Saucerer's apprentice makes good: After nine years spent learning her craft, Cathy Gradwell, the new head chef at Launceston Place, has made an impressive debut, says Emily Green

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AFTER a long apprenticeship, the debut of 28-year-old Cathy Gradwell as head chef is quietly impressive. She started with a two- year catering management course in Bolton, then cooked anonymously for nine years. Through luck, good sense or both, for eight of those years she worked for one of the best chefs in London.

The first four years with Rowley Leigh were spent at Le Poulbot, the Roux restaurant in the City of London. Ms Gradwell then followed him, as sous-chef, when he forged the elegant, modern style at Kensington Place. She stayed there another four years, often running shifts where 200 guests might be fed immaculate food in an evening.

Following an eight-month attachment to the Fifth Floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols, a month ago she returned to the Kensington Place fold, to the parent restaurant, Launceston Place, and on this occasion, finally, as head chef.

Launceston Place is curiously old fashioned compared with its snazzy modern offspring. It feels Edwardian: the series of intimate dining rooms are all on the knick- knacky side. A conservative tone is enforced somewhat by the customers. 'When we opened it, we wanted it to be the place our friends came to. It became more suity than we ever envisaged,' says the co-owner, Nick Smallwood.

Under Ms Gradwell, however, the food tilts to the modern. The best of it, that is. During a recent meal, fresh, dense tuna was lightly seared but raw inside, and served cold with a zingy and exceptionally light oriental dressing of soy, spring onion, ginger, garlic and lime. This was delicious. The touch was deft again in the seasoning of perfectly stir- fried squid with coriander, spring onion and lemon.

Curiously - and charmingly - the next- best dish could have come from a Sixties edition of Larousse Gastronomique with lurid colour plates. It was a vegetarian feuillete. Puff pastry stood high, almost like a Yorkshire pudding, and housed a mixture of morels and spinach in a creamy sauce.

Also very respectable was calf's liver served (as requested) rare with polenta, sage butter and green beans. Side orders of lightly cooked and generously buttered mangetouts were excellent.

Then the mistakes began. The least important of them involved medallions of duck, tagliatelle, and artichoke and mint puree. The flavours were pleasing, but the noodles were served beneath the meat, where they proceeded to overcook. The puree had a delicious flavour, but it had been passed through a food processor instead of a mouli and had gone a bit gluey.

Now for the out-and-out failure: a slice of Dutch veal, coated with shallots and parsley, hopelessly toughened from overcooking. It was served on a wodge of spinach, and the combination was afflicted by a dousing of harsh balsamic vinegar, which soured the whole dish. To the side were polenta chips, normally good at Kensington Place, but here tough and reeking of corn oil.

Such gripes aside, Ms Gradwell gets so much right and so little wrong. After only a month in the job and accompanied by 10 staff with whom she has never worked before, this is evidence of both her talent and character.

As the food becomes lighter and more modern at Launceston Place, the knock-on effects will be interesting. At present there are few non-French wines. Though there are bargain set meals, prices tend to be high: our three-course meal with a half-bottle each of a (delicious) pounds 17 red Chinon, coffee, VAT and tip cost pounds 40 per person.

NOT a million miles across town, 192, the Notting Hill wine bar that launched Alastair Little, has had a radical face-lift. The space has been enlarged, the colour scheme brightened, the waiting staff have donned shirts and ties and a young Australian, Josh Hampton, has taken over the kitchen.

Unlike Ms Gradwell, Mr Hampton has not, as yet, stuck a job in London for any length of time. At last count, he cooked at 192 under the sharp eye of Maddalena Bonino before a brief turn as head chef at the Canal Brasserie in nethermost North Kensington; this was followed by an even shorter stab at being Andrew Lloyd Webber's private chef.

During former incarnations, he appeared surest with stir-fries, deep-fat fried dishes and Thai seasoning; there is a strongly appealing pan-Asian streak to his cooking. Weakest were the delicate northern Italian dishes tbat Ms Bonino did so well, such as risotto. A trial menu shows familiar dishes from the old days, such as Thai-flavoured fish cakes, and a new pudding crassly called 'chocolate orgy'.

After more than a decade of the 192 menu changing twice daily, Mr Hampton is abandoning Alastair Little's tradition in favour of weekly changing menus augmented by four or five daily specials. Trial meals, where customers bring their own wine, end this Tuesday, when the restaurant officially opens.

The relaunch offers Mr Hampton an opportunity finally to stick with a job. He certainly has potential; time will tell where it takes him.

Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, London W8 (071-937 6912). Set two- course lunch and pre-theatre dinner pounds 12.50, three courses pounds 15.50. Vegetarian dishes. Children welcome; special portions on request. Open lunch and dinner Mon- Fri, dinner Sat, lunch Sun. Major credit cards except Diner's.

192, 192 Kensington Park Road, London W11 (071-229 0482). Vegetarian meals. Open lunch and dinner daily. Approx pounds 20- pounds 30 per person, including wine. Major credit cards except Diner's.

(Photograph omitted)

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