Boxwood Café, London

The child-friendly ambience at Gordon Ramsay's latest venture may not quite convince, but the food definitely does, says Tracey MacLeod, Glenfiddich restaurant critic 2003

Don't be misled by the name. Boxwood Café is a café only in the sense that it serves food and contains chairs and tables. It's Gordon Ramsay's latest hotel venture, his first attempt at a cheaper, brasserie-style operation. But informal it most certainly isn't.

Boxwood, which inherits from Vong the gloomy basement beneath the Berkeley Hotel, specialises in simple fare, like soup, salads and sandwiches, done brilliantly. Only this being Knightsbridge and Gordon Ramsay being Britain's pre-eminent chef, the soup is chilled melon and basil, the salad is spider crab, squid and borlotti bean, and the sandwich is a croque-monsieur made with smoked salmon and caviar.

Still, it's more easygoing than Ramsay's existing hotel restaurants at Claridges, the Savoy and the Connaught. And unlike them, it's avowedly child-friendly. So keen were the staff to prove their credentials that our toddler was practically bowled off his feet by a squadron of chic lovelies thrusting Scooby Doo activity packs at him. (Wouldn't the world be a jollier place if all Gordon Ramsay's restaurants handed out crayons and colouring books as you sat down?)

Lacquered surfaces and silver tea paper walls retain something of Vong's oriental feel. The napery is starched and the tableware gleams. Parents be warned - the staff might be chil- friendly, but the terrain isn't. Nor was the promised children's menu available.

Like the upscale New York cafés Boxwood is modelled on, the all-day menu is supremely inviting. Simple ingredients are given an interesting twist - oysters are served fried with fennel and lemon, asparagus with butter-fried ducks' eggs - and several of the main courses, such as pot-roast veal sweetbread flavoured with vanilla - would sit comfortably on Ramsay's swankier menus.

Head chef Stuart Gillies also champions seasonal produce; one of the daily specials was a starter of pan-fried elvers. I'd never tried these tiny baby eels before. With their delicate flavour and toothsome texture, like seafood-flavoured linguine, it was easy to see why the Japanese prize them so highly. I was less of a fan of the cast-iron skillet they were served in, which created a skin-curdling, nails-on-blackboard effect every time the cutlery scraped its grainy metal surface.

Harry couldn't resist the idea of a Gordon Ramsay sandwich, and tried the smoked salmon and Sevruga caviar croque-monsieur. It was the perfect Sunday brunch dish, made with authentically light French sandwich bread which allowed the caviar to punch through. The accompanying salad, an exquisite millefeuille-style stack of thinly sliced apple, celeriac and leaves, was the labour-intensive product of a perfectionist.

Despite the fancy presentation, it was still just about possible to believe that this was casual café-style eating, an impression reinforced by a shared dish of clams, baked on the half-shell under a garlicky herb and breadcrumb crust. Main courses, however, were refined and worked over to a degree that signalled a classically trained chef who can't quite let his hair down.

My choice, that day's special of boiled beef, wasn't the hearty, heimische New York version, but an austerely minimalist dish, consisting of two dainty lozenges of soft, fat-marbled cheek and a scattering of baby turnips and shelled broad beans, all bathed in an ascetic beef broth. The no-carbs diet may reign in Manhattan, but I was desperate for some mashed potato to stodge it up, and maybe a dollop of mustard.

Harry, too, had problems with his loin of suckling pig, and specifically its chubby girdle of fat which hadn't quite turned into crackling. "I don't like it," he whispered through a blubbery mouthful - Gordon was patrolling the room at the time, and there were some sharp crayons in that fun pack. The roast potatoes, too, were distinctly lacking in crunch, and you can't claim to do simple things brilliantly if you can't get a roastie right.

We were back on track again for the puddings; Boxwood's dessert menu - a list so child-friendly it should really contain Tubby Custard - is a joyful romp through retro faves like Black Forest gâteau and Eton Mess. Knickerbocker Glory is one for the grown-ups, its usual garish components replaced by poppyseed parfait, poached apricots and a foundation of slippery panna cotta. Warm sugared doughnuts are made to order, and as good as they sound. Puddings haven't been this much fun since you were five years old.

In keeping with Boxwood's child-friendly ambitions, there were quite a few families there, most of them looking like they'd ordered their offspring from a Boden catalogue. Our fellow guests included Nigella Lawson and her family, and it's a mark of the staff's professionalism that having recognised her, they behaved like they'd been struck by lightning for only a few minutes before resuming their friendly attentiveness to the rest of the clientele.

We paid around £30 a head for food; restaurant, rather than café, prices, but refreshingly, cover and service charges aren't added to the bill. Whether there are enough displaced Upper West Siders in London to make Boxwood Café fly as a family-friendly brunch venue I couldn't say. Rather, book a babysitter and enjoy it for what it is - a sophisticated restaurant for grown-ups. E

Boxwood Café, The Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge, London SW1 020-7235 1010

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