Food & Drink: Three cheers for the new brigade: The Waterloo landmark that was once a fire station is ringing the right bells with diners, says Emily Green

SUCH old public buildings as remain in Waterloo and its south London environs are slowly being reinvented. The railway station is still a railway station, but the library is now a bedraggled community centre, and a nearby mental institution has become a hotel with very small windows. The local fire station has had several changes of use. Until recently it served as a doss house; then, three weeks ago, it became a bar-restaurant.

These changes sit uncomfortably here, as does so much of the bungled town planning. But the Fire Station restaurant has three things going for it: it is particularly handy for commuters and theatregoers patronising the Old Vic, it has friendly, able staff, and it serves excellent food.

Two of the three partners have a background in theme restaurants. They considered housing an American dining car in the station's engine room, only to find that it would not fit through the doors. Then one bright spark suggested they simply kit the place out with a bar, tables, chairs, a kitchen, and find a good cook.

They needed lots of tables and chairs, for the place is vast. Original tiled walls mean that music booms. Guests holler. The kitchen, somewhat theatrically, is on an open-plan platform overlooking the dining room.

The chef they chose, 34-year-old Dan Evans, is first-rate. Although this is his first foray south of the river, he has fed a fair number of Londoners. He cooked for three-and-a-half years with Alastair Little in Soho, spent 18 months as head chef of Odette's in north London, and for a year was head chef of 192, the west London bar-restaurant.

Praise for his food at the Fire Station must come with a proviso. Mr Evans is not so much its chef as a consultant chef, hired to set up the kitchen. He may leave after December, by which time the cooks he has hired and trained will, it is hoped, be sending out food as good as his.

For most young chefs, this would be aiming high. You would have to go to Paris, or Bibendum, to find jambon persille as good as that served at the Fire Station for pounds 2.75 last Friday night. The ham, herbed liberally with chopped parsley and set in a delicate jelly, was served with toasted brioche, hot mustard, green beans that had been coated in a sweetish mustard sauce, and a pleasing little dollop of a Puy lentil salad.

What were listed as tortelloni were actually more like cylinders of tender pasta, filled with ricotta and spinach, and set in a fresh tomato sauce, available in small or large portions (pounds 3.75 or pounds 5.75).

An egg, anchovy and leek salad is the sort of bonne femme dish that too few chefs deign to make. More is the pity for it is simple and, again, delicious. Ditto for melting, well-seasoned duck livers on a great pile of salad leaves.

Wines show promise. All are available by the glass. A four-year-old beaujolais from Regnie, at pounds 1.90 per glass, is a good basic red. A white Spanish sparkler, Catalan Cava Raventos i Blanc, at pounds 15, is an intelligent alternative to cheap champagne.

HOW to commend a restaurant called Big Night Out? The name suggests an American diner in a fire station. The reality, in a lovely parade in Regent's Park, north London, is a civil, somewhat trendy restaurant where small, witty gestures are preferred to outright wackiness. For example, while the room is cool and spare, the staff uniform appears to be purple denims. And while the cooking veers towards the formal, the execution is sure and prices are realistic. The set lunch is pounds 9.50 to pounds 13.50; set dinner pounds 13 to pounds 16.50. A dinner a la carte with the works might cost pounds 30 to pounds 40.

The owners, Hugh O'Boyle and Richard Coates, began working together 10 years ago at the Ritz, and formed an outside catering company in 1988. Victim number one of a silly name, it was called A la Kart.

It was far from a la carte during a recent lunchtime sitting at Big Night Out. A fixed price, no-choice menu offered mussels with pesto, grilled chicken, and a chocolate terrine. The mussels were good. The chicken was even better, its skin crisp and seasoned to the hilt. The overriding flavour was of sage, billed as an ingredient in an accompanying tomato confit, but which seemed to have been deployed everywhere. The meat sat on rosti, a faddish arrangement, prone to greasiness, not just from the frying but from the meat juices. The chocolate terrine, in a coffee cream, was spot on.

I questioned the lack of choice. Evidently others had, too. The owners are now expanding the lunch menu to a choice of two starters, two main courses and any pudding.

The dinner menu offers good choice and a certain whimsy in the naming of dishes: 'rillette of duck' is actually a terrine with shallots, a lean and good one, served with braised wild mushrooms. The lobster ravioli was OK, the pasta tough, the accompanying shellfish sauce excellent.

Baked rabbit, again strangely served on a rosti potato cake, merited full marks for technique. The skin was well seasoned and crisp, the meat moist - something of a feat, given that the bone had been replaced with ham and herb forcemeat. Roast brill was excellent: this cook can certainly season and finish a crust, here using industrial quantites of fresh herbs. Mangetout and tomatoes, also highly herbed, were arranged artistically around the plate, with a generous dousing of flowery French olive oil mixed with truffle oil and a dash of remarkably good vinegar. Tagliatelle, overcooking slightly beneath the brill, sopped up some of the good juices.

The wine list is pricier than the food. The average bottle costs pounds 20. Much is from the New World. A Hogue Cellars 1990 Merlot from Washington State (pounds 19.90) was delicious. An Australian rose, Charlie Melton 1993 Rose of Virginia (pounds 14.60), was the colour of an evil fizzy drink, but had a light fruity flavour: a perfect summer wine.

The Fire Station, 150 Waterloo Road, London SE1 (071-401 3267). Bar open 12noon-11pm Mon-Sat, restaurant open 12noon-11.30pm (last orders) Mon-Sat. Vegetarian dishes. Loud music. Cash and cheques only.

Big Night Out, 148 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 (071-586 5768). Vegetarian dishes. Children welcome: special portions on request. Open lunch Tues-Fri and Sun, dinner Tue-Sat, afternoon tea Tue-Sat. Access, Visa, Amex.

(Photographs omitted)

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