Restaurants; Say it with flowers

Vivienne Heller comes across a rare bloom in the heart of London's busy flower market
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The Independent Culture
"Three for a fiver! Come on, darlin', I'm giving 'em away!" Never one to resist a bargain, I'm negotiating my way through the plant-crazed crowds of Columbia Road, with an armful of specimens that read like a roll-call for Grange Hill: creeping jenny, yellow alyssum, black-eyed susans...

This vibrant tableau in London's East End is more like a day at the races than a Sunday-morning flower market. The air is alive with people taking a punt on a plant, and social niceties get flattened in the face of a cut-price palm: a wheelchair ancient has 13 seedtrays balanced on her lap; kids in buggies squall beneath teetering floral displays.

Dizzy on a diet of gaudy gerberas, heady scents and seductive sales patter, I pitched through the door of No 110, holding aloft my precious seedlings. Just as well; it seems that admission to this little oasis is by plant only. Every table was nursing one, from the leather-trousered lads to an English rose with her mother, tucked in the corner with a prime weeping fig.

Perennial makes a classy alternative to the cheerful seafood and bagel stalls elsewhere on the road; classy, but pruned of any pretension. Rough- plastered walls of mustard and magenta set a rustic tone, while jazz and Cher make an undemanding backing track. And our waiter was chilled but superbly accommodating, his mohican reminiscent of the exotic bird-of- paradise blooms that wobbled past the window at regular intervals.

The cooked breakfasts being devoured at the patio tables looked a grand start to a Sunday. But our senses were too intoxicated by the market to resist the short, enticing lunch menu. I could almost forgive tepid for soup this good: a rich but subtle brew of fish and vegetables with a sunny hue of saffron. Its perfume mingled with that of the rye bread and the hazelnut oil on Vince's goat's cheese on a bed of rocket. This rocket had been cross-fertilised with lots of common-or-garden lettuce, but the cheese was cooked to a delicious creamy disc with a crisp golden frill.

Mains were an ode to simple, seasonal fare: a bundle of just-cooked asparagus under a light pancake; and lamb-and-leek sausages - slightly crumbly in that delicious organic way - on mash sprinkled with fresh thyme.

Stumbling across good, uncomplicated English cooking is like bumping into an old friend. Thus parting, after several hours, was indeed sorrowful, made more poignant by the fag ends of the market, which had been magicked away while we were savouring our chablis. Oh well, good to know that, like your hardiest plants, Perennial should be a colourful mainstay here for many years to come.

Perennial Restaurant & Winebar

110/112 Columbia Rd, London E2 (0171-739 4556); approx pounds 20 a head

MARKET VALUE

Spitalfields Food Court Commercial St, E1. A cluster of stalls offer a range of global grub

Food for Thought 31 Neal St, London WC2 (0171-836 0239) Snug health-food haven, handy for Covent Garden

Lisboa Patisserie 57 Golborne Rd, W10 (0181-968 5242) Portuguese pastry heaven, north of Portobello market

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