La Buvette, Richmond, Surrey

We don't get the opportunity to dine al fresco very often in this country, but La Buvette seems determined to make the most of breaks between the rain
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Indy Lifestyle Online

And so we prepare once again to bid a fond farewell to summer: the ripe cherries, exquisite white nectarines and juicy, sun-warmed tomatoes, all soon to be gone for another hundred zillion years - the average length of a British winter - along with the snacky lunches on the balcony, the late-night barbecues, and simple summer pleasures such as a cold beer on a hot day.

But I'm not going to give up without a fight. Tradition dictates that the August Bank Holiday weekend, known in my part of the world as the Notting Hill Bloody Carnival, heralds the last of the good weather. This means that I have just two more weeks in which to wear baggy shorts, drink rosé, and sit outside eating shellfish. So I book a table in the courtyard of La Buvette in Richmond. It rains, so I cancel. I book again. It rains again, so I cancel.

I have booked once again for this evening. It has just stopped raining. The clouds are grey, but it is otherwise mild and slightly muggy. By now, I am desperate. Summer is running out fast, and so am I - out the door and off to Richmond. By the time I get there, muggy has become balmy, grey skies are now clear, and the mood is most definitely al fresco.

La Buvette is little sister to the much-frequented, Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning Brula in nearby Twickenham, which was first set up seven years ago by Bruce "Bru" Duckett and Lawrence "La" Hartley. The new restaurant is set in a former refectory in the shadows of St Mary Magdalene church. It's a pretty little place, with a large square brick-paved courtyard lined with hanging baskets and creeping ivy, protected from the elements by a vast white Italian market umbrella. The outdoor tables are covered in white paper, chairs are faux-bamboo brasserie style, and the whole thing is very conducive to ordering a chilled glass of lively and intense Jean-Marc Crochet Sancerre (£6 a glass, or £17 for the bottle) from the fairly priced French wine list. My fellow diners seem happy enough - mainly family groups, as well as three darling white-haired, seventy-somethings, who gaily order pitchers of red wine and proceed to eat their way through most of the menu.

As at Brula, the food is very French bistro, designed to make you feel as if you're on your holidays, with escargots de Bourgogne, ballottine of foie gras, and beef fillet with green peppercorn sauce. Being in denial about summer's lease, I must have the house speciality: plateau de fruits de mer (£19.50), a main course which can be happily shared as a starter by two.

It's perfectly acceptable, but seems to be more of a seafood platter than plateau de fruits de mer, with most of the seafood cooked, and only three fleshy Irish oysters left raw, fresh and briny. The small, cooked clams are good; a pile of small pink prawns look tired but taste fine; and the mussels, not quite in season, look dry and shrivelled.

Unusually, there is a grilled squid salad as well, and some very good crab meat, served in a little pot rather than in its own shell as it is in France. So it ends up being a polite, British experience rather than a messy, noisy, sucking, cracking French one.

An onglet steak (£13.50) is grilled rare, served with a wheel of garlic and herb butter and a dish of crisp, golden frites - or chips, as the waitress calls them. It's a carbon copy of a multitude of steak frites found in French bistros all over the world; no better, no worse. The onglet, or beef flank, is a curious cut: deeply flavoured but with a dense muscular chew.

Once you leave the shellfish behind, you get some good value for money. Roast lamb chump (£13.25) is a sumptuous piece of meat, giving and moist, combined in a too-small shallow bowl with mild-mannered merguez sausage, double-shelled broad beans, dark, soupy juices, and dollops of a sweet, mild harissa ragout. In spite of the harissa, it is not a particularly spicy dish, but flavours are loll-about likeable.

Two good endings: the first, cherry clafoutis (£4.75), is a gentle, sweet batter-like crepe dusted with icing sugar, studded with warm, lush cherries. The second, a French cheese platter (£7.50), is remarkably generous with its five decent wedges, including a rich, creamy Pierre Robert, a bloomy Fourme d'Ambert, a nutty Tête de Moine, and a divinely runny Munster from Alsace. Also remarkable is the fact that they are served at room temperature in peak condition, and that they are served by someone who actually knows what they are.

La Buvette is another good, comfortable, well-run, neighbourly French bistro that is clearly aimed at building up its regulars rather than Michelin stars. It doesn't feel particularly French, which is perhaps not surprising given that it is in England, run by English people for English people, under English skies.

The good news is that the dining rooms inside are warm, cosy and candle-lit, the windows draped with velvet and the tables cosily wrapped with double cloths - just the place in which to wait out the hundred zillion years until next summer.

13 La Buvette 6 Church Walk, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8940 6264. Around £80 for dinner for two, including wine and service. Lunch and dinner served daily

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 French bistro cooking

Didier & Stephanie's 56 St Helens Road, Swansea, tel: 01792 655 603 Didier Suve and Stephanie Danvel serve classic regional French cooking at this welcoming little restaurant in the town centre. Swansea food lovers can close their eyes and think of France as they tuck into Puy lentil soup, snails with garlic, and saddle of wild rabbit with mustard sauce. For pud, there's tarte Tatin and vanilla crème brûlée.

Le Petit Max Riverside Plaza, 14 Chatfield Road, London SW11, tel: 020 7223 0999 Serial Francophile, Max Renzland has opened a string of French bistros including Monsieur Max, Chez Max, and an earlier Petit Max in Hampton Wick. His latest offering once again serves up French bourgeois cooking in sympathetic bistro surrounds. The gang's all here: coq au vin, foie gras, Bayonne ham with cornichons, confit belly pork and the must-have pot au chocolat; all done with Gallic precision.

La Garrigue 31 Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 557 3032 This small, friendly outpost of French cooking combines the feel of a modern French restaurant with the soul of a bistro. Chef Jean Michel Gauffre specialises in the rustic cooking of the Languedoc region in Southern France. This means Castelnaudary cassoulet, saddle of rabbit with celeriac, soupe de poissons and salad of confit duck gizzards.

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