Where it's Nordic but nice

EATING OUT; ANNA'S PLACE; 90 Mildmay Park, London N1 4PR. Tel: 0171 249 9379. Open Tues-Sat 12.15- 2.15pm and 7-11pm, and for Sunday brunch 11.30am-3pm. Closed Sunday evening and Monday. Average a la carte price, pounds 21. Major credit cards accepted
Click to follow
Anna has gone. She's left the joint. She has retired. Anna's Place is no longer Anna's place. It has been "inherited" by the two chefs who worked with Anna for years. When I first moved to north London many years ago, Anna's Place was decidedly still Anna's place. Anna starred in her own restaurant, brusque, funny and authoritative. Anna, for those of you who missed out on her long residence on a corner of Newington Green, is Swedish. Her restaurant was among the first, if not actually the first, to bring Swedish food to Britain, over two decades ago, way before any major retailer got on the bandwagon.

The dear young waiter who looked after our table last week told me that it was Anna who introduced gravadlax to Britain some 21 years ago. My mum always claimed that she was the first person to publish a recipe for gravadlax in this country, in her fish book back in 1973. I suppose the two are not incompatible. The point is that both of them were well ahead of the game. Both of them certainly knew a good thing when they tasted it.

Throughout the Seventies and most of the Eighties, Anna's Place was exceptional among London restaurants. Tucked away in the back streets, it became a perennial favourite. Here was a place that was the antithesis of pretentiousness. Nothing stuffy, no dicky-bowed snooty waiters, this was a place to relax, to be entertained and occasionally riled by an idiosyncratic hostess.

It was the food, above all, that kept people coming back. The tender, supple, silky feel of Swedish marinated salmon in the mouth, with its dill and salty sweetness, was a revelation in the days before Marks & Sparks had added it to their delicatessen list. Pickled herrings, voluptuous in their sherry marinade, made our rollmops seem desperately coarse in the pre-Ikea years. Anna's Place was for those in the know, and devotees of good eating were happy to cross half of London to find it.

Almost a decade since I last set foot in Anna's Place, I found myself back there, curiously enough with the same companion. Jess and I reminisced, of course. We had both been on the lowest rung of our career ladders then. Now Jess is an enormously successful food photographer, and me, well, I'm writing this column, among other things, and that's not bad going, either. Both our lives have changed considerably, but Anna's Place ... well, perhaps it's that it has changed very little, and the rest of the world has caught up. The biggest change, the loss of its owner, has taken away one of its trump cards.

Wisely, the new bosses have kept a selection of Swedish specialities on the menu, but somewhere along the line, and for all I know this may have happened with Anna still in situ, they have decided to diversify. Alongside the Nordic names are dishes such as grilled king prawns with a potato, black olive and pistachio salad, and crab, cod and potato cakes with a sweet pepper and mango salsa. A touch of dill in the salsa harks back to the restaurant's raison d'etre, but otherwise I'm not entirely convinced by the sound of these modern creations.

Obstinate cusses that we are, we stick with tradition. The Tre Kronor is a "selection of Swedish delicacies", which includes some slightly uninspiring gravadlax (not so impressive now that we know how to make it at home, or can buy it ready sliced from the supermarket); some delicious marinated herring (but I can get that on my weekly trolley trawl, too); liver sausage; and, most interesting of all, a small helping of Gubbrora pa Kavring. In other words, Swedish anchovies, which aren't anchovies at all, in fact, but spicy marinated fillets of Baltic herring or sprats, mixed with chopped hard-boiled egg and parsley, on dark rye bread. Jess's shellfish bisque was weak on the shellfish, which made it heavy on the cream.

Moving on swiftly to "Traditional Swedish Mains", I moped my way through about half of the bland Lax Pudding. The warm clarified butter which, I was assured, would lift the pudding almost miraculously, was not up to the task in hand. The heavy layers of potato, interleaved with smoked salmon, were held together with a characterless milk custard goo. I'd expected something more along the lines of the devastatingly wonderful Janssen's Temptation - a classic Swedish dish of potatoes, onions, and anchovies baked with oodles of cream to a mass of indecently rich comfort food. I was disappointed.

Jess was not much more blessed with her Kottbullar (meatballs, to you and me). The best bit was the lingonberry jam or jelly that you were meant to stir into the sauce to perk it up. I would hazard a guess that the hearts of our two inheriting chefs are not in the traditional menu any more. We might have done better with their contemporary creations after all.

One thing these two are pretty damn good at is pudding. We were both heartily glad that we had left a fair portion of mains on the plate. The steaming hot, crisp waffles - wonderfully gooey and moist in the middle - were bliss. Dusted with icing sugar and served with a puddle of blueberry jam, they slid down with great ease. King of the table, though, were Jess's fingers of incredibly dense and delicious chocolate cake. Made without flour, it had settled like refrigerator cake into solid bars of unabashed heaven.

Anna's Place is undoubtedly a nice enough place. The rooms are pretty in a rather dated fashion, the staff are friendly, informal and helpful, the atmosphere cosy and welcoming. As a neighbourhood bistro, it is more than adequate. I'd be thankful to have a place like it within lurching distance of my house. A fine place for a quick meal when you can't be bothered to cook, a fine place for a low-key celebration, a fine place when the plumbing's packed up ... especially if you live within walking distance.