Service deserves criticism. It dominates our meals. Anyone can do it badly (most waiters do). Done well, it requires agility, stamina, skill and grace. One immaculate practitioner is Dominique Les Guyader, who runs (in fact, co-owns) a new restaurant in Hampstead called La Grignote ('the nibble').
Mr Les Guyader says that builders took six months to convert the property from a curry house into a French restaurant. They must have made a lot of tea, for the new place is tiny and humble; its only notable feature being painted white plywood panelling.
On entering the restaurant, one would not recognise Mr Les Guyader as a proprietor. This slender, dark-haired young man takes deference as far as it might elegantly extend before collapsing into a crawl. Left in his care, you somehow relax at a cramped table for two, even though you are effectively in a small aisle.
This is not to say his magic works for everyone. The night we ate at La Grignote, three window tables had been reserved for a party of six. The group appeared at 10pm, led by a brunette with tall hair.
No sooner was the party seated than another of its females got up and stood at the door, hissing, 'Just c'mon] C'mon] Just c'mon]' As five of the group left in a torrent of giggles, one poor chap remained at the table fumbling for his wallet.
Mr Les Guyader gently, graciously refused his offer of money. 'But no, Monsieur,' he said. 'You ate nothing. There is no charge.'
As the sixth of the group departed, another customer, a craggy old Spaniard, looked up from his steak and said to us, 'It is no loss.' However, customers, note well: it was a loss. The table had been held all evening at the expense of Mr Les Guyader, his partners, employees and suppliers.
It came as no surprise to find that Mr Les Guyader formerly worked at Le Caprice, the St James's restaurant celebrated for its chic hospitality. He has brought to this modest new restaurant a former Caprice sous-chef, a young Englishman named Gary Lee.
It would be obvious the chef was English even if his name did not appear at the bottom of the menu. Few French chefs would garnish a fennel soup with dried mixed herbs at the height of summer. However they might, as Mr Lee did, top a perfectly cooked steak with melted gruyere, though I myself do not see the point in it.
Mainly, the cooking was competent. What was called 'marinated salmon', and amounted to gravadlax with dill mayonnaise, was fine. Some lemon would have suited. A confit of duck was slightly overcooked; unusually, its fat was too well rendered, an anxiously caring sort of fault. The English hand was evident in the choice to serve the confit with slightly glutinous mash and port wine sauce instead of a summery potato salad. A lemon tart, its filling perfectly set, was puckery sharp, and sat on crisp pastry.
The wine list is short and dull, but serviceable. We asked for a young red burgundy to be chilled slightly. As Mr Les Guyader was occupied elsewhere, it was over- chilled in the less capable care of his waitress.
Close to midnight, as we drank what was the first of too many cognacs, a shaggy young man appeared at the door and calmly tried to order a take-away curry. Mr Les Guyader politely explained this was now a French restaurant and pointed to the clearly painted frontage. 'What, no curries? What is this? A theme restaurant?' demanded the man.
As Mr Les Guyader repeated his explanation, the man suddenly launched into a psychotic's routine from a famous movie: 'You talking to me?' he demanded. 'I mean, you talking to me?'
'Yes,' replied the baffled Frenchman.
'I mean, you talking to me?'
Exasperated at seeing my host abused once again, I hollered from my table, 'Bob DeNiro doesn't live here any more]' This the addled intruder understood and staggered off into the night. As Mr Les Guyader returned to us, I asked, 'Have you seen Taxi Driver?' He had not, which might explain, in small part, his innocent and optimistic public face.
La Grignote, 77 Heath Street, London NW3 (071-433 3455). Three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT approx pounds 30; set price two-course Sunday lunch pounds 11.50; three courses pounds 14. Open dinner Tues-Sun, lunch Sun. Visa, Access.
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