Food @ The Muse currently offers what must be one of the best lunch deals in London -- two decent sized bowls of freshly prepared, vibrant food for just £4.95. You could have roasted prawn and pomelo salad with ginger, shallots, lime and roasted peanuts to start and partner it with the ultimate BLT - a sprawling assembly of thick slices of excellent back bacon, served with rocket, roasted cherry tomatoes and sourdough toast. Or you might go for a bowl of Vietnamese pho, spiced with ginger, cinnamon and star anise and then top up with a warm salad of grilled chorizo and lentils, served with a green chilli and lemon zest dressing. And as you eat it you may find yourself wondering contentedly whether the slender margin between what the raw ingredients have cost and what you're paying for the finished dish will leave much over for the cook's labour.
There is just one catch, though. If our experience is at all representative you may not have a job by the time you finally get back to the office. The clock is nudging towards 2.30pm, and we've been in the restaurant for an hour and 10 minutes by the time our food arrives. It's called Food @ The Muse because it's located in a Portobello Road art gallery, but as my companion points out it might equally be because you spend a lot of time thinking about where on earth the food has got to.
When you look at the restaurant it's easy to see how delays might arise. The publicity release describes the space as "intimate", which is estate-agent's speak for a confined wedge of space that requires the larger tables to be canted at an angle to get them in at all. At one side there's a small galley kitchen with room for two very small chefs or one large one - and since Tom Kime, the head chef here is tall and rangy it must feel very crowded indeed when he has to share. At the back the room narrows still further and, through the slats of some floor-to-ceiling blinds, you can see into an untidy gallery/studio space - the overspill from which is displayed on the walls of the restaurant. So the mood is a slightly self-congratulatory bohemianism - so much so that you feel almost gauche enquiring whether your food is going to arrive before evening service begins.
At lunchtime you're offered two menus - the tasting selection, and starters and brunch dishes - all of which exemplify Kime's interest in tart, loud flavours and strident contrasts. He's cooked at the River Cafe and David Thompson's great Sydney restaurant, Darley Street Thai, so the adjectives you're likely to find yourself reaching for sound a bit like a gastronomic version of the seven dwarfs: Zesty, Tangy, Zippy, Fiery, Spicy, Tingly and Punchy. This is not cooking that tantalises you with subtle, tip-of-the-tongue, pastel flavours. It goes in hard for the taste-buds with the primary colours of cooking - hot, sour, sweet and salty. We begin with a classic French fish soup with a properly pungent rouille (£7.50) in which a well-flavoured broth conceals a thick piscine dredge of meat. Thwarted appetite alone would make pretty much anything taste good by the time we're served but the prawn and pomelo salad is delicious as well, glassy chunks of citrussy fruit neatly balancing the shellfish. And the chorizo salad with spiked lentils is good too. In fact the only disappointment is the grilled chicken breast with ginger, chilli and lime, grilled asparagus and Thai basil - the asparagus is a touch undercooked and the chicken has been chopped into a kind of protein rubble, but I suspect my taste-buds are also beginning to flag under the relentless small-arms fire of high-velocity flavours.
Fortunately the desserts offer a kind of cease-fire - or at least they do if you steer clear of the chocolate pudding with orange, ginger and dried chilli or the mango and papaya salad with mint and ginger. Spiced nectarine tart and lemon cream pot with summer berries (£5) are both fine and soothingly tonal in their composition.
In the evening they offer more ambitious main courses - all similarly dedicated to the notion of piquancy and attack. Lunch is good enough to suggest it would be worth trying but be prepared to wait for your pleasure.
Food @ The Muse, 269 Portobello Rd, London W11 (020-7792 1111)
Meal for two, without wine, about £40
SIDE ORDERS: THE ART OF FOOD
By Caroline Stacey
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