Restaurants: Slowly does it

The Organic Cafe; 25 Lonsdale Road, London, NW6, 0171 372 1232. Open every day 9.30am-4pm, 7-10.30pm. Three-course dinner about pounds 22 (without wine). Cash or cheques only
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU were feeling uptight, you could easily end up hating The Organic Cafe. The service can be infuriatingly slow and haphazard, and the food's quite expensive given that it's not all that much different from what a reasonably talented cook might serve you at a dinner party. But if that's what you decided it would be an awful shame, because I'm quite sure that The Organic Cafe is very, very special: of all the restaurants I've reviewed since starting this job it's definitely one of my three favourites, along with Club Gascon and Amandier.

Not, it must be said, that I felt remotely enthusiastic for the first 15 minutes after I arrived - late, hungry, gagging for a drink and fuming after a pointless row with X about a childminder's lost phone number. Simon the publisher and Katie the editor were already there looking relaxed and happy with a glass each of Bassac Cabernet Sauvignon which they thought was "really good", but hadn't dared order a bottle of lest I go into nightmare wine snob mode. I was stressed and unhappy because I can never relax until I've ordered, especially when there's an ominous disclaimer on the menu saying "This is a slow food establishment ... We thank you for your patience" and the waiters are pointedly ignoring your attempts to attract their attention.

The problem was, I quickly sensed, that The Organic Cafe (the only Soil Association certified restaurant in London) just isn't the sort of place to make a scene. For one thing, it wouldn't go with the laid-back, trustafarian vibe (it feels like Ladbroke Grove even though it's actually near Queen's Park, in a quiet mews-like private street); and for another the dauntingly self-possessed, perpetually amused staff would just laugh at you.

We guessed they had to be out-of-work actors. One was a soft-spoken Irishman whose shaggy good looks and waggish manner had X and Katie drooling so lasciviously that Simon and I should probably have sued for divorce. Except that we were distracted by his colleague, a gorgeous crusty babe with red, matted dreadlocks. She won our undying love when we asked for just a sliver of orange tart (because we weren't hungry enough to order a whole one at pounds 5.50 a throw), and instead she brought us a whole one for free. With staff as seductive as this, you'd soon cease to care whether or not you got your food and drink on time, in order, or indeed at all.

The food itself is not the sort that wins Michelin stars. It's not fussy or ambitious enough and it's far too homely. Which is by no means a complaint. It's really rather nice going to a restaurant where, for example, the orange cake with strawberry coulis tastes exactly, but exactly, like the sort of jammy sponge your mother used to do when you were a kid.

That said, the starters were quite a drag. Three of us made the mistake of ordering the white onion confit soup which desperately needed something tart to offset its cloying sweetness. So we grappled disconsolately with Katie's antipasto platter - a bit of green-smeared bruschetta here, a bit of crumbly wholefood gunk there, all of it intriguing, none of it inspiring - before deciding that these things are best left for the birds and the vegetarians.

None of us was tempted by the veggie options, which included courgette fritters with coriander dressing and - so weird and scary-sounding I rather wish I'd tried it - beetroot and red cabbage risotto cake with cream sauce. I secretly wanted to order the grilled salmon because I'd seen it on another table and it looked really good. But I forced myself to go for the fillet of beef with mushroom, red wine jus and Pont Neuf potatoes instead, lest Simon think I was a wuss.

I'm glad I did, too, because it was some of the tenderest, tastiest beef I've ever had in a restaurant. I just wish I'd ordered it rare rather than medium-rare because there wasn't enough blood. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the sauce or the potatoes (giant chips, basically, with the skins left on) that came with it: you could have done them just as well yourself at home. But I don't think the cooking at The Organic Cafe pretends to be anything more than this. It's just a case of very good, organic ingredients prepared with real love and served very simply and very well.

Similar rules applied to X's enormous breast of chicken with carrot and potato mash, green peppers and bacon cream sauce. And to Katie's delicately spiced lamb tajine with cous cous. Neither made you go "Wow! Move over Escoffier!" Both would have made you very happy had you chosen them.

That Bassac Cabernet Sauvignon, by the way. Katie and Simon were right. It's astoundingly good value at pounds 12.50. So that's another incentive for going to The Organic Cafe. You can get wrecked on good wine amazingly cheaply. And because everything's organic you won't get hangovers or morning- after guilt-trips or cirrhosis of the liver. Probably.

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

The choice of organic wine is larger and of higher quality than ever before, but The Organic Cafe either doesn't know or doesn't care. I'm quite prepared to believe that the Domaine Bassac Cabernet Sauvignon is a very good wine, but why aren't Penfolds, Millton and Bonterra (to name three widely available names) on this list? Where are the excellent biodynamic producers from the Rhone and Burgundy? The Organic Cafe could sort things out with a single phone call. But maybe their patrons don't care what they drink, as long as it's organic. Golden Promise ale is the best bet on this dreary, lazy list

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