Chinon, for example, has a tricky location. Unfortunately, it is not in the Loire, where the original Chinon is an ancient wine- making centre. This Chinon is in a little parade of shops near the BBC's Kensington House in Shepherd's Bush, London - a dinky-boo suburb, central but leafy. The streets are now a one-way maze, punctuated by piffling roundabouts. Parking is hell.
Yet there it is, Chinon of Shepherd's Bush - a perfectly welcoming place, neither too fancy nor too austere. Do not, however, mistake it for commonsensical. Chinon is an irritating restaurant.
To begin with, in spite of the name, it is none too concerned with the Loire. Though it serves a remarkably good 1991 Chinon, fairly priced at pounds 18.50, the wine list seems to look most fondly to the New World. The food, judging by flavour, has a Mediterranean bent - there are pine nuts partout - but its styling comes from somewhere else entirely.
'Planet Chinon,' our hostess explained, as I gaped at a plate that looked as though it had done duty as a hat in Easter Parade. Its leaves were topped by a sheet of fried filo pastry, this topped by curlicues of roast red peppers and various business. And beneath that fried pastry lurked rolled peelings of cucumber, a curl of salami, a spear of this, a swirl of that. The chef, Jonathan Hayes, is a very good cook; he is also very playful.
Another starter, squid, came on a sheet of pasta, dyed black with squid ink. This looked good, but the pasta stuck fast to the plate. The squid itself, however, was delicious. The cap was stuffed with a tomato fondant, pine nuts and pesto sauce.
Chinon, with rare and admirable generosity, serves liver thickly cut. Ours had firm texture, excellent flavour, and was perfectly cooked and served with an excellent mustard sauce.
My lamb had been packed in caul, with a layer of roast red peppers. The meat was flavourful, and well cooked. To the side, an extravagant little filo pastry wheel housed spinach and pine nuts. Both liver and lamb was accompanied by a small tower of mash, rather like the one which fixates Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, except that this one was packaged in Savoy cabbage.
Dessert was something called 'Cloud Pie': meringue, creme Chantilly, banana and passion fruit. It was light and really fun, served with orange sorbet and segments in a tuile basket - a good end to a good meal.
So why was Chinon only half- full last Saturday night? An obvious answer lay in the bill, which came to pounds 35 per person. By contrast, the seats are rarely empty nearby at the Brackenbury, a nicer-looking restaurant in, if anything, a worse location. And at the Brackenbury, pounds 35 will feed two.
Chinon risks oppressing us slightly with its price and presentation. Dining-room staff are certainly merry and capable, yet they lack grace and precision. They wave you in to find your own table. Bread, olives and anchoade are not proffered, but must be requested. This only becomes obvious when staff are gently pestering you to order. Then, once your order is out of the way, you feel the hostess is glad to get back to her own table and gossip (about VAT returns, during our visit).
So: Earth to Planet Chinon. Are you receiving me? The problems with Chinon cannot be located in the A-Z. Its wacky, substantial strengths, along with the failings, lie in its owners' hands.
Chinon, 23 Richmond Way, London W14 (071-602 4082; 5968). Vegetarian meals. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat Access, Amex, Visa.
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