Food and Drink: Deep hankering for something French: Emily Green surveys some of the bistros and restaurants that take their cues - not always successfully - from counterparts in France

THE OPENING this week of the Tate Gallery exhibition, Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55, co-sponsored by the Independent and the French Embassy, touches a deep hankering in these isles for French verve. It is especially acute among restaurateurs, such as Sir Terence Conran, who recently reopened Quaglino's in St James's in an extravagant bow to the great brasseries of Paris, particularly Brasserie Lipp.

At Quaglino's, as in other sumptuous Conran restaurants, one finds tiled crustacea bars, platters of fruits de mer, sweetbread tarts, etc. Yet Quaglino's, a French friend insists, could no more be Brasserie Lipp than Bury Street could be Boulevard St Germain. At Lipp, he says, the waiters are famously rude, and the Prime Minister might be sat next to a taxi driver. Quaglino's, he spits, is for tourists and Essex men.

That argument will run and run. In the meantime, here follows a review of a new bistro and a short listing of restaurants, some run by Frenchmen, others by Greeks, Britons and Middle Easterners, that have taken their inspiration from the French.

BISTRO food should be quick, cheap and good. Some bistros manage it, some do not. Best is the Quality Chop House in Clerkenwell, London, which is owned by a Frenchman and run like a Swiss watch. No main course costs more than pounds 10, the confit of duck is delicious, and the average spend about pounds 20.

Pierre Victoire is in Putney, south London. It is an English link in a chain long familiar in Edinburgh. There and across Scotland, 33-year-old Frenchman Pierre Levicky has opened no fewer than 14 bistros in the past five years. Another English outlet has been created in the Haymarket, London, and new restaurants are planned for Bristol, Bath and Dublin.

The Scottish bistros made their reputations as noisy, affordable and fun. The new south London branch has those qualities. The food? Hmmm.

During a meal in Putney earlier this week, broccoli and yoghurt soup tasted singed and oddly citric. Cool melon, served with hot bacon and hollandaise, was disconcerting: not hot, not cold; not quite savoury, not quite sweet; not a good idea. Asparagus was perfectly cooked and well partnered with Bayonne ham. Rib-eye steak with blue cheese was salty and good.

As a witty riposte to a damning review of the cooking in one of his Edinburgh restaurants, Mr Levicky laminated copies of the article into 92 place- mats and named a particularly disgusting-sounding wild rice risotto after me, which he then offered customers pounds 1 to consume.

It would have cost him more to persuade me to finish the hake served last Monday in south London. It was overcooked, lathered with a school-dinnerish curry sauce and cold. Overcooked scallops sat to the side. The dish was cheerfully retrieved and deducted.

The wine list offers a dry white from south-west France, 1992 Domaine Capmartin Pacherenc du Vic Bilh. It tastes like an artful blend, mostly sauvignon blanc, and makes a first-class thirst-quencher with real fruit.

Pierre Victoire, 136 Upper Richmond Road, Putney (081-789 7043). Set three-course lunch pounds 4.90; dinner approx pounds 15- pounds 20. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Access, Visa.

Quality Chop House, 94 Farringdon Road, London EC1 (071-837 5093). Approx pounds 15- pounds 20. Open lunch Mon-Fri and Sun, dinner nightly.

LONDON: Very Simply Nico, 48a Rochester Row, London SW1 (071-630 8061) would top the list even if it were not near the Tate. Nico Ladenis produces some of the truest salt and pepper bistro food in London: pork sausages with onion compote, cote de boeuf with bearnaise sauce, lamb with rosemary and garlic, good grilled liver, superb frites, and puddings that consider the British palate, such as apple crumble. Set three- course menu pounds 25; house wines from pounds 12.50. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, dinner Sat.

ASK who owns Palais du Jardin, 136 Long Acre, London WC2 (071-379 5353) and a manager will cheerfully answer: 'Investment capital.' Mr Capital is a pro and, according to the manager, Middle Eastern with French leanings. This establishment - part oyster bar, part brasserie, part tea room - is spanking clean. Food (such as goat's cheese salad with good little croutons and coquilles st jacques) tends to be correct. Prices (from pounds 10- pounds 30 per person) are reasonable. Open 10am-12 midnight Mon-Sat, to 11pm Sun.

KENT: A rough, beachfront place, the Royal Native Oyster Stores, Horse Bridge Beach, Whitstable (0227 276856), could be in Brittany: there are fruits de mer and oysters (pacifics year-round, natives in season). In fact, it is good for most things fishy, say skate with brown butter, fish soup, crab salad. Vegetables are massacred; puddings a bad idea. Two courses with wine coffee, service and VAT should run to about pounds 17.

SURREY: Max and Marc Renzland lapse into bogus French accents as they run dinner shifts in Le Petit Max, 97a High Street, Hampton Wick (081-977 0236). Booking is essential. This week the menu features cold poached salmon with sauce verte, roast leg of rabbit with fresh girolles and Puy lentils in mustard cream. Cooking is superb. Set three- course meals pounds 18. BYOB; pounds 1.50 corkage.

CORNWALL: The Pig 'n' Fish, Norway Lane, St Ives (0736 794204) is fresh and civil. Super fresh cod with a basil crust on a bed of white haricot beans was good when I visited. Dressing: a light, Provencal olive oil. Recently listed dishes include confit of duck with re-fried butter beans and green tomato salsa, bourride of monkfish and aioli, and roast salmon with beurre blanc. Approx pounds 20- pounds 30. Open dinner Tues-Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

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