Falling in love again; eating out

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The Independent Culture
Le Petit Prince

5 Holmes Road, NW5 (0171 267 3789). Lunch Sun only 12.30-4.30pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6.30-11pm, Sun 6.30-10.30pm. Three-course dinner from pounds 12. Service added at 10 per cent

EVERYONE HAS a restaurant these days. When someone says, "we've got a lovely Italian just round the corner", it no longer means that they go on Sundays for the buffet lunch, it means they've hired a 19-year-old kid called Mario, given him a wok, and put some tables in what used to be the optician's. Footballers, actors, pop stars, jobless Chelsea thirtysomethings, they're all at it. They think all you need is location, fashionable dishes, good-looking staff, interesting decor, sound music and a party attended by Meg Mathews. They are wrong. All you need is love.

Love is all you need. Look at Cafe Rouge. What makes eating there so miserable? Hard to say. The menus appear well- balanced. Occasionally there is a waiter who speaks English and knows what a potato is. But order a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs - the simplest dish in the world - and you get big lumps of dry, unseasoned egg, slashes of fish-rind and cold toast. No love. Look at Chinatown - no love.

Love, of course, can always be faked. Pizza Express and Cafe Pasta, like fickle women, behave as if they love you, but you know, deep, deep down that they don't. You just allow yourself to believe it, because pretend love is better than no love at all.

But in restaurants - unlike in life - when love dies, it does not necessarily die for ever. It can return where it is least expected. And nowhere would you expect it less than just off Kentish Town Road, NW5, in the murder capital of Britain.

When Francine Lecomte and Michel Dilg opened the Petit Prince in 1977, the world was still loved-up and flowery. And they were French. And we had never seen couscous before. And there was so much damn love that grown men wept at the tables. People came from miles around, for the fantastic, exotic food, Saint-Exupery murals and the low-key, classless bohemianism of the place. Or so I'm told. By the time I got here Michel and Francine were long departed, having fled in 1983 to escape the pressures of restaurant- running. The love had gone. The place was leased out. Laurels were rested on. Standards dropped. I went occasionally for big plates of grain covered in thin soup and a knuckle of grey mule. Not very expensive. Not very tasty. McDonald's had moved in nearby, all the nice people had gone to Primrose Hill. Anyway, couscous had become available to the British public in more glamorous places, like Momo (which is to the rejuvenated Petit Prince what Lili Savage is to the young Jean Seberg).

Now the nice people are back in Kentish Town, the house prices are up, and Lecomte and Dilg are here again. Hearing that things had gone awry they returned from France to save the day. Out went the murals, the darkness, the dodgy food. In the Nineties, Bohemianism is just a state of mind. So the walls are white and the Saint-Exupery pictures are small and framed. There are little wooden tables, pot plants in the window, ornamental mirrors and an airy, cafe-like feel. What is more, the food has undergone a revolution. Or, rather, a counter-revolution.

This is where the love comes in. Nothing very special about a mushroom fricassee in general, but almost anywhere in London if it was under a fiver it would be inedible. Here it is marvellous: a big pile of very fresh mushrooms and loads of cream. In England you expect to see fish soup only in posh places. Here it is about three quid and as honest and decent a fish soup as you could hope for. Big chunks of white fish skulking in the bottom give it a bouillabaisse-like chunkiness; there are plenty of croutons and the rouille is good and garlicky. The grated cheese is cheddar rather than gruyere, but there's plenty of it, and it's not processed.

The couscous is unbelievable. In Paris you can walk into a small, average- looking place and eat good couscous. In London, however much you pay, and however many pierced-navelled dancing girls with dreadlocks and German accents serve the food, you get a meek bowlful of everything in one go, and you can't tell the lamb from the courgettes without a DNA profile.

At PP - as Parisians would almost certainly call it - the `semoule' and the vegetable broth are served a volonte, as tradition demands. And you can't go wrong with your choice of meat. The merguez are deep red and spicy, the chops juicy and crisp, the brochettes fat and naughty, the chicken beautifully barn-yardy, the homemade harissa dynamite-strong. And then there is a piece of lamb breast, poached in the broth, which may be the tastiest piece of meat available in England. It is properly fat, you see, so that it melts into the grain, and coats your mouth and tastes the way only a subcutaneous layer of ovine winter protection can taste. In winter, one should eat nothing else.

They have some other main courses, which I dare say are excellent, too. But anyone who doesn't have the couscous is, frankly, mad. And the pudding is irrelevant because anyone who doesn't plan to keep going back for more couscous until the management calls an ambulance should go to Cafe Rouge for a gritty omelette and a burnt cappuccino instead.


Richard Ehrlich's selection

This wine list is an old-fashioned London bistro list, and so devoid of information about producers and vintages. That's why I like it. That and the prices. You want to relax at your local bistro, not struggle. So relax with these unexceptional wines.

Cotes du Ventoux 1998 `Les Traverses', Jaboulet, pounds 11.30

The appelation can make lovely wines, and the house of Jaboulet, though inconsistent of late, never does anything really terrible

Vent des Garrigues Merlot 1997, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 10.90

The Languedoc is turning out so many good quaffing wines nowadays that I'd be willing, for 11 quid, to take a chance on this one

Rose d'Anjou 1998, Remy Pannier, pounds 9.90

Just the sort of wine for this sort of food. It will not be wonderful. It will serve your purposes