Morgan Meunier is a talented young chef who has chosen to build his myth with a snappy brand name. Like Eminem, Morgan M sounds youthful, modern and democratic. Quite unlike the reality, in fact, which is a serious, formal restaurant serving meticulously crafted, classical French food.

Morgan Meunier is a talented young chef who has chosen to build his myth with a snappy brand name. Like Eminem, Morgan M sounds youthful, modern and democratic. Quite unlike the reality, in fact, which is a serious, formal restaurant serving meticulously crafted, classical French food.

Morgan M opened a few months ago, in a part of north Islington not known for its fine dining opportunities. It's so far up the Liverpool Road it's practically in Liverpool. I went at the special request of local resident Nick Hornby, who wanted to see whether Morgan M lived up to its rave reviews.

The location, and the converted pub premises, led us to expect something a little more, well, local. So we were surprised to erupt into a super-posh dining room, the kind of place more usually found in Mayfair or Chelsea. The Friday-night dinner crowd was like an advert for affluent New Britain: good-looking, prosperous, multi-ethnic. How come everyone but us knew to dress up?

Like Marshall Mathers, Morgan Meunier is prone to a touch of self-mythologising; the walls are lined with his paintings (much more primitive than his cooking) and the menu carries a signed message from him: "Only when a guest is touched by the spirit of my dishes have I succeeded." Better than, "Wanna see me stick 9in nails through my eyelids," I suppose.

Meunier was head chef at The Admiralty before setting up on his own. His cooking here is competitively priced to reflect the location; three courses cost £25, with five choices per course (though several incur supplements). Boldly, none of the major meat groups is represented on the menu; of the five main-course choices, three are game and two fish.

Our amuse-bouches were presented to us as big white plates holding a single haricot bean, three shavings of lemon zest and a dash of pesto. It's the tiniest starter ever! Then the waiter returned with a steaming jug of Tarbes bean soup, and a little speech about the provenance of the bean. There would be many such speeches over the course of the evening, together with a quantity of napkin-fluffing and glass-filling which made it impossible to maintain a conversation. The service ran like clockwork: we just wished we couldn't hear it ticking quite so loudly.

Still, this is a special-occasion place, and the good news is that the food really is special. A nicer thing couldn't happen to a snail than to be poached in Chablis and folded into silky, duxelle-stuffed ravioli. Game terrine was beautifully firm-textured, while the sweetness of perfectly seared scallops was cut by chicory tarte tatin.

Nick was too busy musing on why Chicory Tip had chosen their name to give his starter a thorough appraisal, but he immediately recognised that Morgan M deserves its plaudits, declaring it "the best restaurant in Islington". In fact, it was a little too good for our purposes - namely, a nice relaxed chat and in the case of three of us, a cigarette. I spent quite a bit of the evening sitting on my own watching smoke signals rise from the pavement, as my guests enjoyed the only uninterrupted conversations of the evening.

For main courses, two of us went for game (or "ze games" as one of the all-French team sweetly put it) and two for fish, and on the whole the gamers did best. Duck (Deben Valley mallard, to be precise) was deconstructed, with roasted pink breast served alongside leg confit. Redleg partridge came with very English trimmings - chestnut purée, bread sauce and braised red cabbage, plus a crouton topped with the liver.

The fish dishes - seared sea-bass and grilled halibut - both swam in creamy sauces which were deemed redundant, a tribute to the quality of the fish rather than a criticism of the sauces. Indeed, the shellfish cappuccino which came with the bass was superb; "only it should be a Grande, not a Venti," as Harry put it.

Desserts were put together as carefully as the rest of the meal, though their appearance seemed to whip the staff up to a new level of nervy stiffness. With trembling hands, one waiter broke the crust of a dark chocolate moelleux to pour in Armagnac milk, while another was concentrating so hard as he bent to dot coulis around Nick's fig tart that he blew into Harry's ear.

Despite the set-price menu structure, we ended up paying £50 a head, which marks Morgan M out as very much a destination restaurant rather than a local crowd-pleaser. "It's one of the best meals I've ever had, anywhere," Nick concluded. "But you can't have a conversation, you can't smoke and you can't really relax." Such minor quibbles apart, though, it was great.

SECOND HELPINGS: SMOKE-FREE DINING

By Caroline Stacey

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