Food & Drink: Sonny's by name and sunny by nature: There are changes afoot at a favourite local restaurant, but it's in good hands, says Emily Green

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Not every neighbourhood can sprout a restaurant-cafe-delicatessen such as Sonny's. It took the green and groomed enclave of Barnes in south-west London to produce this handsome local. Floors are hardwood, table linen luxurious and white, the Breuer-style chairs reproductions of sleek, comfortable, early modern numbers, perhaps a 1934 design by the American Gilbert Rohde.

So much for the look of the place. Sonny's opened in 1986, run by the owner, Rebecca Mascarenhas; since then, she has had two children, with whom she hopes to spend more time. To this end, some seven weeks ago, she employed a new chef, Redmond Hayward, and his wife Pippa as manager.

This is good news for Barnes and bad news for Cheltenham, where the Haywards ran a restaurant called Redmond's. It opened in 1986, and Mr Hayward earned his first Michelin star there in 1992, the year the couple began to buckle under the cost of a punishingly expensive loan.

I had never met the Haywards, but a photograph of them haunted me. It accompanied a report I wrote for the news pages of the Independent on Sunday in 1992, about restaurants ravaged by recession. The photograph was run at the top of the page, and big. In it, the Haywards looked utterly exhausted - no, shattered. They had a new baby, bank problems, were operating with a skeleton staff and could not even muster a smile to greet the Michelin star.

The woman in the bright red silk shirt last Monday night bore little resemblance to the tired face staring out from those news pages in 1992. This 1994 Mrs Hayward has emerged in Barnes, fresh and fleet, the sort of restaurant manager most proprietors can only dream about employing. Her greeting is graceful and warm, not falsely chummy. Newcomers to the restaurant business should study her combination of skill and instinct as she slips unobtrusively around the dining- room, refilling glasses, whisking away empties and generally making things tick.

Sonny's entry in The Good Food Guide reports a Mediterranean bent to the food. It was certainly Eighties-style eclectic, embracing Thai spicing here, southern Italian there: steamed mussels were cooked with lime leaves and chilli, red mullet with tapenade and tomato. There are dishes in Sonny's menu, however, which indicate that this restaurant is in Britain.

Take, for example, a starter of smoked haddock and fennel chowder. The aniseed kick of the fennel went up in steam during the cooking which, given the fish, may have been deliberate and a good thing. The predominant flavour was of properly cooked smoked haddock: that is to say, hearty and good.

A red onion and black olive galette came topped with tender young rocket leaves, so neatly arranged it looked almost like a confection. I have heard it argued that delivering these big, salty delicatessen flavours cannot be called cooking. Perhaps, but I cannot see how the public would care: they taste great.

Vegetarian offerings appear naturally rather than as ill-conceived concessions to cranks. A starter of penne in a creamy mushroom sauce was warming on a cool evening; not fancy, just right.

Of main courses, fried red mullet was terrific. The fish, strongly flavoured and firm, stood up to a judiciously thin base of tapenade. To the side of the plate, diced fresh tomato salsa served as a cool, refreshing note. This may seem tour-guide Mediterranean, but observes good sense, too. Red mullet has so much flavour, and such a singular flavour at that, it does not need whole larders of ingredients heaped on it. Go to Nico Ladenis's two-star restaurant, and you may find it served even more simply with black olives, olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar. It is very nearly as delicious at Sonny's.

Seared salmon with a lime and olive oil dressing pleased the person who ordered it more than it pleased me. The fish itself was good, firm and full of flavour, served rare, which may be an acquired taste but becomes in time a very satisfying one. The dressing, however, did not seem to do much for it.

Roast rabbit was tough - really tough - but served with earthy artichoke hearts, a classic and winning combination. Salad greens were so startlingly fresh and good that they scarcely needed dressing.

Generally high quality held for the puddings, best of which was a chocolate terrine, studded with prune and served in a well-judged coffee sauce. The lemon tart had a puckery and perfectly cooked filling. The pastry was good - with a stress on was. I doubt, somehow, that Sonny's pastry chef knows the French secret: an egg wash mid-way through blind baking will seal the pie crust and prevent what the food writer Julia Child calls 'soggy bottom problems'.

A honey and cinnamon custard tart sounded better than it tasted, which was not unlike a workhorse pumpkin pie made with flavourless orange squash. However, poached rhubarb to the side was invigorating and clean-tasting.

The wine list, too, is a model of its sort: single-paged, with most of its offerings by the glass. No worries about who wants white, who wants red and who is driving. The selection of 37 French, Alsatian, Australian, Italian and American bottles is intelligent and affordable.

There is, however, one choice of bottle I would question: Il Favot. This is a table wine made from the nebbiolo grape by the aristocratic wine-making house of Conterno, one of the best producers in Piedmont. But Il Favot has been designed for export and wooded in new Slovenian oak in order to compete with Australian wines. Barrels must be changed every two years. I visited these cellars last autumn, and remarked to one of the wine-makers that this oaking was hard on the wine and even harder on the oak trees. Surely Britain would prefer their authentic, velvety wines, matured in 25-year-old chestnut casks? He shrugged and said he wished I was right. 'Tell it to the British,' he said.

Mr Conterno, consider it done.

Sonny's, 94 Church Road, London SW13 (081-748 0393). Vegetarian meals; children welcome (highchairs and special portions). Two-course set meal pounds 12.75; cafe lunches approx pounds 7. Three courses a la carte, with wine, service and VAT, approx pounds 30-pounds 40. Open lunch daily, dinner Mon-Sat. Visa, Access, Amex.

(Photograph omitted)

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