Eating Out: Proof is in the pastry

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The Independent Culture

26 Sussex Place, London W2, 0171 262 6073. Lunch Mon-Fri noon-2pm. Dinner Mon-Sat 7-10.15pm. Three-course lunch pounds 18.50, dinner pounds 28.50. Service included

"WHAT'S your favourite foreign food?" the Rat, my stepson asked me the other day over a plate of his favourite foreign food (Chinese). If I'd wanted to be arsey and clever I might have replied Pacific Rim; and if I'd wanted to be laddish, I would probably have said Indian. Instead, I went for precisely the boring option you'd expect a restaurant critic to take. "French," I said.

Later, I tried to work out what exactly it is that makes French cuisine the finest in the world. And after a few seconds I realised that it was all too complicated and I couldn't be bothered. It just is, that's all. But you might find a few clues in all the nice things I have to say about the latest wonderful French restaurant I've discovered in London: .

One of 's very few downsides is its location, buried in that grand but arid no-man's-land on the Bayswater side of Hyde Park. Convenient for post-prandial strolls, perhaps, but if you go in the evening it almost certainly means you'll be surrounded mainly by those stuffy oldsters who can afford to live in the area, and if you go at lunchtime (there being few businessmen in the 'hood) you could find it horribly empty.

Which is what I found on the day I went. Normally I hate empty restaurants. But at it didn't bother me. The maitre d' was as courteous and helpful yet nobly aloof as only the French can be. When X arrived with the Rat he gave off these comforting vibes which said: "M'sieur, do not worry zat your stepson is scroffily dressed in a feelthy South Park T- shirt and far too young to appreciate our chef's fine cuisine. At L', even les petits rats horribles are our friends."

So X and I ordered a glass each of champagne (the wine list's interesting - strong on Burgundy, but quite pricey and not very exciting at the cheaper end), the Rat had his usual cola, we inspected the menu and all at once confusion reigned. There were far, far too many fantastic-sounding dishes we fancied, both on the bijou lunchtime menu (three courses, pounds 18.50) and on the plusher carte (three courses, pounds 28.50), including terrine of rabbit with warm vegetable dressing, tournedos of tuna "a la nicoise", tranche of sea bass with squid ink risotto and tomato olive oil and fillet of red mullet with fine tagliatelli crab sauce.

You'll notice that none of the above dishes is remotely trendy or original. They're more classics with a twist, which I find very reassuring. Similar rules apply to the puddings. I'll always have time for restaurants that serve, as a matter of course, creme brulee and apple tart. If this isn't up your street, go to the Sugar Club.

Anyway, as I say, X and I had real problems deciding what to eat. I wanted us to start with the pan-fried foie gras (natch) and the Tatin of confits shallots with balsamic vinegar, but X selfishly insisted on trying the brandade of cod and courgette. And because the brandade was on the cheapo lunch menu, that meant X had to have her main course from the a la carte. Etc, etc. Why am I telling you this? Oh, I know why. Because as usual I was right. The Tatin (one of the chef's specialities) was truly stupendous: unctuously caramelised, melt-in-the-mouth shallots on a buttery feuillete base (God, the pastry chef here is hot) surrounded by a dribble of sweet, sticky 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. The brandade, meanwhile, was as good as a brandade can be. Which, if you ask me, isn't very. I mean what exactly is the point, in the age of refrigeration, of salt-drying fish and then de-salting and rehydrating it?

On the main course front, though, X won. I simply couldn't fault her fat, juicy pan-fried scallops with leek and potato souffle, creamy leek sauce and a layer of ultra-thin, crispy, very good bacon. I could hardly fault my braised leg of duck either, except that maybe, just maybe, it could have been a teeny weeny bit more flaky and moist. But the quality of the meat was superb (no liverish undertones), there was lots of it, and the meltingly fatty skin was magnificently crisp. It came with lardon- flecked puy lentils which X thought great but which I found too lentilly.

The Rat meanwhile went for the only possible duffer: croustillant of lamb with tian provencal thyme jus. It came surrounded by spinach and a layer of pastry the maitre d' called Chinese. But the Rat didn't care because all he was interested in was the lamb fillet interior which was tender and cooked to pink perfection. Of course, as we know, he'd have been much happier with won ton soup and fried seaweed.

He was, however, quite spectacularly impressed - as were we all - by the puddings. He chose the warm chocolate fondant, a rich, ultra-chocolatey souffle into which the maitre d' poured a raspberry coulis. My lemon tart had a fabulously brittle base (that pastry chef again) and the creamy, melty sort of lemon filling rather than the tart, shiny, gelatinous variety.

Phew, almost forgot to mention one of the things I like best of all about posh French restaurants: the amuse-gueules. Ours consisted of an immaculate, creamy vegetable soup served in to-die-for espresso cups, all of which made me very, very happy. Somehow, when you get given a wonderful dish "for free" like that, it seems magically to remove the sting from the bill.

If you are planning on visiting in the evening you'll find it exceedingly hard to get a table, because it's popular and it only has about 24 covers. But there is a basement bistro, a bit dingy maybe, but the menu (proper French bistro stuff) looks good and it's prepared by the same kitchens.


Richard Ehrlich's selection

Gigondas, La Tour Serrazine 1996, Le Clos des Cazaux, pounds 22

Too young, like almost every wine sold by restaurants, but this AOC can turn out really great things. The year and the producer are top- notch, and the price isn't bad

Special Cuvee Merlot 1995, Newton, pounds 39

This Napa Merlot, from a good estate, should be drinking reasonably well now. I wish it cost about pounds 5 less, but this isn't highway robbery

Rully Blanc, 1996 La Chaumes, pounds 30.95

White Burgundy in restaurants can often be a short cut to insolvency or indigestion. This bottle, from a consistently sound producer, should be a short cut to neither