Old site, bright new light

Unlike its predecessors, The Stepping Stone is just what Battersea need s, says Emily Green
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The Independent Online
On a grimy arterial road, a rather bleak site that has played host to a string of restaurants has just been transformed with a handsome new frontage, a glasswork entrance and a menu strong on fresh fish dishes at reasonable prices. South London may well hope that the new establishment lasts longer than its name, The Stepping Stone, implies.

In years past, 123 Queenstown Road, Battersea, has been occupied by rather swanky joints. A decade or so ago the tenant was Nico Ladenis. The arrival of the next tenants, a French couple called the Deltiels, coincided with a spot of gentrification.

But they seem to have rather overestimated the turnaround of their ladylike but notably ambitious restaurant called L'Arlequin. After a series of painful economies at the onset of the recession, standards slipped and eventually L'Arlequin failed (along with several neighbouring restaurants).

Then, four weeks ago, The Stepping Stone opened. For the owners, Gary and Emer Levy, the name has personal meaning: a step on from their former restaurant, the Stable in Barnes, which they hope will lead to greater things.

One might ask why not call it Middle Rung on Our Career Ladder? Yet I find the name inappropriate chiefly because the Levys seem to have hit on something that may, in fact, finally make the place less of a stepping stone. They appear to be offering Battersea a restaurant it should take to its heart.

Gone are the rather formal trappings of L'Arlequin. Behind the double-width shopfront, connecting dining rooms have been brightly redecorated. A generous seating plan has been retained, with a good spread of tables well spaced.

Crockery and so on is of respectable quality, and the single espresso cups are downright covetable. The place still has the most cramped loos in London, but they sparkle. The overall effect is modern, elegant and appealing.

The menu, too, is modern. Most dishes, short of lamb chops, come in a choice of starter and main course sizes, which makes the place just as accessible for a light meal as a blow-out.

And, most refreshingly, among the food listed is an unusually high proportion of fish dishes.

This, probably, is the work of the chef, Matthew Owsley-Brown, who spent nearly two years training at the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, north Cornwall - the best seafood restaurant in Britain, whose proprietor, Rick Stein, describes Mr Owsley-Brown as ''a good cook, good hand''.

This goodness shows on the plate. Something entitled ''Matthew's marinated mackerel'' was a neat spin on an eastern European herring salad. The fish was lightly pickled - and tasted just as it should, neither too vinegary nor too sweet. The flesh was firm and fresh-tasting. It was served on perfectly cooked new potatoes with a herb-spiked admirably light dressing, made with creme fraiche.

Another starter, grilled squid served with fresh rocket, was, again, very good. The squid was headily seasoned, mainly with pepper. Partnering it with rocket may sound a bit like serving pepper with pepper, but with a ginger dressing it worked exceedingly well.

Impressively, ''fish of the day'' did not taste as if the kitchen were trying to shift a load of stuff about to go rank. It was monkfish, again generously seasoned and roasted to a turn, served in a light sauce spiked judiciously with diced roast red peppers, saffron and orange juice. Full marks.

A slice of a rich chocolate terrine, served with a winter fruit compote, was also just right.

The drinks list is short: five beers, 15 white wines, 14 reds, one rose, three sparklers and several dessert wines. Funnily enough, its compactness exacerbates a certain around-the-world-in-41-drinks sensation: water is Irish, beers are Belgian, the cider is from Somerset and the wines from all over the place (Lebanon, France, Italy, South Africa, Australia, America).

Granted, among the wines there is a good spread of styles, and prices dwell mainly in the pounds 8.50 to pounds 17.50 range. I thoroughly enjoyed my pounds 3 glass of Alsatian pinot blanc, but casting my eyes over the list of reds, from an Australian sangiovese to an export-style Piedmontese dolcetto to a steely claret from St Emilion, I did suddenly wonder: what does home taste like?

I cannot say how this place will stand up to pressure. Last Tuesday lunchtime, my guest and I were two of only four customers.

I can say that the Irish woman who served us was charming. And brave. She tells me children are not only welcome, but that the restaurant will also provide high chairs and crayons.

The Stepping Stone, 123 Queenstown Road, London SW8 (071-622 0555). Approx pounds 25-pounds 30. Vegetarian dishes. Open lunch 12.30am-2.30pm and dinner 7-11pm Tue-Sun. Access, Visa, Amex.

(Photograph omitted)

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