Eating Out: Small but sweet

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The Independent Culture
Books For Cooks

4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11, 0171 221 1992.

Lunch, Mon-Sat 12.30-3.00pm.

Three course lunch about pounds 10. Credit cards accepted

BEFORE its thunder was stolen by Hugh Grant and his travel book emporium in the new movie Notting Hill, the title of "Most Famous Bookshop in London W11" was held by a small, friendly and very pukka establishment called .

I first visited it about seven years ago, in search of literary inspiration for the foodie novel I was preparing to write, and was confronted by a terrifyingly huge woman with blonde hair, a booming, immaculately well-bred voice and an air of redoubtable authority. Perhaps because I had been seduced by her vast charisma, perhaps because I was just terrified of being eaten alive, I was determined to make her like me. So I put on my best little-boy-lost-in-scary-cookshop expression and begged her, in her infinite wisdom, to advise me what to buy.

And damned good her advice was, too. Her recommendations included Margaret Visser's fascinating Much Depends On Dinner, full of amazing facts such as how the Romans were gulled by Middle Eastern traders into believing that cinnamon came not from the East but from the nests of giant eagles; and a rare and splendid tome called Gastronomie Pratique by "Ali-Bab", which she urged me to buy even though it was quite expensive and which indeed helped me enormously in my campaign to persuade the world that I knew more about food than I really did.

Not, it must be said, that this has any real relevance to my review. I only related it because, first, I wanted to boast about how I spotted the star quality of Clarissa Dickson Wright long before Two Fat Ladies made her famous; and second, because I wanted to fill up space. The problem, you see, is that doubles as a very small restaurant with a very small menu, whose details probably won't exhaust more than a couple of paragraphs.

So here we go. On the lunchtime I visited with Richard the Monkish Editor and Susanna the Bridge Junkie, we kicked off with the only starter - a very tasty soup of brown lentils, fennel and red squash served with fresh brown bread. Then Richard and Susanna had the organic polenta with finely chopped cavolo nero and a gorgonzola cream sauce, which was fabulously unctuous and comfort-foody, but so rich that neither of them could finish it. I had the monkfish coconut curry with three types of wild rice (a recipe from The Sugar Club Cookbook), which I might have preferred a bit spicier but which was otherwise delicious.

For pudding, we shared a truly awesome lime and almond cheesecake, which had been highly recommended by a woman on the table next to ours. The other puds looked pretty good too - one was some sort of banana cake, the other a Bavarian chocolate cake with cardamoms. We finished with some cappucino which - contrary to most current catering practice - actually tasted of coffee rather than watery milk.

But there's little point dwelling on the food we ate that day at because whenever you go there it's bound to be completely different. The menu changes daily and the person cooking it could be anyone from a roster of 12 chefs who take turns to experiment in the tiny "test kitchen" on recipes picked out from the books in the shop. So when you go there, you're effectively a culinary guinea pig.

Our chef was an amiable blonde called Silvena, whom we mistook for a Sloaney chalet girl until she opened her mouth and spoke with a Bulgarian accent. She was definitely in it for love rather than money. When we asked for two monkfish curries and she only had one left, she gave us one of the polentas for free; she apologised for the fact that the premises aren't licensed by offering us each a "present" of a glass of wine; and when I tipped her a fiver at the end, she gasped that it was "far too much".

This is the thing I like best about : it's so impossibly far removed from the chrome and glass professionalism of the chic Nineties restaurant. The tiny tables, covered with gingham oilcloth, are cramped together beneath a staircase in an alcove lined with ancient cookbooks; the food is more Jennifer and Clarissa than Marco Pierre; the prices (lunch came to pounds 32) are very reasonable; and the clientele (as you'd probably deduce from the fact that the puddings outnumber the starters and main courses) is almost totally female and non expense account.

It's what impressed Richard and Susanna, too. Since they spend almost every working day "entertaining contacts" at joints like the Ivy and Kensington Place, they found it tremendously refreshing to be eating somewhere so intimate and mumsy. "Next time I really want to impress someone," said Richard, "I think I'll bring them here."

Unfortunately, the one thing does have in common with trendy modern restaurants is that it's hard to get a table without booking weeks in advance. Now that I've gone and blown Notting Hill's best-kept secret, I suppose it will grow more difficult still.

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