19 JANUARY 2002, Page 53

Deborah Ross

TRULY, this restaurant-critic business is beginning to pall quite substantially. I thought it would be all glitzy openings and instant tables at the by and award nominations and Delia phoning to talk omelette pans and Nigella asking me if her hair looked all right and Jamie popping over . . . actually, no, not Jamie popping over. I used to like him, I know, but he gets on my nerves now. Don't you want to slap him and then run over his wife, Jules? This is a horrid thing to say. I agree, especially as she's about to have a little Baby Oliver (which should not be confused with a Bath Oliver, which is a different thing altogether, and quite delicious with cheese). Still, all those Sainsbury's commercials and the way he goes on about `low-fat malarkey' and then, when it comes to his actual programmes and he unpacks his ingredients, what does it say on the bags? Waitrose! Talk about mixed messages. So no, Jamie can't pop in. 'Jamie,' I would say, should he ever try to do so, 'shove off and take the missus with you!' I can be quite firm when it comes to it. Actually. I can't. I think over the years I've gone in for too much 'high-fat malarkey' and consequently tend to wobble alarmingly all over the shop.

But has Jamie ever tried to pop in? Has any of it turned out like this? No, not a bit of it. No instant table at the Ivy. No awards, strangely. In fact, the only thing I've ever received is a press release on the Philips Deep Fat Fryer, accompanied by a photograph. Dishwasher-safe, admittedly (the fryer, that is, not the photograph, which I imagine would get very soggy indeed), but not exactly glamorous, or what I had in mind when I took up this exacting job. And to think how hard I trained for it. All those years at the LSC, London School of Courgette. where I not only graduated first in the class but have since been regularly invited back as guest lecturer. Indeed, my last talk on the role of the courgette in fighting international terrorism was not only a sellout, but also reprinted in full in the London Review of Courgettes and taken up by the Daily Telegraph under the headline 'Does Bin Laden Have Access to Courgettes?' This, actually, was scaremongering at its worst because, as far as is known, bin Laden does not, thankfully, yet have access to courgettes. Phew! Can you imagine if he had? None of us would be safe.

I could quit, I suppose. Pack it in, bugger off. But where, dear readers, would this leave you? What other restaurant critic has my credentials? My integrity? My framed photograph of a Philips Deep Fat Fryer? (Sorry, but I have to put something over the mantelpiece until the awards start flooding in.) So, onwards and upwards, and then left a bit, to where Terence Conran has opened his latest restaurant, Almeida, in Islington, north London. Fittingly, Almeida is on Almeida Street, opposite the famous little theatre and just off Upper Street. I live in Islington, but not this bit of Islington. This is the Dualit toaster. Alessi wine-stopper part of Islington; whereas I live at the opposite end, which doesn't have much going for it, apart from those ever-multiplying. big, orange witness-appeal boards and parks that are unusable because they're full of winos and junkies and schoolkids who, when asked how many grams are in an ounce, are likely to reply, 'Depends on your dealer.'

Anyway. in we go. That is, me, my partner and our son. The decor is cool, contemporary, cream and courgette green — see? See how I notice these things? — with a big open kitchen hung with copper pans. My partner does not like the decor. It's too modern,' he says. 'Too smart, too formal.' His trouble, I tell him, is that he just doesn't appreciate the finer things in life, that he'd be happiest in a ditch with a bag of chips. `Ah,' he says. 'I can see the copy now: "My partner does not appreciate the decor, but then he's a working-class boy from Wales who'd be happiest in a ditch with a bag of chips."' Honestly, he acts like I'm just so tiresomely predictable. But then, what can you expect? From a working-class boy from Wales who'd be happiest in a ditch with a bag of chips?

We are taken to our table. The tables are nicely spaced, not too squashy. Our guests arrive. That is, my partner's brother and his wife. 'This is nice,' she says. 'This is very nice,' he says. This brother, I can see now, is the more sophisticated one. Indeed, when later the wine arrives, the waiter hovers over my partner, obviously thinks, 'Nah', and offers it to his brother to taste. A bit sad, really.

We study the menu. The food is French bistro-style for which. I admit, the decor could be a little more rough-hewn. The menu, irritatingly, is entirely in French. I know this sounds xenophobic, but none of us speaks French. I should speak French, I know, but I can't. I got an 'E' in my 0-level, even though I had full access to my school's language lab. Language lab? Isn't that a great description for a table with a reel-toreel tape thingy on it? Still, the waiter — a sexy Frenchman with sexy French hips — is very understanding, happy to translate. We order, but are then told, *We are not doing pommes frites tonight: `Oh: we say. 'OK.' However, I can see now that I should have taken this up. How can you do French bistrostyle without pommes frites? Why can't you do pommes frites? There's the kitchen. There are the chefs. Run out of potatoes? Why not nip to the 24-hour Europa down the road? I can see now that this was a missed opportunity. Sorry, but I did have other things on my mind. For example, what if, contrary to the CIA's information, bin Laden does have access to courgettes? It could be the end of the world as we know it. No wonder I can't focus on pommes frites.

My starter, which sounds unlikely — a salad of endive. Roquefort and walnuts — is tremendous, but not as tremendous as the onion soup ordered by my sister-in-law. I could tell the moment I saw it that it was something special: rich, caramelised, sweetsmelling. I suffer horribly from I Wish I'd Ordered That syndrome, and it rages in this instance. 'It's the best onion soup I've ever had,' says my sister-in-law. 'Oh. I Wish I'd Ordered That. Swapsie?' I say. `Nope,' she says, cruelly. Next, I have the turbot hollandaise, which is probably the finest bit of turbot I've ever had: plump, moist. melt-inthe-mouth. My partner has the veal kidneys, which he pronounces excellent. Ditto my brother-in-law's scallop brochette. But what I really have my eye on is my sister-in-law's steak au poivre. It's round. It's as fat as a plumped-up pillow. It cuts like butter. 'It is,' she declares. 'absolutely fabulous.—Oh, I Wish I'd Ordered That. Swapsie?' I sigh. `Nope,' she says, cruelly. For pudding she orders creme brillee, so I do too, because I can't bear to do any more begging. It is excellent. Very crisp on top. I love cracking the top of a creme brfilee. It's like being a kid again and cracking the ice on a pond.

All in all, a tip-top meal, superb service and not that expensive. Average entrée about £12/13; final bill, including two bottles of goodish wine. £220. Even my partner is a bit won round. 'Good food,' he says, 'but I still can't get on with the decor.' His brother disagrees. 'I like it,' he says. 'Thanks for inviting me.' Oh, I Wish I'd Ordered That. Swapsie?

Almeida, 30 Almeida Street, London Ni; tel: 020 7354 4777. Back copies of the London Review of Courgettes can be ordered from London Review of Courgettes, Courgette House, Courgette Street) Courgettshire, Please enclose SAE and something nice for me — anything, really, apart from a framed photo of a deep-fat fryer, which I already seem to have.