Food & Drink: Real food, real people

Service at the Organic Cafe may be a bit eccentric, but at least you know the beef is entirely sane.
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The Independent Culture
When I rang the Organic Cafe to book a table, John, the Irish waiter, remembered me from the wedding party we had thrown there a few months ago. It's that kind of place. The Organic Cafe is congenial, friendly and unpretentious. It gets its character from the arty, bohemian owner Carol Charlton, who is expansive, genial, and rather keen on entertainment. There is more than a hint of theatricality about the place: every other night the diners are serenaded by a pianist, and she occasionally crams opera singers in for musical evenings.

The Organic Cafe is found (eventually) down a private road, once a mews, given over exclusively to artists' and artisans' workshops and studios, in a lost corner of north-west London between Queen's Park and Kilburn. On a warm summer's evening the doors were all open and tables placed outside in the cobbled street, which made the restaurant look very inviting in the darkness. In November, with the doors shut and the plants ragged, it doesn't look like very much.

Step inside, however, and you find a wonderfully welcoming interior: the bright blue walls lit up by candles and a scattering of white fairy lights among bunches of curly willow twigs. Stripped wooden furniture, red curtains and an upright piano lend it the air, when it's empty, of a school gym done up for a festive occasion.

Our wedding guests were rather surprised to find the place so far off their beaten track, but round the corner, chic new restaurants and bars are squeezing themselves into in what used to be a dreary and distinctly unfashionable area.

We had been cowardly about naming the restaurant on our invitations, since we were afraid people would think we were going to feed them lentils and bulgar wheat. In fact the food is excellent, rich and varied: "organic" refers to what you can have, rather than what you can't. As this is the only organic restaurant certified by the horribly named Soil Association, you know it's all good clean food. Vegetarian dishes are marked, but fish and meat both feature on the menu. As a statuesque waitress with dreadlocks pointed out, the animals have all "had a very happy life". (She also informed us that still water was much better for us. Just as well, since they had run out of fizzy.)

The service is famously chatty and eccentric. On the menu it says: "Please note, we are a slow food restaurant." This refers to the fact that the kitchen does not contain a microwave, but it might just as well describe the service. Ordering takes an age: when we had to remind them, twice, to bring drinks, we were given a sincere apology: "We were having a gossip out the back. Well, talking about boys actually." But the staff are so charming and sociable that before you've got through your order, you're likely to find yourself gossiping about boys too. The staff throw themselves into the job with humour and gusto - not everyone's idea of service, of course, but most congenial if you're in the mood.

Blinis (the only acceptable use of bulgar wheat) and a huge quantity of smoked salmon came without the advertised sour cream, but with a delicious honey dressing. Crostini of hummus, anchovy and olive tapenade and guacamole (separate, not mixed together) were delicious. The chickpea puree had a thick creamy texture and subtle garlic flavour; the olives, chopped rather than in a paste, were dark red and powerfully-flavoured, while the guacamole was a delicate mousse. The toast, unfortunately, had sat around a bit, presumably while essential gossiping was going on.

The roast chicken, plump and flavoursome, had definitely led a contented life, and came with heaps of fresh, broad-leaved spinach, steamed and steeped in a sage jus, and boulangere potatoes, sliced thinly and baked in a delicious winey gravy, still slightly crunchy. My fillet of beef (a happy cow for sure, not mad, not even eccentric) came with fat chips with their skins on and shallots smothered in gravy, but no green veg - although fortunately my husband willingly sacrificed his spinach.

It is all homely, wholesome fare, but none the worse for it. The recipes can probably be attempted without risk, or even much ambition, at home, but the ingredients, lovingly chosen from selected, mostly British suppliers, and prepared without being murdered by fussy or complicated preparation, are worth the journey.

The wine list is brief, pricey, and all of it organic. We tried a canary yellow, fruity Bergerac Blanc which turned out to be rather dusky and overbearing for the first course. And a spicy Bassac Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 13 a bottle, pounds 3.20 a glass) sharpened up the main course, or would have done if it had arrived before I took the last bite of steak.

The food is not heavy, but it is filling, which makes a virtue of the relaxed pace of things. By the time the restaurant was nearly empty, the service had slowed to such a degree that when the pudding arrived, we actually had room for it. Sticky toffee pudding with fudge sauce was worthy of grandma's home cooking: properly sticky, not stodgy and frighteningly sweet. The lemon tart was light and tangy, but the pastry was a little floppy.

We staggered out long past our bedtime. Fortunately, parking in this neck of the woods is easy, and we only had to cross the cobbled street back to the car, comfortable in the knowledge that all our anniversaries are taken care of.

The Organic Cafe, 21-25 Lonsdale Road, London NW6 (0171-372 1232). Daily 9.30-5pm; 7pm-midnight. Cash/cheques only. Around pounds 27 per head with wine. Disabled access