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)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
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

    Guru Careers: Front of House Receptionist / Receptionist

    £21K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Front of House Receptionist to provide th...

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders