Morgan M, London N7

Granita, where Tony and Gordon made their famous power-sharing pact, has gone the way of old Labour. Morgan M, however, might just take its place
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In keeping with the conspiracy theme this week, I planned to review Islington's Granita, renowned as the restaurant where Gordon Met Tony some nine years ago. The phone, however, rang without answer, prompting all sorts of conspiracy theories of its own.

In keeping with the conspiracy theme this week, I planned to review Islington's Granita, renowned as the restaurant where Gordon Met Tony some nine years ago. The phone, however, rang without answer, prompting all sorts of conspiracy theories of its own.

It turns out that in spite of being revived by Sofra's Huseyin Ozer early last year, Granita had closed its doors. But Islington being Islington, it took all of a minute to find an alternative place where two ambitious New Labourites could meet these days if they wished to speak, um, discreetly.

Morgan M, Islington's current restaurant du jour, recently opened in an off-the-beaten-track stretch of Liverpool Road, near Highbury Corner. No Upper Street address for Brown to joke about, and no Italian rabbit and polenta for Blair to order, but it's an attractively light-filled large corner space with enough room between tables to make eavesdropping a challenge.

Morgan Meunier was previously head chef of the Admiralty restaurant in Somerset House, where his finely wrought classic French cooking and innovative garden menus won over the legal lunch crowd.

Morgan M, with its white walls and frosted windows, is a far cry from the chandeliered splendour of Somerset House. The chef's own paintings hang on the walls over double-clothed tables set with good glassware and sabre-like Robert Welch cutlery.

You could well be in one of those chef-owned restaurants in the Parisian banlieue - the menu is unreservedly French, the wine list is exclusively French (right up to Mouton 88 at £720) and the staff are unmistakably French.

I'm surprised that the reconstructed Islington lefties in their deliberately casual jackets put up with this overt Francophilia, but they probably all have homes in France these days. Besides, it's the price that gets them in. I'd put a market value of £35 on a three-course dinner of this complexity. Here it is £25, if you steer clear of supplements. There is also a five-course autumn menu at £34 and a five-course vegetarian menu at £29, but I am always wary of doing the degustation thing in a small restaurant without enormous kitchen resources.

It appears Monsieur Meunier has set his cap at a Michelin-star rating - you can tell from the pyramid of rolled cloth towels in the loos and the two shelves devoted to nothing but the little red book.

The food reflects a training with Michel Guerard in south-west of France, and Marc Meneau in Burgundy. So there are ballotines of foie gras, paves of sea bass and millefeuilles of pear and prune.

An amuse-geule billed as creamy celery soup tastes of smoothly refined celeriac, threaded with a sharp citrussy tang that leaves the palate wondering. No such distractions with the first course (supplement, £5.50), a platter of three huge, wobbly, dramatically seared scallops mingling with slivers of sautéed ceps, and a baby food onion soubise. It is very good, although calling a wilt of Belgian endive on a wisp of pastry a white chicory tart tatin is an overclaim.

Three earthy, plump ravioli of root vegetables and snails poached in white wine are full of feral forest-floor flavours which merge effortlessly with a full bodied, but not too sticky red-wine jus.

Little of real interest lurks around the lower reaches of the wine list, so I force myself up to a £35 Regis de Valliere Volnay 2000 with a main course of roasted red-leg partridge with cabbage, chestnut, liver and a very Anglais bread sauce.

The wine is impressive, the partridge is not. The skinless (why?) breast has taken on a leathery appearance, and all is overcooked. A crouton spread with liver is soggy, and a dehydrated slice of apple adds little. The chestnut purée is lovely, the bread sauce excellent, but I find little I want to eat them with.

Another main course of grilled pave of halibut has its skin replaced with a tile of honeyed pancetta, and sits in a pool of braised Puy lentils, deliciously crunchy chiffonaded cabbage and girolles, the lot brimming with cream. It's good, but without the cream, it would have been cleaner, lighter and 10 years younger.

A pineapple soufflé tastes as lovely as it sounds, but mine has souff'd before reaching the table, while a liquid-centred chocolate moelleux (pronounced, should you wish to order it, mwar-lyerr) cutely offered with a choice of 45 per cent Cocoa Barry milk chocolate or hardcore 70 per cent Valrhona Guanaja, arrives barely warm.

The staff, most of whom have worked with Meunier before, seem distant and automated - ie, I suppose, French. Pacing is a little slow, and there's not much joy around, although the chef visits every table, bringing a little kitchen energy with him.

It's a dying art, this classic French dining experience, with its peeled grapes, dehydrated fruit slices and five-course tasting menus. Unless its flawlessly good, or capable of stimulating great joy, it can just appear fussy and dated. You have to wonder if its "creative" labour-intensive style has not had its day - but we'll leave that little theory for another time. *

14 Morgan M 489 Liverpool Road, London N7, tel: 020 7609 3560. Lunch Wednesday to Friday and Sunday; dinner Tuesday to Saturday. About £110 for dinner with 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...

Other chef-owned French restaurants

Punchbowl Inn Crosthwaite, Cumbria, tel: 01539 568 237 It's not every 17th-century coaching inn that can boast a recipient of the Meilleur Ouvrier de Grande Bretagne. Manchester born chef/owner Steven Doherty cooked with the great Alain Chapel in Lyon and is a former head chef of Le Gavroche. These days, he is turning out very 21st-century oven-baked beetroot tarts, pan-fried venison with fondant potatoes and chocolate and ginger tart.

Bistro Aix 54 Topsfield Parade, Tottenham Lane, London N8, tel: 020 8340 6346 Opening in Crouch End last year, Bistro Aix quickly established itself as one of north London's favourite dining options. Chef/owner Lynne Sanders may be American, but she cooks with a heavy French accent, having done kitchen time with French chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Jacques Cagna. Regulars come back for the pan-seared foie gras, pancetta-wrapped monkfish and - especially - the great frites.

Fleur de Sel Manley's Hill, Storrington, West Sussex, tel: 01903 742 331 Housed in a 16th-century cottage is a formal fine diner of great finesse and charm. The food is every bit as tasteful as the room, thanks to the skills of chef/owner Michel Perraud. Expect precision cooking: venison and guinea fowl terrine, fillets of John Dory in a wild mushroom and sorrel sauce, and exotic desserts such as carpaccio of mango with orange sauce and almond ice-cream.

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