Food & Drink: So simple it's sophisticated: Jim Ainsworth finds the kind of cafe where the decor is canny, the cooks serene and nothing happens by accident

THE Union Cafe opened in the Marylebone pocket of the West End of London on Tuesday, and I went for lunch. It took me back 15 years to the day I opened the doors of my own restaurant for the first time.

What surprised me, all that time ago, was that people calmly walked in, ate the food we had prepared and paid for it - just like that. No awkward so-and-sos to deal with, no reviewers, and everybody considered it completely normal. Except me - I was terrified.

The fundamental difference between me and Caroline Brett, 32-year-old chef-proprietor of the Union Cafe, is that she knows what she is doing. She worked at 192 under Maddalena Bonino, briefly did lunches at trendy All Saints (also in Notting Hill, west London), and then took over O'Keefe's for a year until August 1993.

For the past year, Brett has freelanced while organising the new place: a spacious ground-floor room just north of Wigmore Street, which treads a canny path between the bare-boards, shoestring, we-just-ripped-the-place-to-bits decor of some Nineties cafes and the carefully constructed, fresh, bright meeting place with the dash of elan demanded by the smarter shoppers and Bond Street auction clients - who must surely be in her sights.

The place is free of clutter. Tables, chairs and floor are bare wood; counter fronts are stainless steel. White paint covers the ceiling and walls, apart from one bit that is a cross between Tuscan olive oil and electric lime green. If you like this colour, there is plenty more downstairs on the way to the loos.

Overhead, the eye tracks a trim piece of ducting to the gleaming open-plan kitchen, bright as a new pin, inhabited by a posse of serenely composed cooks. Service is calm and natural, too.

This is not just any old cafe, or rather new cafe, though it is open most of the day and serves light lunches. A plate of Neal's Yard cheeses or charcuterie, with pickles, good bread and olives, costs between pounds 6 and pounds 7. Either would make a satisfactory lunch by itself; so, too, might the bowl of red onion soup with goat's cheese croutons followed by caramelised walnut tart and thick cream, for about the same price.

But this is not the kind of cafe where cheeses and cold meats are tossed mindlessly on to plates and 'garnished' with bits of red and green. It is the kind of cafe that produces a wonderful bowl of tender squid and perfectly textured monkfish in a tomato-based soupy mix: herbs and gloriously tasty olives add to a depth of flavour you know has not happened by accident.

The flavour of grilled chicken breast - maize-fed, with lightly seared skin -reminded me of one I ate at Sally Clarke's earlier in the year. There is often a great temptation to 'add' flavours to chicken breast, even a tasty one, to show people you really can cook, which is the sign of an insecure chef. But Brett has the confidence born of knowing about good ingredients and what to do with them.

Restraint is an admirable quality in a chef - and Brett's unadulterated chicken is served with no more than a strewing (a 'relish', the menu calls it) of thinly sliced carrots and chopped spring onions sweated in oil.

Nothing is approximate here. It all looks simple on the plate - it may even appear simple to produce, as indeed it should in a cafe - but Brett applies the kind of care and intelligence we normally associate with the better restaurants. She does not throw herself on to the plate in a riot of extrovert showmanship; rather, she engineers as direct a line as possible between, in this case, the chicken and the customer. Or, in another case of disciplined self-control, between us and a simple pile of lightly dressed salad greens. Imagine, in other kitchens, the itchy fingers fighting to toss in some bits of bacon or a few croutons.

Obviously Brett has a sense of purpose. If there is something 'Italifornian' about the style, it is leagues away from the formula food that lesser cooks trot out. And if Englishness pervades the puddings, it is far removed from the sticky nursery stodge that is now associated with it.

Excellent chocolate cake is mercifully free of the rich sweetness that afflicts many comfort puds. Walnut tart combines first-class pastry with fresh-tasting walnuts and a dribble of toffee-ish caramel sauce, yet avoids heavyweight over-indulgence. As one who does not have a particularly sweet tooth, I was impressed. The food is healthy without being doctrinaire.

Drinks run from a dozen wines - four by the glass - to Theakston's Black Sheep Ale; from fresh carrot juice to elderflower cordial; from a dairy-free blueberry smoothie to good espresso and cappuccino.

Union Cafe, 96 Marylebone Lane, London W1 (071-486 4860). Open Mon-Fri from 10am, last orders 10pm. Approx pounds 15- pounds 20 per person. Light meals from pounds 10. Vegetarian dishes. Cash, cheques, Switch, Delta. A pounds 2 charge is made for using Access and Visa.

Jim Ainsworth is editor of 'The 1995 Good Food Guide' (Which? Books/ Penguin, pounds 14.99). Emily Green returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Sport
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Sport
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam