Restaurant / Park life

No need to pack a picnic when you can dine in style en plein air
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Park cafes used to cut as much dash as a Pac-a-Mac. Only one stage removed from bringing your own tea in a Thermos flask - someone else stewed it for you and slopped it gracelessly into a cup. Now, some of the ones in London have become worth a visit in their own right. Take two at opposite ends of the city - in the south- east corner at Belair House in Dulwich, in the north at Oshobasho Cafe in Highgate Wood. Each is better than any picnic most of us could throw together, although they are as different as fromage frais and tofu.

Belair House is an 18th-century mansion which stands sentinel over Belair Park. The lessee, from Southwark Council, is actor Gary Cady, last seen as a racing driver in Alan Bleasdale's dire Melissa. He fancied living in the house and, as a long-time local, couldn't understand why Dulwich had nowhere more glamorous to eat than Pizza Express. Now he has realised both dreams, restoring the Palladian house into a grand, boldly and unfussily decorated restaurant and bar on either side of the sweeping staircase which leads to his family apartment.

Up north, in a clearing in the middle of the Corporation of London's Highgate Wood, is a charming, wooden cricket pavilion with a clock on its gabled roof. Inside, it's painted pink and orange, and Basho, who is a vegetarian and probably rides a bicycle, runs the cafe all day and well into summer evenings, serving meat-free food - and alcohol, champagne even - from behind the counter.

Belair House is not self-service, although you might find yourself wishing you could help yourself to the food. Approaching it on the Friday of half term with one pre-teen, two pre-school children and two other adults, we were awestruck by the sweep of the drive and the marques of the parked cars. But I'd been there before for dinner and thought I knew the daytime drill, when the more informal bar section is open all day. We hadn't booked, but arrived minutes before 2pm, thinking we'd avoid the peak pushchair hour. In fact, indoors and outdoors, there was a spooky absence of children, and the room was dominated by a large birthday party of ladies of uncertain age. We manoeuvred ourself indoors with two buggies and asked if we could see the menu. Too late. The kitchen was closed and all we were allowed was bread and tapenade. Not smoked salmon, duck eggs, celeriac remoulade (pounds 7.95) followed by calf's liver, spinach, olive oil mash and streaky bacon (pounds 9.50) - to pick the two most expensive lunch dishes, not even a sandwich of proscuitto, rocket and olive oil on green olive bread. That'll be three bread and tapenades and a focaccia, then, with a spritzer, a fresh-squeezed orange juice and a beer.

We waited and we watched the salmon with tabbouleh, coriander and olives, the calf's liver, the rigatoni with asparagus, rocket and parmesan come out of the kitchen and onto other tables. They looked good, and I'm sure they were, because dinner had been hard to fault. But back to our frugal lunch. We kept our spirits up until we could fall on the bread, the saucer of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, the tapenade and generous mixture of fat green and coffee-bean black olives. Lovely sun-dried tomato focaccia, we agreed, although, by then, Mighty White and marge would have seemed like manna.

Our second appeal for puddings succeeded, although I had to stand beseechingly by the kitchen door for some time. Dinner had culminated in a chocolate platter of four miniature monuments to the versatility of the cocoa bean, followed by superb, buttery petits fours with coffee. This time, a fantastically good passion-fruit tart with creme fraiche, date and toffee pudding with clotted cream, and praline ice cream - on absurdly large plates - were greeted by those of us old enough to speak, with a wordless chorus of oohs and aahs. Belair House's kitchen had proved it can pull out the stops, but it hadn't been as approachable to all ages and at all times of day as we'd hoped from a place in a park.

Up in Highgate, Oshobasho Cafe also has focaccia - this time, as rolls filled with grilled vegetables, a pesto dressing and a salad of frisee, lollo rosso, spring and red onions. The rest of the menu is simple, wholesome, and should appeal to children as well as adults - with the honourable exception of a crunchy summer vegetable soup of chick peas, spring onions, sweetcorn, peas and carrots, and raw slices of garlic. Alternatives might be penne with tomato and ricotta and a big sprig of basil; spaghetti with pesto, bruschetta; grilled asparagus, aubergine, courgettes and tofu (pounds 7.25). You could hold a breast-feeding workshop or tai chi class in the cafe's compound, , and no one would bat an eyelid. Children can, and do, range freely and safely among the outdoor tables, where parasols are at a premium and food is brought out on trays, after you've queued inside to order.

Desserts don't quite keep up the wholesome work; they consisted of bought- in cheesecakes with lurid strawberry jelly, a very sweet chocolate cake and solid apple tart. Needless to say the children loved them, and it made up for the absence of chips. You don't get those at Belair House, either. They're called fried potatoes with rosemary and garlic and I wish I'd been able to have them

Belair House, Gallery Road, London SE21 (0181-299 9788). Lunch and dinner Tue-Sun. Average lunch pounds 15 (Sunday set menu pounds 15.95 three courses), dinner pounds 23 three courses, without drink. Oshobasho Cafe, Highgate Wood, Muswell Hill Road, N10 (0181-444 1505). Meals Tue-Sun 9am-dusk. Average pounds 10 three courses, without drink.

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