Food and Drink: This place is a gem, OK?: Chain restaurants can sparkle, while haute cuisine need not come at a high price. Emily Green enjoys herself twice

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE BUZZWORD among restaurateurs is 'system'. It refers to nut and bolt efficiency, to kitchens run along the lines of a Ford factory. Systematised restaurants tend to market themselves as affordable and often belong to chains.

By contrast, the best of independent restaurants will also run a production line, but cherish craftsmanship. The cooking is highly skilled and often idiosyncratic. These restaurants are rarely cheap and invariably one-offs.

Two notable restaurants, one systematised, the other utterly craftsmanlike, have opened in London during the last fortnight. They are Orsino in Holland Park and Aubergine in South Kensington. Each is among the best in its class, yet each is unorthodox.

One could be forgiven for mistaking Orsino as the craftsman's restaurant, especially if one judged it by price ( pounds 30- pounds 40 per head). And there are innovative touches about Orsino, not least the beautiful design. The architect Alfred Munkenbeck has cleverly transformed a deadbeat pub into a decidedly swank modern restaurant. Moreover, pastel napery, peasant crockery and smartly framed photographs of Italian peasants hardly look like standard-issue trappings of a chain restaurant.

But they are. The peasants in the photographs might be somebody's relatives, but they are no relation to the American owner of Orsino. Even the bilingual Italian- English menu is on a theme, albeit an inherited one. Orsino is the new sibling of the Covent Garden restaurant Orso. Branches of Orso may also be found in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles. Orso, in turn, is the offspring of Joe Allen, originally a bistro serving (good) hamburgers, spinach salad and eggs benedict to theatre-goers in Manhattan's 'Restaurant Row' off Broadway, now a chain with outlets in London and Paris.

To Orso's credit, when it opened in London in 1985 it was in the vanguard of the new-wave Italian restaurants now taking Britain by storm. The peasant food may be bogus, but it is consistent, indeed often very good; as a system, it is a tearaway success.

So it should be. Consider some of the profit margins: at Orsino, a side-order of broccoli costs pounds 2, and contains three, maybe four florets. Do not be deceived when staff offer you pizza bread. They are offering you the opportunity to be charged for it. It costs pounds 4.50. At a guess, it costs the kitchen two ounces of flour, a gram of yeast, a splash of olive oil and a couple of pinches of sea salt, or about 10p's worth of ingredients.

If you don't choke on the price, the pizza bread itself is very good: unusually crisp, like a poppadum. The quickly leavened and highly seasoned focaccia also costs pounds 4.50, and is also delicious, served with oil, sea salt and a selection of toppings including onions, sun dried tomatoes, olives and herbs.

And it must be conceded that these margins pay to keep the restaurant open and fully staffed throughout the afternoon, so one could lunch at 4pm or dine at 11pm. This is a rare service in the centre of town, and almost unheard of in Holland Park.

Staff are friendly, graceful and deft. The kitchen, too, is able. Almost everything we sampled was good: grilled aubergine and red pepper salad, spinach and ricotta ravioli with walnut sauce, risotto with wild mushrooms. Some of it was better than good: veal sweetbreads with roast shallots and a marsala sauce. Wines seem greedily priced. Londoners who have developed a taste for velvety Rosso di Montalcino at pounds 15 per bottle will find it at Orsino for pounds 20. However, one of the cheaper offerings, the Cala Viola, costs pounds 14 and has plenty of flowery sweetness but enough acidity to taste clean.

IF ORSINO makes systematised mass-catering glamorous and expensive, Aubergine's prices aim to make craftsmanlike haute cuisine accessible to the PizzaExpress market. This restaurant has got all the right things right and harmless things wrong. I think the name is absurd, especially as the restaurant sits several doors down from another called Red Pepper. The language on its menu is a vaguely ridiculous mix of French and English, a language best understood by owners of the Larousse Gastronomique and gold American Express cards. Service, while warmly courteous, will take time to become efficient.

The food is absolutely delicious. This is the work of Gordon Ramsay. He is is 26, but looks at least 10 years older. Kitchens do this to chefs, especially the sort Mr Ramsay has worked through: he has trained with Albert Roux, Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon. Perhaps most punishing, and most beneficial, was the year and a half he served cooking with Marco Pierre White, who set him up in the new premises and is now his business partner.

The partners decided the food must be affordable, and it is. Two courses cost pounds 14, three pounds 18. For this one might be served a fresh and delicate vegetable terrine - spring onions, carrot, celeriac and so on wrapped in leek and dressed with a perfect vinaigrette. These are fiddly to make, exceedingly tricky to slice and delightful to eat. The risotto, studded with tiny clams and surrounded with a light rim of super-fresh clam stock was superb. Scallops are lightly roasted and served on a dice of perfectly cooked aubergine, courgette and tomato, a sort of effete ratatouille. Pigeon is, again, perfect, cooked a point, skin crisp, meat rare, with braised cabbage and a light jus enriched with madeira. Calf's liver, originally served a touch rare, was shown the pan again and emerged perfect, in a sauce given bite with lime, and a rich dollop of mash topped by wild mushrooms. These are intelligently orchestrated flavours, perfect ingredients, real skill.

Puddings were marginally less interesting: a lemon tart was slightly too sweet, slightly too bland, its crust slightly damp. Coffee is good. It would be forgivable if Aubergine made up for lost profit margins by serving pricey wines, but it doesn't. The list is geared for the common purse, with most of the choices between pounds 11.50 and pounds 17. A Chateau Triennes cabernet syrah from Provence cost pounds 16 and was well-made and robust.

Nor are savings made on the (rather yellow) decor. It is pretty and could just as easily accommodate a Milanese millionaire as a casual diner in jeans. Napery is stiff, knives are sharp, glassware is delicate. The place is a gem.

Orsino, 119 Portland Road, London W11 (071-221 3299). Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Open 12 noon- 12 midnight daily. Cash and cheques only.

Aubergine, 11 Park Walk, London SW10 (071-352 3449). Open Mon-Fri lunch and dinner, Sat dinner. Vegetarian starters; meals by arrangement. Children welcome; special portions. Major credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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