Yet whenever high-profile celebrities invest in the hospitality business, we can't help but associate them with the establishment in question. The reason they invest in such places, however, is not to subject themselves to the gawking stares of strangers. It's to diversify their investment portfolio and make money. As one does.
So I am not expecting TV star and seafood fanatic Rick Stein to be in the kitchen frying the fish at this new and ambitious brasserie in increasingly foodiefied Chiswick. According to the publicity handouts, Stein is merely an investor and "a godfather figure", neither chef nor patron. Anyway, the place is not called Rick's. It's called Sam's, and Sam is Sam Harrison, a smooth-talking, good-looking young man who managed Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow for some three years.
The Stein Effect has already galvanised Sam's business to the point where it's hard to get a table. The chain gang (Pizza Express, Ask, Giraffe, Balans et al) on Chiswick High Road are all a bit quiet tonight, but this place - hidden down a laneway - is packed to the rafters in both the bar and the split-level dining rooms.
Located on the ground floor of a converted paper factory, Sam's is divided into a long gastropubby bar, and a spacious, concrete-floored dining room hung with oversized lampshades, filled with wooden bistro-style furniture and backed by a wide-screen serving hatch through which you can watch a frantic kitchen at work. A few steps go up to a less-welcoming mezzanine.
Tonight, there are family groups, tattooed teens and plenty of Chiswick gentry mingling under the exposed air-conditioning ducts. On one side I have the gastronomic equivalent of the barmy army in a pair of comfortably built Maschler groupies, the dedicated followers of Fay analysing every morsel. On the other, a young couple having a wee bit of a tiff ("I'm telling you, Sharon, nothing went on") without pausing in their eating and drinking.
The chef Rufus Wickham, who has cooked at Kensington Place, has put together a desirable, easy-going Mod-Brit-Med menu, where rare tuna niçoise salad, crisp sea bass, and seared scallops with risotto nero share equal billing with country terrine with piccalilli, black-leg chicken with artichokes barigoule, and roast best-end of lamb with minted peas.
Fig toast with serrano ham (£7.25) is exactly that: a pinkly ripe fig squished onto a slice of toast, topped with pale, fragrant jamon. The flavour combination is right, but it lacks any oil or sweet sherry reduction; the toast is dry, scraping at the mouth; and the figs are refrigerated instead of gently warmed.
Next, two skewers of sautéed rabbit hearts, livers and kidneys with balsamic vinegar (£5.75) is also good in theory. In practice, the skerricks of offaly bits are so small and mingy, it is a mini degustation of the rabbit interior rather than something to inwardly digest.
A soupy dish of chorizo and chickpeas with good fat clams and small black mussels (£13) is generous, hearty and homely with a nice, smoky, spicy character. Carrying on the Iberian theme, I team it with a bottle of Pesquera Crianza 2002, a spicy chocolatey red from the Ribera del Duero in north central Spain, which makes a near-ideal match.
The wine also crosses the border effortlessly, for a French-inclined, braised petit salé (£11.50), a strip of lightly salted pork served with fresh borlotti beans, sweet carrot, and crinkly, verdant Savoy cabbage. It's simple, good-natured and nicely mumsy, although the cabbage tastes overly buttery.
To finish, a millefeuille of peach tart (£5.75) is a classic case of doing too much ahead of time. What was once a lovely, fine, peach tart had been cooled, then three wedges of it stacked and sandwiched with sweet cream. Lose the cream and serve the tart warm, and it would be mighty.
I get the feeling that the kitchen has made a strategic decision to prepare much of the food ahead of service. Hopefully as they get into their stride, they'll simply move the pre-cooking closer to service time, for more spontaneous, less refrigerated eating.
In the meantime, Sam's is a terrific bar (good cocktails, great mini-booths, zoomy lighting ) and a nice, comfy diner; the sort of place you would choose to come to when you don't feel like cooking and you just want to relax and have a drink. And while Rick may not be holding up the bar when you get there, as he is in a picture on the website (www.samsbrasserie.co.uk), Sam himself seems to be on the floor at all times. I guess that's why it's called Sam's, and not Rick's.
13. Sam's Brasserie 11 Barley Mow Passage, London W4, tel: 020 8987 0555. Lunch and dinner daily, around £85 for two, including wine and service
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 hightly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: Other first-name-basis restaurants
Harry's Place 17 High Street, Great Gonerby, Lincolnshire tel: 01476 561 780 Harry and Caroline Hallam run what has to be the world's smallest Michelin-starred restaurant. Occupying the front parlour of a residential Georgian building, it can hold just 10 diners - preferably skinny ones. It makes for a memorable evening, as does Harry's Scottish salmon in sauternes sauce, roasted Lincolnshire woodcock, or apple and calvados soufflé.
Jessica's 1 Montague Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, tel: 0121 455 0999 Jessica's is turning out some of the best food in Birmingham. After garnering a long list of rave reviews, Hibiscus-trained Glynn Parnell won a much-deserved Michelin star this year. Try sea bass with apple purée, pigs'-trotter ravioli, smoked bacon and glazed baby onions; and brill in garlic milk with cep risotto.
Tom's Delicatessen 226 Westbourne Grove London W11, tel: 020 7221 8818 Tom Conran is busy building the alternative Conran restaurant empire, with a string of successful Notting Hill eateries including a gastropub (The Cow), an American diner (Lucky Seven) and this always buzzy food store and café. It's so popular with yummy mummies, and French and American expats that you have to queue for the full English breakfasts, copious salads and much lauded eggs benedict.
Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at firstname.lastname@example.orgReuse content