Not bad for starters

Restaurants: Chef Jean-Christophe brings Nouvelli cuisine to Clerkenwel l

It is a law of cooking that you should never apologise for your food, even when it is wrong. There are limits to this. It can be kind to your guests to give them a chance to agree that the sugar should not have fallen into the fish souffle. But for the most part, it is a pretty good rule.

The night we went to Maison Nouvelli, however, its chef and proprietor, Jean-Christophe Nouvelli, was in an apologetic mood. As our perfectly good meal came to an end, he made a tour of the tables apologising, like some medieval flagellant, for any mistakes, and promising it would all be much better in the future. When we said we were journalists, he took us on a tour of the kitchen, recanting and repenting some more as he went.

Nouvelli is very handsome in a dark, boyish Mediterranean way. My companion melted and fell in love. And she was right - Nouvelli was breaking the rules, but it was endearing.

As the potted biography on the back of the menu reminds us, Jean-Christophe Nouvelli came to England as a private chef of the Rothschild family. Keith Floyd took him up, and four years later, with a Michelin star to his name, he took over from Bruno Loubet at the Four Seasons, one of London's grander hotels.

Now he has decided to set up on his own, clearly working on a shoestring - the chairs, he proudly explained, were from the Reject Shop - and has taken over Cafe St Pierre in Clerkenwell. Halfway between the West End and the City, it's a great location: you could hit the Barbican Centre with a well-aimed champagne cork.

There's a brasserie downstairs, a small "fine dining restaurant", where we ate, on the first floor, and a room above for private parties. The dining room is nothing special - mauve walls, Venetian blinds, upholstered chairs, palms and white table cloths - but the atmosphere is friendly. The businessmen on one side of us, and the couple on the other, were manifestly enjoying themselves. The waiters are the real thing - French and dressed in black tie.

Of the many ingredients that go into making a good restaurant, one of the essentials is about relation to place. The best restaurants are like sea anemones in the way they are attached to, and draw on, their environment. Clerkenwell is a rough, working, if no longer working-class, area; markets, newspaper offices, warehouses and railway viaducts jostle for space. At least two restaurants in the neighbourhood understand this - the Quality Chop House and St John's. Neither trades on nostalgia but they offer hearty cooking which seems right for the area; they have a sense of place.

The food at Maison Nouvelli, though, might as well have been dropped from the sky. Although not as fancy as at the Four Seasons, it is, nevertheless, modern French cooking of a familiar kind. Neither starters nor main courses offered any vegetarian dishes (a bad policy with those Guardian journalists nearby), although I am sure this will change.

My companion's tartare of marinated salmon and asparagus was delicate - the poached quail's egg that crowned it was a touch that worked. I had souris of pork - the rounded piece of meat at the knuckle end of the leg - poached and pressed with a little of its gelatine into something like a terrine. It sounded good, but was a little dry and bland. A cunningly filleted pigeon with aubergines and polenta was good, but the sea bass, although deliciously cooked, could not quite hold its own against some slices of chorizo and a spicy glaze. We did not go for the stuffed pig's trotter, but I wish we had; our neighbour's looked excellent. Nouvelli used to be famously good at offal and, as Spittalfield's meat market is just round the corner, I hope he soon rediscovers his passion.

For dessert, we had a tarte Tatin and a fruit compote served on sweet fried bread. Made downstairs in the brasserie, they were both straightforward and finely done. The wine menu was not up to much, but I gather there is an expert cellar man on the way.

I could pick our meal apart: it is cheeky to include 15 per cent service charge on the bill, and then leave the credit card slip open for more; our waiter was much too keen for us to finish our wine and move on to another bottle; he forgot to bring our vegetables, and so on. But Nouvelli has just begun and, without backers or partners, is trying to do it all on his own. Despite the slightly amateur feel, we ate well. I am sure the faults will be ironed out and he'll get more of a feel for the area. I'll be back

Maison Nouvelli, 29 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 (0171-2516606). All major credit cards accepted. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. Our meal for two came to pounds 86.80 with service

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