The New End in Hampstead is a place where refinement meets earthiness, and is never better than when it forgets its manners

When you review restaurants you expect to take the rough with the smooth, but you don't always expect to find them in the same establishment. What I mean by "rough" is that kind of cooking which regards peasant simplicity as a moral example and has a fondness for the yobbos of the vegetable patch and the less decorous parts of a carcass. By "smooth" I mean those rosette-chasing airs and graces which involve dinky little coffee cups of soup and tiny ramekins of crÿme brûlée. And while there is a place for both of these - since diners sometimes like to fantasise that they've just come in from five hours at the plough, and at other times that they are aristocratic invalids at the court of Louis XIV - it is slightly unusual to find both under the same roof. To find, for example, pig's head fondant and pickled cabbage jostling up against foie gras and pigeon terrine.

When you review restaurants you expect to take the rough with the smooth, but you don't always expect to find them in the same establishment. What I mean by "rough" is that kind of cooking which regards peasant simplicity as a moral example and has a fondness for the yobbos of the vegetable patch and the less decorous parts of a carcass. By "smooth" I mean those rosette-chasing airs and graces which involve dinky little coffee cups of soup and tiny ramekins of crÿme brûlée. And while there is a place for both of these - since diners sometimes like to fantasise that they've just come in from five hours at the plough, and at other times that they are aristocratic invalids at the court of Louis XIV - it is slightly unusual to find both under the same roof. To find, for example, pig's head fondant and pickled cabbage jostling up against foie gras and pigeon terrine.

The New End restaurant appears to be in two minds about its décor too. At first glance the look is upmarket pizza parlour - raw brick along one wall, quarry tiles on the floor and bentwood chairs at the tables. One side of the room sports strenuously colourful collages of lutes and guitars, the other monochrome photographs of exotic blooms. A pair of wall-mounted speakers ominously flank the front door. But the linen, the elegant silverware, and the cream paint belong to a different kind of establishment - one that understands that it's best to underplay things when your customers wear this much gold. The New End, you see, is in Hampstead - where for a while now demand has considerably exceeded the supply of upper-bracket restaurants within walking distance of one's bijou residence.

This balance of rough and smooth is filling a niche perfectly, judging by the crowd when we went. But delicacy sometimes proved to be a liability in Tom Ilic's cooking. The first thing we ate, a little amuse-gueule of broad bean and fresh garlic soup with chorizo oil, was surprisingly diffident given those ingredients. Rude tastes had been sent to finishing school - and though the result was perfectly palatable it didn't advertise a kitchen that could distil flavours so much as tame them. The same was true of the tiny crÿme brûlée which arrived before our dessert - it was flavoured with pistachio, but if we hadn't been told this by the waiter I don't think either of us could have guessed correctly.

I'm happy to say that the rest of the meal was less softly spoken. I began with braised pig's cheek served with garlic and parsley mash because I will try anything once. I now regret the many years I have wasted not eating pig's cheeks. It is not a dish for those who mind gelatinous strands clinging to the tines of their fork. These two glossy knobs of meat, surrounded by a sticky reduction of their red wine and port marinade, were unctuously delicious. A pity it isn't listed on the menu as "hog jowl", since part of the pleasure of such dishes is the sense of culinary recklessness they give.

My wife's smoked haddock tortellini with buttered leeks and pancetta was less successful - the haddock just a touch fibrous to provide a satisfactory filling, and not quite enough of a counterpoint to the various saltinesses surrounding it.

Main courses were both good. Sea bass on a red wine reduction was perfectly cooked but upstaged by its accompanying vegetable - a truffled potato gratin of such fragrant, loamy richness that it deserved top billing on the menu. Nothing else on the plate could match the gallic charisma of the spuds - like having Gérard Depardieu suddenly pitch up as the manservant in an am-dram adaptation of a Collette novel. Breast of Gressingham duck was excellent too - the meat pink and perfectly yielding, the caramelised endive and red onion marmalade delivering an alternating hit of sweet and bitter to go with it.

Service, friendly and informal, also has its moments of earthy directness. Asked for assistance with the dessert menu by a party of prosperous grey-pounders sitting next to us, the waitress began by asking them "Are you feeling stuffed?" This met with avuncular approval from the male diners, and it's not a question you would expect to hear at the Connaught.

I don't know what they eventually settled for but we ordered the rhubarb with panna cotta and a pear tarte tatin. The first was pretty near perfect, the rhubarb retaining some of its distinctive tartness withoutstripping the enamel from your teeth, and the panna cotta delicately flavoured with lemongrass and ginger - the delicacy being an advantage in this case. My own pear tarte tatin suffered a little from having been disassembled, the pears freshly poached on top of the tart and the caramel traced in restaurant arabesque beneath it, and seemed to me to miss the point of the dish. A sticky hugger-mugger of fruit, toffee and pastry is what makes it a classic. Still, there are many worse sins in a restaurant than refinement, and when the New End forgets its manners it's excellent.

 

The New End, 102 Heath Street Hampstead NW3 (020 7431 4423)www.thenewend.co.uk. Tue 6.30-11pm, Wed-Sun 12-3pm and 6.30-11pm. All major cards accepted. No disabled access.

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