As a rule, restaurateurs divide into two categories: those who worry, and those who don't. The worriers are there on the floor tweaking tablecloths, pouring wine and generally sweating it out on the coalface alongside their staff. The worry-nots tend to ply their trade in a more remote way, operating through delegation and direction, bringing in business by dint of connections and publicity.
One of London's most under-rated restaurateurs, Jan Woroniecki, is the practical, hands-on, tablecloth-tweaking, wine-pouring type. He worries, but only in a positive, how-to-make-it-better way, and his restaurants, Kensington's Wodka and Southwark's Baltic, are projections of his own personality - vodka-friendly, Eastern European in feel, charismatic and nicely laid back.
I remember the early days of Baltic, when the front door was yet to arrive, and the loos still lacked little niceties, like walls. Woroniecki held the place together through sheer will, rallying the troops, pouring vodkas and sending out caviar blinis, until it got a life of its own.
Different neighbourhood, different food, but here he is again, in the thick of things, meeting, greeting, to-ing and fro-ing. What was once the self-consciously casual, Provençal-ish Maquis in Hammersmith is now the more assured, grown-up Chez Kristof, a large, square dining-room glowing with candlelight, flanked by plush banquettes and walls of chocolate and cream. There is no art, no major lighting installations and no designer overload, apart from a single, spidery amber chandelier that hangs over a Hollywood-style circular booth. Tonight, the action spills outside on to the street under large retractable blue canvas awnings.
Woroniecki has departed from his Eastern European heritage to create a modern west London version of a Left Bank bistro, complete with paper-over-cloth tables, curvy zinc bar and regional French menu running to soupe au pistou, bouillabaisse and cassoulet.
Even with a lot of people out of town for holidays, Chez Kristof had little chance of a silent opening and time to find its feet. Woroniecki's many fans, a mixed bunch of the fresh and faded, rushed in and turned the place into an instant party, so the so-called "soft" opening with discounted prices turns into a bloody hard one for the new team, headed by ex-Wodka chef Nicholas Pound and manager Walter Le Cocq.
All the things you expect from a not-walking-but-crawling restaurant naturally come to pass: orders going to the wrong tables, highly pregnant women gnawing on bread for two hours waiting for food, ice buckets crashing to the floor. Then again, these things can and do happen in restaurants that have been up and running for 10 years. The trick, when visiting a new restaurant, is to work out if the faults are fixable or not. When the restaurateur is the worrying type, they usually are.
Over a couple of meals, I can report that the menu is seductively come-hither, and the cooking very much together. High points: two main courses, both served in rustic cast-iron pots. One contains thick slabs of tender roasted lamb (£12) carved from the leg, with a sweetly flavoured Provençal braise of red peppers, shallots and courgettes - a real winner for the price. The other is that impossible-to-resist southwestern bean stew, cassoulet (£12.50), an absolute hero made with little white lingot beans that are perfectly judged, neither starchy nor soft. A breadcrumb crust protects the Toulouse sausage, duck confit and tender pork, worthy participants all.
Almost great: a nicely crafted eel terrine (£6), which would have been a stunner if it were a little less fridge cold. Good: a char-grilled coquelet (£13.50) complete with the requisite crisp-scorchy bits; a whole red mullet (£16) grilled and served with a lovely crush of flat-leaf parsley, green olives and tomato; and a sludgy, comfortable tomatoey braise of octopus and baby squid in a little terracotta pot (£6.50).
Just OK: a Perigourdine salad (£6.50) of curly endive capped with a sliver of pink foie gras terrine and surrounded by fragments of frazzled duck confit and gizzards, which could have been improved with more confit and gesiers and less frazzling; and a rich creamy tart of agen prune and banana (£4.50) that was too rich, too creamy, and too banana-y. There is only one person who can get away with suggesting banana as a dessert and that's Nigel Slater - or perhaps Graham Norton.
The all-French wine list is deliciously diverse and democratically priced, with 38 bottles at £25 or under. A fresh and easy Domaine Rollin Hautes Côtes de Beaune 2001 (£23) does the job without any fuss or bother.
The condition of the cheeses on an all-French platter (£6) augurs well for the sister deli next door, which will hopefully be open by the time you read this.
Despite the odd stuff-up amid the chaos, Chez Kristof looks set to be a great local restaurant even if you don't live locally, built to last by an actively involved restaurateur. No, it's not Le Gavroche, but it does the sort of food you feel like eating. In fact, it is very close to the sort of food I always feel like cooking at home, as an antidote to normal British restaurant food.
The name, by the way, pays homage to Woroniecki's father's eponymous restaurant which once stood on the Wodka site. Bet he was a worrier, too.
15 Chez Kristof 111 Hammersmith Grove, London W6, tel: 020 8741 1177. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Around £75 for dinner 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 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: More restaurants-plus-delis
Love Saves the Day 345 Deansgate, Manchester, tel: 0161 834 2266 It's a cute name, a cute idea, and a very cute place. One of two LSTDs that have livened up the Manchester food scene (the Tib Street original opened in 1994), the place combines an easy-going café, well-stocked deli and knowledgably run wine shop. Eat in for brekky and lunch on a ploughman's, soup, or sausages and mash, or take home the fixings and DIY.
The Real Eating Company 86 Western Road, Hove, East Sussex, tel: 01273 221 444 "Real food" is a term rapidly descending into cliché, but here it means the business. Downstairs, a 35-seat restaurant serves no-fuss, full-flavoured food from potted crab on toasted Poilâne to calves' liver, mash, bacon and onion gravy. Spanish and Italian charcuterie platters are put together in the upstairs deli and you can take home just about anything from cheese to bread and veggies to Belgian chocolate shoes. Yep, shoes.
Villandry 170 Great Portland Street, London W1, tel: 7631 3131 Villandry is a snappy foodstore, a buzzy bar and a cool, modern white-washed restaurant rolled into one. Breakfast on boiled eggs with soldiers, grab a coffee and pain au chocolat, a tapas snack with a glass of something nice, or a slap-up dinner of soy-braised pork belly with noodles. Or take home some bread and cheeses and a delectable cake.
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