Le Vacherin, London W4

Le Vacherin cheese is only available for four months each year. But that hasn't stopped a restaurant being opened to honour this glorious French delicacy
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I can understand naming a restaurant Aubergine or Nutmeg. Such things are everyday. But naming it after a mountain cheese that is only in form for four months of the year seems a little short-sighted. Calling your business Le Vacherin is rather like calling it Purple-Sprouting, Forced Rhubarb, or Kentish Cobnut.

I can understand naming a restaurant Aubergine or Nutmeg. Such things are everyday. But naming it after a mountain cheese that is only in form for four months of the year seems a little short-sighted. Calling your business Le Vacherin is rather like calling it Purple-Sprouting, Forced Rhubarb, or Kentish Cobnut.

On the other hand, it is a compelling reason to visit when the stuff is in season. Vacherin - whether the noble Vacherin du Haut-Doubs of France or the Vacherin Mont D'Or of Switzerland - is made only in winter months when the Montbeliarde and Pie Rouge de l'Est cattle have come down from their mountain pastures, and is at its peak from mid-November to the end of February, ie now.

Coming in out of the bitter cold of Chiswick's South Parade, Le Vach is immediately warm and likeable, pushing all the good-old-French-bistro buttons with its bistro chairs, eye-level strip mirrors, lace curtains and quirky art. It is the perfect spot for a Valentine's Day dinner (tomorrow, don't you know), with its tables for two, frosted windows and gentle chanteuse music. Even tonight, couples outnumber any other groups, and there is much sharing of dishes and clinking of glasses.

The spot lighting and formal chandeliers could be more romantic, I suppose, and tables are small and covered with an easy-wipe cloth in that practical Gallic way. Ah, but there lies the holy grail: half a dozen little wooden boxes of Vacherin sit ceremoniously on a special shelf in an alcove dividing the two dining-rooms.

You can start with one, served as a shared dish with new boiled potatoes, cornichons and Bayonne ham (£14 for two), which is the sort of mountain food that requires you bobsled all the way home. Tonight, you can even have it served with sliced truffles for £22. But it is better, I think, to leave it to the end, when you can enjoy it as a cheese complete in itself, rather than reducing it to the role of a fondue or sauce.

Of course, there are things other than Vacherin on the menu. Chef Malcolm Johns is well-versed in the repertoire of French cooking, having worked with Herbert Berger at Café Royal before becoming head chef at St Quentin and later at the Bluebird Private Members' Club. So it's a bistro-happy menu of snails in garlic butter, duck rillettes with cornichons, confit pork belly with Puy lentils, whole-roasted free-range chicken for two and braised ox cheek in red-wine mushrooms.

A petite salade Saint Jacques et Boudin Noir (£6.75) is the very picture of French bistro compatability. Plump, wobbly, nicely glazed scallops sit on an ooze of sweet, black pudding surrounded by baby leaves and witlof, topped with two smoky, scorchy rashers of Alsace bacon. A likeable, honest, successful dish.

Less successful is the stuffed duck neck with a brochette of duck hearts (£6.25), the best part of which is a luscious sliver of fresh fois gras topping the thick round of sausage. The sausage itself is a bit blah, and the duck hearts, while suggesting the chef buys his ducks "entire", are no great bonus, being tough and dry.

The word cassoulet on a menu has the same effect as subliminal advertising, in that I am left utterly without resistance and must-or-der-imm-ed-iate-ly-or-die. Le Vacherin's version (£14.95) is a crusty, dense little pot filled with the tiniest haricot beans, some very good saucisson, shreddy confit duck and good tender porky bits. The flavours aren't bad, but there is no overall "cassoulet" experience, as the whole thing feels unsauced yet oily. Again, a bonus gift of gizzards as a garnish adds nothing due to over-cooking. The no-frills Drilles Domaine d'Escausses 2002 (£17.30) from Gaillac gives a more authentic flavour of the south-west.

Entrecote and frites (£16), another one of those subliminally irresistible dishes, comes with a tarragon-packed béarnaise and a bowl of what I would call chips rather than frites. It's a good-but-not-great piece of meat cooked with care and workmanlike precision.

Desserts do not stray from the bistro genre: tarte aux pommes, chocolate fondant, profiteroles au chocolat, crème brûlée and prune tart. But that is all academic, for here comes the Vacherin.

It arrives in its own box all wonky and scorched from the oven, its surrounding band of spruce bark lending a curious balsamy accent to the flavour. Under its washed rind crust the cheese undulates like molten lava and tastes sweet, rich, creamy and gloriously nutty.

Apparently, current stocks of Vacherin will see the restaurant through to March. After that, it will change its name to Boursin. Not really; I am told there is a very respectable goat's cheese version that will fill the gap.

It will have to be bloody good to be this good, however. This is Magnificent, which, perhaps unfairly, shows up a few of the weaknesses around it. Everything else has been alright, but nothing else has been Magnificent. It's not that sort of place. To compare it to two other bistros run by non-French chefs, it falls short of Racine on glamour and quality, and Chez Max on homely integrity. What it is, however, is a nice, modest establishment offering very good value all year round, and one very good cheese from November to March.

13 Le Vacherin 76-77 South Parade, London W4, tel: 020 8742 2121. Lunch Tue-Sat. Brunch Sun. Dinner daily. Around £95 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 where cheese matters

Corse Lawn House Corse Lawn, Gloucestershire, tel: 01452 780 771 For cheese addicts who like their platter to come with a few extras - like a pool, helipad and tennis court - this red-brick Queen Anne country hotel should do nicely. Impressively, the place won the Best Cheese Board award at last year's British Cheese Awards. There is always a board of 12 cheeses, all supplied by the wonderful Fine Cheese Company in Bath.

The Cheese Society 1 St Martin's Lane, Lincoln, tel 01522 511 003 Kate O'Meara began selling cheese by mail order in 1997, and followed it up with a shop in 2000. One thing led to another and, by 2002, there was a café and bistro to boot. It's a relaxed, charming little place, perfect for coffee and cake (cheesecake, naturally) or something heartier, such as melted raclette over hot new potatoes, or double-baked cheese soufflé.

La Fromagerie Café 2-4 Moxon Street, London W1, tel: 020 7935 0341 To stand in the middle of Patricia Michelson's temperature-controlled glassed-in cheese-room and inhale deeply is to feel yourself at the centre of an extraordinary cheese microclimate. Take your place at the communal table and order a wine from the racks to go with your ploughman's lunch, ricotta-stuffed chicken breast or bread and cheese board.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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