A woman's kitchen is in the place: Crostini and Cajun, cooked in a cafe by a female team. Tim Jackson dines out in Hampstead

ONE look around the Cafe des Arts in Hampstead High Street, north London, is enough to convince that it is run by nice people. Flowers wilt gently in the window- boxes. Candles flicker in the breeze and drip wax on to twisting brass candlesticks. The cutlery and glasses on the white paper tablecloths are cheap, but shiny and clean. The blackboard bears an advertisement for a special beer brewed by women in Lapland.

But far from being the creation of a women's co-operative, the Cafe des Arts belongs to Brian Stein whose catering empire stretches from Maxwell's, P J's Grill and Brahms and Liszt in London, to another Maxwell's in Oxford.

Mr Stein has a special attachment to the 17th-century listed building that houses the new restaurant. For it was there, in the mid-Sixties, that he opened his first restaurant, Fagin's. Only towards the end of the Eighties, when the restaurant's formula had become unmistakably tired, did he get around to changing it.

Luckily, his first plan - to put up a new building on the site - fell victim to the recession. So he had to content himself with a more modest renovation. The restaurant reopened earlier this year with a new paint job and a new kitchen, with warm terracotta tiles on the floor and stunning pine panelling behind the pictures. When you sit at a table in front of the window on a summer Sunday evening, the effect is delightful.

The other notable thing about the Cafe des Arts also came about almost by mistake. Mr Stein brought in Jacky Kitching as the front-of-house manager. Ms Kitching then hired an almost exclusively female team: the senior three of the five chefs are women and so are the waiting staff, with one exception - and he sports a pony-tail.

'It wasn't planned like that,' says Ms Kitching. 'It was just that the best people who turned up were women, and things evolved.'

When the name was chosen, the restaurant was originally going to be modelled on a cafe that Mr Stein had visited in the south of France. Some features remain: the place is open from noon to 11.30pm (11 on Sundays). But the self-taught chef of 25, Sally Holme, was more interested in Mediterranean, South-east Asian and Californian food.

The result is a dinner list of nine admirably varied starters, and 10 main courses that include two vegetarian and two fish dishes. At lunchtime and in the afternoons you can eat just a pudding or starter (choosing small or large portions for the latter), washed down with coffee, camomile tea or wine, as appropriate.

The emphasis is on fresh ingredients; they swear nothing is frozen or bottled. The modish ingredients are familiar: onion marmalade with the charcuterie, rocket with the calf's liver, grilled sausages, Cajun-style salmon, and balsamic vinegar on the garlicky fried mushrooms.

Fashionable it may be, but the food is undoubtedly good. A starter of crostini came with black olive tapenade, slices of leek still slightly crunchy, and a charred red pepper. The sauce under the grilled polenta and bocconcini was made with fresh basil.

Main courses were thorough but not surprising. Rack of lamb with rosemary and shallot sauce came as three plump grilled chops, well-flavoured and trimmed of excess fat; but the gravy could have been more deeply infused with the two flavours. 'We serve it pink,' said the waitress, with an emphasis that allowed no disagreement.

We chose light vegetables: perfectly steamed green beans in a white rectangular box, and a green salad that contained an attractive mixture of leaves but was dressed in a somewhat fiery French mustard vinaigrette rather than the gentler Italian oil-and-vinegar version. But there were also chips and a gratin dauphinoise.

A piece of fresh cod, roasted in a pecan crust and served with a bright saffron sauce, was one of a good list of specials. To keep waste (and hence prices) to a minimum, Ms Holme has to dream up good ways of using for lunch the ingredients from yesterday's dinner; she seemed to be doing a good job of it, with the peanuts and Thai influences more in evidence on the list of dishes of the day than on the main menu.

We passed on the desserts, but the list included vanilla bread- and-butter pudding, creme brulee with fruit, orange and ginger ice- cream and some fragrant but, at pounds 3.50, rather expensive cheeses.

From the wine list we drank a good, but not outstanding, 1990 brouilly. There were more interesting choices among the list of eight whites and eight reds: sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon from Australia, New Zealand, California and Chile. An Australian sparkling wine was a reasonably priced alternative to champagne.

Apart from the house wines, only a Spanish rose and a beaumes-de-venise were sold by the glass. Customers at a restaurant in the West End would drive home after dinner and thus take only a glass or two; here, many of the diners will have walked.

But that is a good sign. In the middle of a recession and only a few months after its opening the Cafe des Arts is thriving because it is doing well, and at prices that could be worse, the job of a good local restaurant.

Cafe des Arts, 82 Hampstead High Street, London NW3 (071- 435 3608). About pounds 7 for a starter and glass of wine at lunchtime or in the afternoon; about pounds 26 per person for dinner, which includes three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Quiet jazz songs. Vegetarian dishes. Children welcome. Open from noon until 11.30pm Monday-Saturday and 11pm on Sunday without a break. All major credit cards accepted.

(Photograph omitted)

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