FOOD / After the opera: a meal for a tenner: It is possible to have a night on the town and not need an overdraft, says Emily Green

Consider the cost of an evening out in Covent Garden: return taxi or garage parking ( pounds 15- pounds 20). Theatre for two: pounds 32. Or opera for two: pounds 140. Drinks in the interval: pounds 5. Meal for two: pounds 50- pounds 80. Optional extras: two tublets of Loseley ice- creams, pounds 3; baby-sitter, pounds 10. Roughly reckoned, a cheap evening for two might cost pounds 105; a night at the opera and a meal in a swank restaurant closer to pounds 235. Make that pounds 273 to pounds 315 if your car joins the hundreds clamped daily (and nightly) in the West End.

Such figures make a rather convincing argument for staying home.

Granted, economies can be made. The cost of the meal can be shaved from the pounds 25 allotted here per head - particularly if one opts for the pounds 9.95 pre- and post-theatre menus at the year-old Cafe du Jardin in Wellington Street. From street level, it is a snappy-looking place: chequered floor, starchy white linen, particularly handsome staff. Our photograph was taken in the basement, where a smart dining-room operation has just opened, complete with pianist in the evening.

The chef is Tony Howorth, formerly of a restaurant called Soho, Soho in - surprise, surprise - Soho. When I reviewed it some four years ago, my response to his food was guarded. This time it is much more enthusiastic, if not completely unqualified.

First, then, the bad news. Mr Howorth seems to be unsuited to some of the Italianate offerings that so many modern chefs feel compelled to offer. His menu macaronics wreak havoc with that great British dialect known as menu French, contributing dishes such as 'risotto d'asperge et d'estragon' and 'focaccia d'avocat'.

This particular risotto tasted anaemic: the stock was weak and the glutinous consistency somehow wrong. So were the flavourings. Even the most dogmatic Italian cooks will allow that you can spike a risotto with almost any ingredient.

True, but the trick is not to employ too many of them at the same time. Asparagus and parmesan are classic additions, but to partner them with generous snippings of fresh tarragon, as Mr Howorth did, is unappetising.

Nor was the focaccia to my taste. The bread, described for some reason as 'unleavened', was topped with a slightly fanned half of an avocado pear and finished under the grill with some sort of cheese. Around it sat a pretty dice of peeled tomatoes, capers, pine nuts and baby artichokes in a daunting slick of olive oil. If the bread was, indeed, unleavened, it had a surprisingly bread- like texture, certainly not leaden.

Where the dish really suffered was in being other than the traditional leavened bread, dressed hot out of the oven with herbs or olives, olive oil and a generous sprinkling of sea salt. Some of the stuff in this highly elaborate version was good, particularly the artichoke hearts. As a dish, however, it made no sense.

The best of the exotic dishes was something called 'mojete'. It came in a great heap and consisted at base of roast vegetables, including courgette, aubergine, mushroom and carrot, which had been tossed with fresh salad leaves and walnuts. Topping this was a veritable haystack of delicious, crispy fried leeks. And uniting this strange but pleasing dish was a walnut vinaigrette.

Better yet was a straight-up, card- carrying French dish: roast guinea fowl, studded with lardons of smoked bacon, served on mash and peas in a sea of rich gravy.

An apple tart on thin puff pastry was dry and unseasonable; it was stupid of me to have ordered it. Coffee was passable.

So why go to Le Cafe du Jardin? Go for the guinea fowl. Go to find a mushroom in a haystack. Go, quite simply, because it is professional. Mr Howorth's partner is Robbie Seigler, a former manager at Soho, Soho. His expertise shows in the choice of staff, who are both friendly and capable. Go because the room is exceedingly pleasant. Go for the house white burgundy, a Duboeuf 1992 St Veran, but drink a bottle for pounds 15.95 because it is absurdly expensive at pounds 4.95 a glass.

For Italian food, better to go to a candlelit basement in Great Newport Street, to a dinky little restaurant called the Arts Theatre Cafe. The food is fresh, wholesome, very tasty and cheap. It is old territory in terms of this column, however.

The second subject this week is a hamburger chain's attempt at an Italian restaurant. Maxwell's, a London restaurant group best known for its (very decent) burgers and Bloody Marys, opened Cafe Piazza last June. The first chef lasted five months. By November it had a new one, Luca Lastrucci from Florence. This gentleman's kitchen serves a homely and perfect spaghetti pomodoro for pounds 4.95. His linguine vongole was a bit salty, but it was a natural- tasting sea-saltiness from the clams and very edible. This cost pounds 6.25. I had already seen a sample of what this organisation dared to call salad, and was happily surprised at the freshness of Cafe Piazza's assertive green leaves and fresh fennel.

Beware, however, the section of the menu labelled 'Salad'. This is dangerous territory. In one of its options, overcooked chicken sat in the unlikely company of fresh fennel, sliced radish, hardboiled eggs and other business. It was perfect for weight-watchers: they would not eat.

The host is a dashing Sicilian named Salvo Alfano. This man is a wizard. He can seat a hen party of 16 in four minutes flat, and have some form of food in front of them in 10. We had only thought of garlic bread when a plate of oven-hot rosemary- flavoured pizza bread appeared before us. At the close of our meal, he appeared with shot glasses of a wondrous hazelnut liqueur, Nocino Toschi, then set the bottle on our table. I had gone anonymously, but inquired later if this had been a bribe for a critic. 'No,' said a woman from the Maxwell's organisation. 'He likes giving treats when he has time, and when he's in the mood.' It was a pleasure all round, then.

Cafe du Jardin, 28 Wellington Street, London WC2 (071-836 8769/8760). Special theatre two- courses-and-coffee menu for pounds 9.95 from 5.30-7pm and 10- 11.30pm Mon-Sat. Open lunch and dinner daily. Taped music; live piano music downstairs. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome; special portions. Visa, Access, Amex, Diner's.

Cafe Piazza, 16-17 Russell Street, London WC2 (071-379 7543). Approx pounds 15- pounds 20 per person. Vegetarian meals. Open noon- midnight daily (11.30pm on Sundays). Loud pop music. Children welcome; special portions; highchairs. Visa, Access, Amex, Switch.

(Photograph omitted)

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