Restaurants: Still the Place to be

Twelve years on, Kensington Place remains at the cutting edge, says Vivienne Heller
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"I LIKE it best when things are almost out of control, like my skiing," laughs Nick Smallwood, known to his staff as Captain Crisis.

It's this slightly heady atmosphere which has drawn me to Kensington Place ever since I applied for the job of hat-check girl 10 years ago, at which point I vowed to earn enough for a regular dinner fix here for the rest of my life. And loyalty reaps rewards: step through the time- warp door, and you feel embraced by a dear, eccentric friend - a far cry from the cool detachment of Nineties' leviathans such as Atlantic and Mezzo.

"When it started, 12 years ago, Kensington Place was the first of its kind; a large-format, open-for-inspection restaurant with no thrills," explains Smallwood, who cut his teeth on ventures including Soho's L'Escargot and Launceston Place, just off Kensington High Street.

It certainly took a mountain of confidence to install the huge windows, which have the peculiar effect of creating a cosy, atmosphere despite laying diners open to close inspection and creating an impression of street theatre.

Passers-by can glimpse well-groomed folk and glitterati of all ages perched on Dolly Mixture chairs, set against the backdrop of a Monet-esque lily-pond mural.

The ambience may be Eighties, but the food is cutting-edge, modern European. Chef Rowley Leigh mixes organic ingredients with a pinch of imagination to come up with some fascinating dishes: tart rhubarb counteracts a fatty duck; pickled damsons meld richly with succulent venison; a melting slab of foie gras reclines on a crunchy sweetcorn pancake, while chicken and goat's cheese are the unlikely ingredients for an infinitely light, sweet mousse.

On this occasion, the only disappointment was the fish soup, pronounced not strong enough by a bouillabaisse devotee.

Having drunk my fill of wine, I sidled up to a cool, lean Canadian who, apparently, eats here alone every day. Intrigued, I questioned his devotion. "The food," he barked. "And the fact that I can eat at the bar without feeling conspicuous." So Smallwood's grand aim, "to give people great food in unintimidating surroundings", seems to have been fulfilled.

Indeed, three quarters of his customers are regulars, and the best of these are "well into their seventies".

And if your old man is hard of hearing, don't be deterred by the wall- of-sound acoustics: try tables 31, 51 or any of the banquettes.

As for the best tables in the house: "I can't say," declares Nick, "because they're reserved for our old customers, but ..."

And I'm not telling!

Kensington Place, 201 Kensington Church Street, London W8 (0171-727 3184)

Approx pounds 35 per head.


Launceston Place

1a Launceston Place, W8

(0171-727 3184)

The Brackenbury

129 Brackenbury Road, W6 (0181-748 0107)