Tale of the chef and the critic

EATING OUT: FABLES
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My old friend and hero Lionel Bart said I shouldn't worry a bit about being recognised as John Bird. Lionel himself, he told me, was stopped in the street the other day, by a man who thought he was a boxer called the Aldgate Tiger. He did actually have a boxer uncle, Jim Berg, who won a world championship in New York with the Star of David embroidered on his trunks, and is himself so bronzed, muscular and in such dazzling physical shape that I was glad to have him with me when I went to Fables at the far end of the Fulham Road.

Not that I was actually expecting physical assault, but the chef there, Richard, is a volatile spirit. When he was at the Pied a Terre in Charlotte Street I made the mistake of criticising the food as being too extravagant and expensive, and got a sharp letter in response deriding the size of my part in the film For Your Eyes Only. A friend of mine who reviewed the Pied a Terre in marginally less flattering terms got a little parcel. It contained his printed review rolled up in a cardboard tube, a rubber glove, a tube of KY jelly and a mirror.

Fables looked, when we got there shortly before eight, like a showroom in Heal's restaurant-furniture department: a brightly-lit shop-space behind a plate glass front, entirely deserted, containing 10 or 12 tables with chairs in blond wood upholstered in black and white check, the walls papered in blue and white strip-cartoons retelling La Fontaine's Fable of the Dog and the Wolf in early 20th-century costume, with French dialogue bubbles. At the back was a stained-glass window with the wolf dressed as chef, doing something-or-other in more lurid modern tints.

A charming and well-spoken young waiter took our straw hats - it had been a hot day - and brought us the menu. Lionel found the wallpaper overpowering - "It's a bit like that shop that sells Tin-Tin things"- and I had to agree. No fault of the cook's, obviously. The waiter brought a basket of three different kinds of bread - brown, white and with fruit in - and Lionel asked for one of each to taste. When he got to the brown one he asked pensively, "Is this bread stale?" and again I had to admit that it was. Very, very slightly.

There was a set menu of three courses for pounds 22. This offered a fricassee of rabbit fillets, chorizo, peas and thyme, a main course of confit duck leg, celeriac puree and French beans, with vanilla mousse, crushed praline and chocolate for afters. We both preferred the idea of the main menu, which offered seven starters and seven main courses.

Lionel's menu began with a ballotine of braised oxtail and mine with a tortellini of basil, but the waiter said they were the same menu, just in a different order. It was only when we settled down to choosing our food that we became aware of the muzak. Again, no criticism whatever of the chef, but a French lady vocalist gargling away as loudly as that made it hard to concentrate. Lionel took the initiative, explained that we were talking about music, and as we were still alone the management very generously, turned it off.

The other starters included a salad of duck breast, gesiers and sardine vinaigrette, pate of red pepper, roasted celery hearts and mullet fillet - the people who had by now arrived at the next table, no doubt under the influence of the French wallpaper, were pronouncing this alternatively mullay fillay and mullay fillet - and crab with roasted tomato and shellfish jelly. In the end we settled for the ballotine of braised oxtail as being the most courageous choice on the BSE front, with roasted aubergine and onion puree, and the tortellini of basil with peppers and tapenade puree.

Lionel was enjoying a big bottle of mineral water, so I perused the wine list. It ranged from modest French wine at pounds 9.50 a bottle to good stuff at about pounds 30, with a few specialities closer to pounds 60. I finished up ordering the house red at pounds 2.50 a glass, which was perfectly all right. The restaurant now filled up, some of the guests apparently friends of the proprietor - Fables has only been going four weeks - others cheery middle-class Fulham Road figures who hadn't booked, bent on a nice night out.

Lionel and I talked about the old days in the Sixties when our mutual friend Sean Kenny would mark his irritation with the conversation of strangers in restaurants by unexpectedly emptying a bowl of salad over their heads, and our food arrived, put down in front of us with deference and respect. Lionel got quite lyrical about the taste and texture of his ballotine, with which he had ordered a salad, not on the menu. "Different kinds of leaves. Unusual." I found my pasta a bit dry and hard - just teething troubles I'm sure - but the tapenade puree was delicious.

For our main course Lionel had roast cod with spicy chorizo and pak choi, while I had breast of guinea fowl, confit leg, cabbage, and potato sauce. Confronted with a slice of cod, like my piece of guinea fowl, apparently all alone on an empty plate, Lionel asked philosophically "Isn't it odd that they don't serve vegetables?" We both thought it was odd, then found the vegetables underneath. He was not wild about the "shredded salami", but my guinea fowl was fine, and the flavours of the shredded cabbage and the potato puree were both subtle and delicate.

For pudding, we had a pave of chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream and a mango rice pudding with lime puree, both of which took rather a long time to come but were moderate to good on arrival.

Dinner for the two of us, with a service charge of 12.5% automatically included in the bill, came to pounds 57.77. Fables is not a place that I'd rush back to, even after writing such an inoffensive notice, but it is a good deal cheaper and nicer than the Pied a Terre. !

839 Fulham Road, London SW6 5HQ. Tel: 0171 371 5445. Open daily 12.30 to 2.30pm and 7 to 11pm. Two course set lunch, pounds 12, three course set dinner, pounds 22. Average a la carte price per person, pounds 28. Major credit cards accepted

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