Honest value at a smart address; Avenue is glass-fronted and lean, essentially a large, austere room cleverly designed to show off the people who occupy it Photograph by Morley von Sternberg
A swank new London restaurant in St James's is so much the product of a business plan that it employs a costing symbol in its name: @venue. Sure enough, the founder, Chris Bodker, a former corporate financier, put it together by numbers - but he also had arty impulses and a feverish enthusiasm.

A City job took Mr Bodker to New York for four years, from 1988 to 1992. On his return to London he decided to launch a restaurant to Manhattan standards, and beat formidable competition to secure an address that would impress even Lady Bracknell. On this, he raised the money. It is all shades of Alexander Korda arriving here with nothing but a taste for expensive hotel suites and a scenario for Boy Meets Girl.

As architect, Mr Bodker employed Rick Mather, whose cool, white dining rooms for the Zen chain are among the most elegant in London. True to Mather form, Avenue is glass-fronted and lean, essentially a large, austere room cleverly designed to show off the people who occupy it. To my eye, the person it shows off the best is Andrew Carson, the manager, whose resemblance to a young Alfred Hitchcock is so striking he could make a living from it. Though he is not anywhere near as portly as Mr Hitchcock, he has a heavy, deadpan grace, and traces of a mischievous wit. Denizens of St James's may recognise him as a former manager of a nearby restaurant, The Square. He has that particular knack, a sort of inborn calm, whereby he does things quickly while appearing to move slowly.

The furnishings are modern, but comfortable. Spacing of tables is generous. Had the restaurant restricted itself to the Norman Parkinson fashion photographs in the bar, the choice of artwork, too, would have been perfectly gauged. However, some sort of rock video director appears to have been sent off to New York to shoot arty little loops, which play on video screens. Nice work if you can get it, but a waste of wall. Much more interesting is watching the world go by through the plate-glass frontage.

Mr Bodker says the video panel is there to help boost the atmosphere for early arrivals. Ostensibly, this is also the rationale behind the dull thud of music played. To these unwanted stimuli, I can only respond: hit the "off" button. The atmosphere needs no boosting. Not only is the view of St James's mesmerising, but the natural buzz is great, close to that of Kensington Place.

The long bar at the entrance is open all day, and should prove popular. Its barmen are fleet and charming. Ask for a citron presse, and the lemons are squeezed with no hint of hesitation to betray that this is not, officially, a drink they make. Only when you pay will the barman explain it has no till code, which is why the receipt says orange juice. There is a good selection of beers - for some reason all foreign, such as the perfectly nice Czech Staropramen. Most interesting is the wine list: house wines include five whites, five reds and (this being St James's) six champagnes. Then a longer, peachier list of whites and reds is divided, quixotically, by grape type for most of the world and by growers for burgundy. This is classification by appetite. The prices strike me as exceedingly fair: a great Guigal Rhone for pounds 15, a delicious Californian pinot noir for pounds 18.50, an Argentinian chardonnay for pounds 12 and an Alsatian edelzwicker from Rolly Gassman for pounds 15.50. By the glass, wine is pounds 2.50. Pub prices. One could even argue that a 1978 Hermitage La Chapelle at pounds 225 is fairly priced, but I won't attempt it here.

The chef is a young Irishman by the name of Enda Flanagan. Like so many up-and-coming cooks, he has worked in many places, some of them famous. His cooking here is cautiously trendy: there is fresh pasta with rocket, bruschetta and so on. Yet there is also braised lamb, calves' liver, and dover sole meuniere.

The waiter did such a convincing sales pitch on the crab croquette, I chose it. It was OK: a crisp and piping hot crab stick with overcooked tomato sauce, and fennel whose perfume had gone up in steam. Far better was a risotto made (curiously in February) with peas, topped with great strips of Parmesan. Every London chef with a paring knife seems to serve Parmesan this way, as if they have not noticed it ends up as greasy strips. Why not do as the Italians do and grate it? Lending the dish punch was marjoram.

A main course of baby chicken came splayed and partially boned. I suppose the work in the kitchen saves on finger bowls. To my mind, the boning is a mistake. If done before cooking, it detracts from flavour; and whenever it is done, it deflates those firm little bodies and leaves the skin sagging. A side dish, of a big, dried, pungently spiced tomato, struck me as curious. Best - and this was terrific - was lightly smoked haddock served with mash, pearl onions and a saffron cream sauce. The kitchen clearly makes its own bread, and it looks beautiful. The focaccia, glazed with oil, sea salt and onions, was good, if over-salted in the sponge. A wholemeal soda bread looked beautiful, but was almost inedibly salty. Espresso, made with Lavazza, was perfect.

Nit-picking aside, I liked Avenue and had a great time. The staff already have a breezy confidence that manages to be both welcoming and chic. Lunch prices are democratic for the area: two courses cost pounds 16.50, three pounds 19.50. The "optional" service charge just means the staff do not pay 42.5 per cent tax on the tip

@venue, 7-9 St James's Street, London SW1 (0171-321 2111). Open for lunch, 12noon-3pm (Mon-Sat), 1-3.45pm (Sun) and dinner 6-11pm (Mon- Sat), 7-10pm (Sun), bar open 11.30am-11pm. pounds 25-pounds 40. Vegetarian meals. Noisy. Major credit cards

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