Silly place, seriously good food

The service is dozy, the decor wacky. But diners at Euphorium, in north London, go home happy, says Emily Green

The boys behind Euphorium just want to have fun. Quite why they decided to have it in Islington, north London, is anyone's guess. Whether the quietly rich and pious Blairites who grace the neighbouring restaurants will take to this slightly wacky new place, I do not know. I certainly did, even though the name sounds the inspiration of someone on laughing gas, and precisely because the food tastes as if it has been cooked by a masterchef with the munchies.

To start with, the place is too small for its name, which is writ large on the glass frontage, with the letters stacked three in a row, eye-chart style. Inside the small dining room, double-height ceilings save occupants from claustrophobia, and high-backed cushioned chairs lend a courtly sense of comfort.

The general impression is of a place that is chic but silly: look closely at the hammered metal decorations on the wall, and you may make out engraved words such as "itchy itchy scratch", or some such. Hanging above the door to the kitchen is a blown-up photograph of a woman kissing a floating mango. Myself, I would keep the metal and ditch hotlips.

The man out front, who looks like a young Peter Lorre in a good mood, is, in fact, one of the owners: Marwan Badran, an Iraqi who trained to become a doctor, but then went into catering instead. It may have been appearing on Masterchef that derailed his medical career: he proceeded to work with Alastair Little, then in a succession of places, including the terminally trendy Groucho Club. Perhaps it is here that this very cordial man learnt to accept inadequate service. The waiters all look very handsome, and are genuinely sweet, but they need to sharpen up so bookings are taken for the right times and customers do not find full ashtrays on their tables.

The food is wonderful. The chef is 31-year-old Jeremy Lee from Dundee, whose first job when he arrived in London 10 years ago was cooking for the spluttering lite at Boodles. This may have convinced him of the glories of good old British grub, but it was the two-and-a-half years he spent cooking with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum and Alastair Little in his Soho restaurant that taught him how to make it taste - really taste.

This is not to say Mr Lee does not have his own style. He does. But (in common with his teachers), he delivers flavour like Oliver Stone serves up violence. Take his potato salad: exceptionally good, waxy, tasty little spuds are served in a sauce given savour by clever deployment of chopped gherkins and a smidgen of anchovy. Ah, and there is bacon, make that pancetta, several rashers of this delicious lightly smoked Italian number, cooked to crispiness and served on top. There is something oddly brave about serving this dish in a restaurant: partly in that it looks rough, but mainly that it satisfies a private appetite. This sort of savoury is what I, for one, want from the fridge at 3am and would eat with ravenous concentration. Eating it in public amounts to some sort of admission.

Another first course, a chicken and duck liver terrine, was perhaps a bit close to liverwurst in flavour, and would have tasted better with brioche or a characterful bread.

But main courses were straight back on form. Brill came perfectly cooked, crisply finished outside, flesh delicate and moist within. It was set into a perfectly scrummy mash and dressed with a sauce flavoured with crab and saffron. I have griped before about the astringency of saffron killing fish dishes - mainly seabass. Here, however, combined with the crab and the crispy, toasty finish on the fish, it was just knockout good.

Lamb was served with roast aubergine and fields and fields of pured parsley. Great stuff.

A green salad consisted of baby spinach leaves and radicchio. The stunner here was the oil, which had real punch and a deep herbal quality that kept my companion and I guessing: "It's sherry vinegar"; "It's herbal"; "It's not horrible!"; "No, herbal!"

Dessert was easier to deconstruct: lots of chocolate, lots of booze in it, crme friche on top. Fab.

As for drink, the wine list was short, eccentric and lists a terrific brouilly for £18. I have a French friend with whom I always drink young red burgundies, particularly from Beaujolais. When pleased, he murmurs, "It dances in your mouth." This bottle, a Chteau Thivin 1994, was a regular Fred and Ginger.

This blow-out meal, along with some house fizz, cost about £40 each. One can easily spend £30 and feel slightly less hungover the next morning.

Euphorium, 203 Upper Street, London N1 (0171-704 6909). Lunch, dinner and vegetarian meals. Set-price three-course lunch £14.50. Open lunch Tuesday-Sunday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Access, Visa.

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