Restaurants: I really wanted a love affair

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Mall Building, 359 Upper Street, London N1. Tel: 0171 359 1932. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 12-2.30pm, Saturday and Sunday 12-3pm; and for dinner Monday to Saturday 6.30-11pm; Sunday 7-10pm. Set lunch pounds 12 for two courses. Average a la carte price, pounds 30 per head including wine. Credit cards accepted

IN TERMS of speed, acceleration, sidestepping and leap-frogging, the career arc of chefs is as varied and unpredictable as that of any other profession. Some precocious young chefs seem to be barking at a whole brigade of underlings before the ink is dry on their City & Guilds diplomas. Others make it a point of pride to be worked to death by a succession of the nation's more celebrated culinary egomaniacs, before unleashing their own permanently damaged psyches on the next generation of Michelin wannabes. Still others make themselves indispensable for years on end, until they have absorbed every secret of the business into their pores, and then go it alone.

This latter band is an interesting one to watch. Take Sam Clarke - anchorman at the River Cafe for the best part of a decade, he finally made his move and opened Moro in London's Exmouth Market last year. And what a smart and stylish move that was. Another chef who served her time loyally, and no doubt far-sightedly, at one of the great restaurants of the Eighties, was Juliet Peston at Alastair Little. For her last three years there she was credited as joint head chef with the man himself, albeit in the small print at the bottom of restaurant guide entries rather than above the famous Frith Street awning. Then, a little over 18 months ago, she took charge of the kitchen at the new Islington venture Lola's. For us chef- watchers, this seemed like an exciting prospect.

I went to Lola's twice in the first year it opened and liked almost everything about it - the roomy upstairs dining-room with semi-conservatory bit down the side, the effortless evocation of that often flawed ambience known as "smart casual" - except that, truth be told, I didn't go a whole bundle on the food. I remember some distinctly woody asparagus; and a bouillabaisse that, strictly speaking, wasn't (squid, scallops and a piece of halibut do not a bouillabaisse make); and a chocolate cake that just wouldn't cut the cocoa alongside, say, the River Cafe, or indeed Alastair Little. I don't mean to imply that Lola's menu was seriously substandard - the place has a loyal following and turned out enough good food to win Time Out's best new restaurant award. But for a chef who can safely be credited with maintaining excellence in a truly great restaurant, I had been expecting to see greater heights scaled.

I went back last week with my friend Tom, hoping for third time lucky, and we got off to a pretty good start. I had two terrines, which couldn't have been simpler, or better. One was nothing more nor less than a chicken liver pate, something so ubiquitous, and usually over-flavoured with garlic and wine, that I was questioning the wisdom of offering it on a "grown up" menu - until I tasted it. It was smooth, but firm not sloppy, and slightly dry, properly liverish, subtly seasoned and just about perfect. It came with a little pile of chopped hard-boiled egg and onion - a nod to the Jewish way of eating liver, and a nice accompaniment in any culture. Terrine no 2 was equally humble, a simple slab of pressed, chopped ham, again well seasoned, with black pepper and fresh chopped parsley. A small pile of tiny, crunchy French beans that had been lightly dressed with a green herb sauce, made a perfect fresh pickle to cut the salty fattiness of the ham.

Tom had a chilled watercress soup which, apart from being undersalted, to both our tastes, (I suspect unsalted) was, when the seasoning had been adjusted, spot on: silky smooth, not over-creamy, and retaining just a hint of the mustardy tang of the fresh green leaves. A still-warm soft- boiled egg floating in the middle was a curious addition to a chilled soup, but one which Tom professed to enjoy "once I'd got used to it".

After these starters I dared to hope that this might be the meal when my love affair with the cooking of Juliet Peston could begin in earnest. And had I ordered the same main course as Tom, everything would have been on track: his neck fillet of lamb with spring vegetables and tarragon was a simply unfaultable bit of meat, nicely fatty, meltingly tender and just a tiny bit pink. The jus was deeply lamby, had picked up the scent of fresh tarragon, but avoided the danger of over-reduction and too much red wine that will, in a lamb gravy, kill the flavour of the lamb stone dead.

Unfortunately I had sea bass - and while the fish itself, a lovely fat fillet from the middle of a good size fish, was nicely done, the accompaniments were all at sea. A so-called tomato salsa had been replaced with finely diced red pepper laced with chopped leaf coriander - an entirely different animal, and a slightly vicious one if you're not expecting it (the presence of coriander in a dish should always be advertised on a menu, so potent is the herb). This salsa was such a departure from the menu that I felt justified in drawing it to the attention of our waitress. She whisked the plate away and returned a few minutes later with a hastily assembled alternative that was based on tomatoes - and another, rather less generous, portion of fish. The second accompaniment, a salad of raw fennel, was also not up to speed - the fresh clean taste of fennel destroyed by an excess of lemon zest, grated so coarsely that the taste of the bitter white pith overcame the natural citrus oils that should have been doing the job.

For pud, Tom and I shared a rhubarb fool, and I asked him, "If you could choose two words to describe this rhubarb fool, what would they be? "Too creamy," said Tom, adding, "and if I could be allowed a third word, I'd say much too creamy." He was right. The tartness of the rhubarb had been creamed out of all existence, and my dream of the perfect meal had again gone awry.

How can one explain such inconsistent performance? Either the chef is talented and imaginative, but is simply not spending enough time tasting the food that goes out of her kitchen, or she is technically very competent but has a suspect palate. The outstanding lamb dish and excellent starters suggest we can rule out the latter, and that the problem here is not one of ability but quality control. Perhaps the sous chefs are given too much free rein. Or perhaps Juliet doesn't much like puddings.