Restaurants: Tasty fare in the open air

Vivienne Heller savours al fresco food and music while sampling hampers in Holland Park
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The Independent Culture
Something cultural but chilled, formal but fun - oh, the knotty problem of a father visitation. Inspiration came in the shape of Holland Park's annual opera fest, whose strains I've long enjoyed from a prone position on the commoners' lawn. Thus it was doubly thrilling to stroll into the nobs' enclosure with my ol' dad and not one but three hampers on my arm.

Those in the know made a beeline for the picnic tables, but we found a perfect spot beneath a canopy of trees. The rain held off as we admired the hampers: Villandry for my Francophile father, Harrods for my genteel stepmum, Judy, and Planet Organic for the indefinable Vince. The three shops had responded quite differently to my "opera-picnic" request, but each inspired the same excitement. Etiquette was thrown to the wind as we delved in: take the buzz of opening Christmas presents, and triple it.

Harrods was the most fun, with a natty bottle opener and the dinkiest cruet set (so covetable that it's now salting up the recesses of my handbag). Father muttered approvingly about the heavy-duty paper napkins and the ice cubes in rows of bubbled material that could be detached to chill drinks. Vince busied himself converting the cooler bag into a cushion pad, while Judy and I were besotted with an olive decoration, stuffed with a sprig of rosemary like a mini pineapple.

The dishes were perfectly executed, if a tad predictable: "What your mother packs to make sure you're well fed," noted Vince. I mused on my deprived childhood as I grazed on Marie Rose prawns with blueberries and lamb's lettuce, and pondered the complex rearrangement of the heavenly dressed lobster. Real cutlery was a treat, as was the glass, though for alcoholic drinks we had to turn to another hamper.

Villandry's half-bottle of cote du Rhone was the perfect accompaniment to a fabulous Mediterranean spread - basic ingredients lovingly prepared in antipasti fashion, ideal for relaxed feasting. We raved about the roast mushrooms, melting organic beef carpaccio, colourful ratatouille and coronation chicken, among many other treats. The fudgey chocolate cake was on a par with Harrods', eliciting envious sighs from neighbouring picnickers. It would be invidious, advised my father, to say it was all anything other than excellent.

Planet Organic doesn't actually do hampers, but food orders can be boxed and delivered within a three-mile radius of the shop. Following my opera- picnic request, Trisha had assembled a jumble of treats that included tortilla chips, artichoke hearts, organic ham, plums, tomatoes... all with the Soil Association's badge of approval. I had a grand time reading the packets - tales of thoughtful fish farming (sublime smoked salmon!), award- winning apple-juice manufacturing - and appreciated the way a bug jetted into my glass of heady organic viognier.

And the opera? Donizetti's bucolic tale L'Elisir d'Amore was the finishing touch to an unforgettable feast.

Holland Park Opera (0171-602 7856) pounds 26


Harrods London SW1 (0171-730 1234). Balmoral picnic pounds 37 a head, plus pounds 14.95 for the cooler bag with (endless fun) picnic accessories.

Villandry 170 Gt Portland St, W1 (0171-631 3030). Our selection, from a daily-changing menu, was a great-value pounds 48 for two (plus pounds 5 for the box)

Planet Organic 42 Westbourne Grove, W2 (0171-221 7171). Pay per item; add pounds 5 for delivery & pounds 1.50 shopping fee