Restaurants; Where shall we meet in Queen's Park by Simon O'Hagan

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The Independent Culture
When you meet someone like Rod Penk, you wonder how being made redundant ever got such a bad press. Eight years ago, Rod lost his job in the property business, and it was the catalyst for a dramatic career change. Today, at the age of 40, he's realised his ambition of turning himself into a chef, and four months ago he opened his first restaurant.

Penk's has become a much needed adornment to the somewhat unprepossessing main road that runs through Queen's Park, an area in west London that is at last on the up, gastronomically speaking. Like many locals, Rod could never quite understand why it lagged so far behind when its social profile and general feel was very comparable with that of, say, Crouch End, where there's a wide range of interesting eateries.

"It was obvious that the place was crying out for a good, simple, neighbourhood restaurant," said Rod, who learnt his trade under Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place. He was right. Typical Queen's Parkers are a middle-youth couple with small children who ran out of space in their Notting Hill flat and were delighted not to have to move very far to find a nice, affordable house (by Notting Hill standards anyway) with a lovely park nearby. But, with the exception of the pioneering Organic Cafe (see, page 8), their foodie aspirations were not being met.

Now, the arrival of Penk's has coincided with the opening, virtually opposite, of an Organic Cafe shop. The lively local wine bar, La Folie, has had a facelift, and rumours abound in Queen's Park of further restaurant and bar developments.

"We're not trying to be anything flash," said Rod. "We're quite small, and happy to stay that way for the moment." "Small" is certainly the word. If there were a prize for the narrowest restaurant frontage in London, then Penk's, a minute's walk from Queen's Park tube station, might just win it.

Once inside, you discover that there's a bit at the back of the restaurant that opens out to turn it into a stubby L-shape, and when Penk's is full, which increasingly it is, there are 39 covers for Rod and his two other chefs to cook for. The walls are painted in warm Mediterranean colours, with tables and chairs in polished dark wood. In the summer, Rod hopes to accommodate 20 people in a garden at the back.

I shan't attempt to put a label on the style of food, which is multi- influenced in the modern manner, but not wacky. I can tell you that it tastes very good. On the daily changing dinner menu, starters might be a garlic, thyme and parmesan souffle (pounds 4.55) or fresh tuna and anchovy fritters with tartare sauce (pounds 5.25). Baked fillet of sea bass with braised fennel (pounds 14.95) and roast duck breast with green peppercorn gravy and bubble and squeak (pounds 11.75) are among the main courses. For pudding you could choose pana cotta (pounds 4.25) or tarte tatin (pounds 4.45).

A short lunch menu has main courses for as little as pounds 5.95, with Sunday brunch similarly priced. "All our produce comes direct from Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Covent Garden markets," is the proud boast.

Penk's, which is open Tuesday to Sunday except Saturday lunchtime, is not licensed, and the opportunity to bring your own wine (pounds 2.50 corkage charge on the first bottle, pounds 1.50 thereafter) seems one reason for the restaurant's success.

"People have been raiding their cellars and bringing some real vintages," Rod said. He is applying for a licence, but plans to retain the BYO option. If you've brought white wine that you don't want opened straightaway, they'll keep it in the fridge.

Penk's, 79 Salusbury Road, London NW6 (0171-604 4484)

Serena Makesy is away

QUEEN'S PARK MANGERS

The Organic Cafe

25 Lonsdale Rd, London NW6 (0171-372 1232)

Still London's brand-leader among restaurants offering organic food. Opera nights on the first Wednesday of every month, with plans to introduce monthly jazz nights. An Organic Cafe shop specialising in prepared meals has just opened in nearby 54 Salusbury Road.

La Folie

53-55 Salusbury Road, London NW6 (0171-624 9153)

Queen's Park's version of an All Bar One is an attractive, pale-wood, buzzy hangout, recently refurbished.

Queen's Park Cafe

Inside the park, on Chevening Rd, London NW6 (0181-960 6946)

Le tout Queen's Park seems to gather here on sunny weekends, against a background hum of children, tennis players and those doing battle with the pitch-and-putt course. Snacks and light meals. Closed come dusk.

Paradise By Way of Kensal Green

19 Kilburn Lane, London W10 (0181-969 0098)

On the west side of Queen's Park, one of the more original gastropubs - now five years old - is worth a visit just for its array of oriental antiques. Jazz on Sunday nights.

SO'H

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