in 2ft-high letters, which I must have passed several dozen times, has been the single word, "VILLANDRY".

The old incarnation of this famous deli-cum-restaurant was not far away, in Marylebone High Street. The new one is just a three minute walk from my flat, and given the dearth of decent eateries (L'Arte in Cleveland Street is the exception) at the Euston Road end of what us residents still dare to call Fitzrovia, I have been awaiting the opening impatiently.

The panels finally came down a couple of weeks ago and, motivated by a spirit of neighbourliness, not to mention inquisitiveness, and a fair streak of anticipatory greed, I went to the opening party. The place was packed, not only with people but, more importantly, with produce. The whole shop-end of the business has a pleasing air of gastronomic seriousness. Much of the food, including a good-looking selection of seasonal vegetables, is laid out market-stall style in large baskets on sturdy wooden tables. It's skillfully done to bring out the wreckless shopper in your average browser.

There is a near decadent enthusiasm for charcuterie - a vast array of salamis, cold meats and pates are on show. For the opening, a selection of three of the latter had been laid out in large slabs on a plate, but as no eating tools, or bread, had been provided, it wasn't clear if these tempting offerings were meant to be consumed, or merely admired. On the basis that they couldn't possibly be planning to sell them the next day (I saw one punter eyeing up the plate as a potential ashtray, before thinking better of it, but it looked like it was only a matter of time before he, or someone else, succumbed) I decided to tuck in with my fingers. I'm glad I did, because the fromage de tete and duck liver pate were both exemplary.

A week or so after the opening, four of us went to eat in the restaurant at the back of the shop. I say "the back of the shop" - actually the restaurant space is huge compared to the old Villandry. The ceiling is high and the floor is wide, and within the plainly painted unadorned walls, some 60 or 70 diners can eat with elbow-room. The tables and chairs are a motley collection of second-hand items, but white tablecloths mean it all feels classy enough, and the absence of any heavy-handed style statement is really quite liberating.

My herb and potato soup was homey and comforting, but might have been more deeply satisfying had it been based on a meatier (or chickenier) stock. Kira went for the lightest of the starters, a clean and refreshing salad of raw fennel and apple with a lemon vinaigrette. Although this was good, it could also have been better, had the apple and fennel been cut more lovingly by hand, rather than finely shredded by a food processor.

Tom's selection of charcuterie - only one bit of pate and a selection of decent, but not unusual, salamis and chorizos - seemed just a touch mean given the amazing spread I had seen on opening night. And Laura's plate of smoked salmon was, well, just a plate of smoked salmon; okay for a sandwich, but not really special enough to put on the menu, and certainly not from a wild fish.

If this review is beginning to read like a catalogue of nearlys and not quites, two of the main courses at least indicated that the kitchen is capable of solid performance with good ingredients. Tom's grilled fillet of beef was a very fine piece of meat and came with excellent chips and a good winey reduction. Kira and Laura's halibut and scallop chowder wasn't really a chowder at all, since it had no liquor, but the perfectly cooked slab of flatty came on on pile of sauteed vegetables nicely al dente, and the scattering of scallop meat, though a bit finely chopped, was perfectly sweet and not at all overcooked. It wasn't what she was expecting but was a pretty nice surprise.

I ordered a risotto, rather by default, as the leak tart I fancied had run out. This second choice dish was competent rather than inspired: there wasn't enough of either the radicchio or prosciutto that were meant to be the point of it, and the rice was too wet, lacking that slight chalkiness in the middle of each grain that spells perfection in a risotto.

By then we were nothing if not full, and a slice of fair-to-middling lemon tart went round the table several times before the plate was empty.

I suppose it's no bad thing that a neighbourhood restaurant leaves you feeling that the best may be yet to come. I went back within a week to see how things were progressing. A second visit was a good opportunity to get the measure of the daily changing menu. It seems, and one hopes, that a soup, a savoury tart, some fresh fish and a slow-cooked meat dish are all regulars.

I finally got my slice of tart - by ordering it as soon as I arrived - and it was delicious. And this time the charcuterie was a more generous selection, including some delicious good-old English ham. A main course dish of loin of pork braised with milk, lemon and sage was perhaps the best thing I have yet tasted from the kitchen - tender, and with all advertised flavours present and correct. But once again the salad was a big disappointment: this time the food processor had got to work on red cabbage and carrots, which were dressed with tahini. It's a combination I would be happy to find inside pitta bread with falafel or a good kebab, but on it's own it was, frankly, dull.

The new Villandry is a charmingly casual but upbeat place to have dinner. The kitchen is already scoring some hits, but the misses are bit more frequent than they ought or need, to be. Still, I wouldn't want my new local to get too swanky and polished, or I might never get a table.

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