Eating Out: North-west frontier

Idaho; 13 North Hill, London N6, 0181 341 6633. Lunch Mon-Fri noon-3pm, brunch Sat-Sun 11.30-4pm. Dinner Mon-Sun 6.30-11pm. Three-course dinner about pounds 30. Credit cards accepted, except Diners
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The Independent Culture
JUST AFTER I'd finished my dinner at Idaho, something rather squirmsome happened. When I asked the frizzy-haired maitre d' for a copy of the menu he asked, "What for?" and I couldn't think of a clever excuse so I stammered, "er...er..for a review". It's quite horrible when you get rumbled like that. You're given one of those looks that manages to convey both grovelling servility and utter contempt.

But I suppose I should be grateful that I was only found out at the last minute. Otherwise I might have been given special treatment. When I arrived the man at the door wouldn't have said he was awfully sorry but they'd cocked up my reservation and I couldn't sit down for another 10 minutes; I wouldn't have been given the draughty, loser's table on the edge of the dining area; the food wouldn't have taken eons to arrive; and the sliver of fish I got for my main course wouldn't have been measly to the point of insult. And I would probably have ended up giving Idaho the full- on rave it doesn't quite deserve.

Once it has had the chance to sort out its teething problems, though, I reckon it stands a good chance of becoming one of the more desirable gastronomic hang-outs in London. Just like its sister restaurant Dakota. The service is mostly intelligent, friendly and efficient, the menu is pleasingly weird and exotic, the cuisine - at its best - is top-notch, the decor's chic, the electronic background music is cool, and the Highgate location...

Well, the location is the only thing that might prevent Idaho from becoming a proper "destination" restaurant as opposed to the well-frequented local it is at the moment. That's the odd thing about Highgate: even though it's not at all remote from the London we non-Highgate inhabitants know, it feels like visiting another country.

You notice this from the moment you arrive at Idaho. Instead of being next to lots of shops, cafes and restaurants, it's on a residential hill, in a detached, airily modern building with its own car park. You half expect some young Latino valet to rush out and offer to park your limo for you: it all looks so jarringly LA.

The clientele is different, too. On the night X and I visited, it divided into three categories: expensive, middle-aged couples dressed up as you might for a posh evening in Marbella; expensive younger couples looking like something out of a Martini commercial; and expensive youths trying to pretend they weren't expensive by wearing baseball caps and dressing down but giving the game away with their public-school accents. If any of these people lived further than half a mile away, then I'm a zucchini blossom stuffed with picos blue cheese with sweet and spicy pumpkin salad.

Which, funnily enough, is just the sort of dish you'll find on the menu, along with blue maize crusted wild salmon, Yucatan quail broth, and tamarind- glazed chicken with quinoa and wild rice salad. One could take the mickey but I won't because I'm a sucker for that sort of gratuitous culinary wackiness. In fact, I had such trouble choosing between the many scrummy- sounding oddities that I had to let the waiter decide.

Pity, that. He pointed me towards the grilled mahi-mahi with Yucatan pepper stew and mesquite grilled green onions, which he assured me was spicy and interesting but turned out to be the dullest dish of the evening. The fish (what little of it there was) was fabulously fresh and you could really taste the char of the chargrill, but the sauce was pathetic: just chunks of red and yellow pepper swimming boringly in a sloppy, spiceless, tomato sauce. As for the onions, I'm not even sure there were any.

My yellow corn crusted soft shell crab with mango and mint mojo starter was nicer, though it didn't quite allay my general squeamishness at having to eat a whole crab, innards and all. It betrayed just the slightest, mildly unsettling tang of the fisherman's wharf: something I don't remember experiencing when I tried my last soft shell in New Orleans. Just as good fish never tastes fishy, so the best crab never tastes crabby. And the base of rough-chopped red cabbage could have been more imaginative.

X got by far the better deal with her choices. She kicked off with some good corn blinis with chargrilled prawns, chipotle butter and tomato and lime salsa, whose only crime was to taste marginally blander than they sounded. And her main course was absolutely faultless - chunky, succulent pecan crusted chops of lamb served with a sticky brown reduction, orange- cascabel jam (spicy marmalade, basically) and a sweet and white potato gratin of total, mouthwatering genius.

If the chef could bring all his dishes up to that standard - and I'm quite sure he's capable - Idaho would be well worth a detour. And even if he never bothers, Idaho is scarcely going to struggle for custom. Not with the sort of clientele on its doorstep for whom a pounds 40-a-head dinner constitutes a very cheap and basic night out.

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

Richard Ehrlich's selection

As you might expect in a restaurant serving modern-style American cooking, the wine list specialises in American wine. I am pleased to see an emphasis on some of the interesting Californian experiments with traditional Rhone grape varieties, and have chosen three specimens in that category. The mark-ups are not unreasonable, though I wish they'd dispense with the irritating all-lower-case typography - chic, perhaps, but confusing

Pellegrini Family Vineyards Carignane 1996, pounds 24

A big, fresh, and eminently food- friendly red from a family-owned winery in Sonoma County

Bonny Doon Roussanne 1997, pounds 31

Lovely flavours of peach and nectarine from an intelligently eclectic producer, the star of Santa Cruz County

Cline Cellars Ancient Vines Mourvedre 1996, pounds 27

One of my favourites from this top producer, a spicy wine with a good concentration of cooked-berry fruit

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