A sleek, new restaurant in north London does everything rather well, including the waiters

If a smugness rating were ever introduced for London residents, the inhabitants of Primrose Hill would surely top the chart. Their lovely corner of north London has it all, and they know it. Elegant crescents and illustrious neighbours, just like Notting Hill. Villagey charm and literary cachet, just like Hampstead. And staggering, recession-proof house prices, just like Mayfair.

If a smugness rating were ever introduced for London residents, the inhabitants of Primrose Hill would surely top the chart. Their lovely corner of north London has it all, and they know it. Elegant crescents and illustrious neighbours, just like Notting Hill. Villagey charm and literary cachet, just like Hampstead. And staggering, recession-proof house prices, just like Mayfair.

The lucky locals refer to their neighbourhood as "The Village" or "The Island" and there is indeed something isolated, almost time-warped, about the place, with its wholefood stores, pavement cafés and romantic restaurants, in which writers and comedians can often be spotted, self-consciously pretending to be "ordinary".

The newest arrival is a chain restaurant of sorts, though it's an admirable one: the independently owned Red Pepper group, which offers fine (and reasonably priced) Italian food in various desirable locations across north London. To The Red Pepper, Purple Sage, Green Olive and White Onion is now added The Black Truffle - the sleekest and most chic of the group.

Occupying a corner site next to Clare's Kitchen (John Major's favourite caterers), the restaurant used to be a Café Rouge but has been radically refitted in fashionable, minimalist style, all brown paint, shiny surfaces and hard edges. The ground floor has been partially removed to create a small dining area at street level and larger double-height room downstairs. Tubular steel lamps are suspended from the ceiling well, the walls are smooth chocolate panels, and there's no drapery or napery to muffle the draughts that whistle through in a most un-Mediterranean fashion.

Head chef Franco Parisi was, until recently, in charge of the kitchen at The Red Pepper and has also worked with Giorgio Locatelli at Zafferano. At The Black Truffle, he offers a light, modern take on northern Italian tradition. Pasta (including pappardelle with chicken liver and sage, and gnocchi with goats' cheese and herbs) is home-made; two of the four main courses are fish and the set-price structure of the menu encourages you to sample a dish from each section.

My companion for a midweek lunch was my omnivorous colleague, the Truffler, this page's very own free-range journalist. Having lured her with the promise of a truffle-themed meal, I was disappointed to discover that her favourite delicacy wasn't on offer at lunchtime. So I asked if we could poach a starter from the dinner menu - ravioli of wild boar with black truffle - and the chef agreed. But the Truffler protested that she couldn't possibly eat boar ("It would be cannibalism!"). And so it fell to me to enjoy the rich, gamey parcels, bathed in butter and sprinkled with fried sage and parmesan.

Each was topped with a crisp circle of fresh black truffle, which I encouraged my companion to share. But, after snuffling down one of these pungent morsels, the Truffler suddenly announced that she thought truffles somewhat overrated. With at surprising declaration, she returned to her own, excellent, starter, a char-grilled slice of cuttle-fish - very like squid, but fleshier and plumper - ringed with thick black ink ("the kind of thing that did for those seabirds off Brittany," she observed). It was accompanied by the greenest of salad leaves and the reddest of tomato slices. Highlighted on a big white plate under the beam of a downlighter, the effect was gloriously colourful, particularly in such overwhelmingly brown surroundings. The inky mess left on the plate when the Truffler had finished truffling, however, looked like the horrible aftermath of a toddlers' crockery-painting workshop.

The presentation of main courses was simple but, again, the attention to detail was impressive. The hake was filleted and reconfigured into perfect circles round finely chopped rosemary and tarragon, before being roasted and served with creamy cannellini beans. The saddle of lamb appeared as sweet, pink cutlets offset by bitter trevisano leaves and charred triangles of fried polenta. Neither portion was huge, but we bulked ourselves up with a side order of buttery pureed potato. "It's very Italian to eat like this," observed the Truffler. "They prefer small amounts, then talk and even smoke between courses, whereas we just want a great big plateful that takes a long time to get through."

To help on the talking and smoking front, we were joined for the last part of the meal by a friend who lives opposite The Black Truffle. She threw herself at the pudding menu with the all the enthusiasm you'd expect from one who has just spent four months confined to bed with a slipped disc. The waiters coped insouciantly with her need to stand up and walk around at regular intervals.

After the restraint of the first two courses, the exuberant presentation of the desserts came as something of a surprise, with each selection tricked up with all manner of extraneous fruit slices, latticework toffee and sugary plate decorations. A soft cheese tart - tasting more of ground almonds than cheese - touched the spot, but the chocolate mousse was fatty and bland, while the tiramisu, in a fussy biscuit basket, was unappealingly soggy.

According to the manager, the restaurant was fully booked for dinner within days of opening. But at lunchtime, things still seem fairly quiet. There were a few murmuring couples but no sign of any of Primrose Hill's celebrity residents, unless you count the chunkier one from Eighties pop duo Heaven 17.

A certain amount of glamour was provided, however, by the team of cute Italian waiters in intellectual specs and face-foliage, whose attentiveness should ensure The Black Truffle becomes a place of pilgrimage for the area's lonely literary bluestockings.

All in all, it seems the citizens of Primrose Hill have just acquired another reason to feel smug. When the Black Truffle can tame the excesses of its air-conditioning - and its pastry chef - it will offer all you could wish for in a neighbourhood restaurant. And competitive pricing (which offers a three-course lunch for £14.50 and dinner for £19.50) means locals can luxuriate in the knowledge that while they've been eating their homes have already appreciated by more than the cost of their meal.

 

The Black Truffle. 40 Chalcot Road, London NW1. 020 7483 0077. Lunch: noon to 2.30 (Mon-Fri), 12.30 to 3pm (Sun); Dinner 6.30 to 10.45 (Mon-Sat), 6.30 to 10.30 (Sun). Limited disabled access. All cards except Diners and Amex

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