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Solitary joys and crosswords

THE BURNT CHAIR 5 Duke Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1HP. Tel: 0181-940 9488. Open for dinner Mon-Sat, 6-11, and for lunch by arrangement. Two-course set menu, pounds 12.50; average a la carte, pounds 18 for three courses. Access and Visa accepted
UNLIKE their colleagues in the theatre, restaurant critics rarely work alone. Theatre critics may take companions, of course, but such people keep mum. In restaurant columns they emerge and plump for puddings. Irres- ponsibly large parties of free-loaders pop up, adding to the fun with their wacky judgements and amusing repartee. I myself, as you may have noticed, often include my wife - now, thank God, recovering from a terrifying sudden illness, but still temporarily unavailable as stooge and expert cook.

Such joint judgements are justified on the grounds that one person can only eat one starter, one main course and one pudding, and cannot really talk about the rest of the menu. Nonetheless, having invited every member of the creative team I was working with in Rich-mond to a last-minute free dinner and having been turned down by them all, I decided to make a virtue out of necessity and see how the lone diner fares at The Burnt Chair

The Burnt Chair opened in 1992, a discreet room of a dozen tables behind a plain shop-front in a little lane off Richmond Green. It is so called because the proprietor, shortly before they opened, inadvertently put a stockpot down on a chair in the kitchen. It should really be called The Slightly Marked Chair as the cane-bottomed number in question is still in use, marred by a pale brown ring.

Being alone, I spread myself, turned to the Independent crossword, and was extremely gracious to the proprietor when he came over to greet me.

That, I suppose, is part of the trick of solitary dining. The reality of sitting alone in a strange room expensively feeding your face and drinking yourself silly is not appealing. The fantasy, on the other hand, of being some over-privileged nabob, fawned over by servants and supplied with extravagant dishes from a kitchen where cooks labour exclusively for your delight, at the same time displaying a knowledge of fine wines and a suitable sense of gratitude, makes it seem more worthwhile.

All the same, a book or a crossword is a useful prop, suggesting there are oodles of people who'd love to have dinner with you, that you are solitary by choice and not simply pathetic.

Mr Oo, the owner of The Burnt Chair, being Chinese with an English public- school education, obviously understands this: he began as an accountant - without such training, he admits, he would never have been able to get The Burnt Chair off the ground - and his knowledge of English good manners is equally invaluable in keeping the place going. His manner is also charmingly Chinese: hushed, deferential, attentive, and drawing on centuries of gong- haunted civilisation.

Having remembered my name from my last visit and discussed the question of whether I would like a drink before dinner, Mr Oo hovered respectfully while I thought about a mille- feuille of Arbroath smokie, lardons and pine kernels, a casserole of mussels with okra and spices, a terrine of marinated vegetables, ginger and sesame dressing or a red wine, onion and thyme soup. I finally decided on a warm tartelette of chicken livers, poached egg and balsamic dressing.

Mr Oo is also good on wine, has a wide-ranging, well-documented and relatively expensive list, and likes to talk about it at some length. I rather ungraciously resisted his urgings to consider the top end of the Burgundies and chose the cheapest half-bottle I could find, a Chateau Deville at pounds 7.50. Schubert warbled away on the discreet loudspeakers, and I settled down to one across: "constructive form of exercise" (4.8), soon realising with an elegant twitch of the eyebrows that it was "body building" and filled it in in bold capitals. The only drawback was that there was at that stage no one else in the restaurant, and when one other couple did arrive they were clearly too involved with each other to appreciate my crossword skills.

The starter was absolutely wonderful: crumbling pastry, tender bits of chicken liver runny with egg yolk and subtle, oily garlicky flavours cut with the balsamic vinegar; the wine was good and the crossword seemed quite easy.

Mr Oo and I had a long discussion about the main course: there was John Dory, a warm salad of roasted salmon and monkfish, duck and venison, as well as a vegetarian dish of stuffed baby turnips, but I liked the sound of poached wild beef, saute of sprouts and chestnuts. He became lyrical. The farmer he buys his beef from in Cornwall allows the herd to roam for the first year on the upland moors, then to spend two years in the salty meadows by the seashore: when he opens his lorry there is, Mr Oo says, a real smell of meat.

The wild beef, dark pink, with chestnuts and in a rich dark gravy, came with a diversity of vegetables: carrot puree, sprouts, broccoli, boiled potatoes, beans and aubergine, all perfectly cooked. The beef seemed to me a little too muscular from galloping about on the upland moors, not exactly tough but quite hard on the jaws. Coincidentally, the crossword toughened up. "Preserve a deer, being short of game" seemed unlikely to be Canasta.

I then got into another long discussion with Mr Oo about a possible cheese, a Chaource, which he explained to me came from the Ile de France and ripened very gently from the outside, but again I took the easy option and had apricot and amaretto ice-cream, with a peppermint tea from Mr Oo's range of exotic teas. He warned me it "might take about five minutes to infuse".

Altogether, thanks to Mr Oo, eating alone was very enjoyable. Not so the crossword. Why was "Can't begin to trace American banker" Indus ? I should have imitated Sir John Gielgud, who is alleged to complete a crossword in minutes, impressing all who watch, filling the squares with gobbledygook.

Dinner at The Burnt Chair came to pounds 30.45, to which in my seigniorial way I added a pounds 5 tip.