IN OUR OUR New Year issue, on no evidence at all I'll admit, I predicted that 1995 would see the rebirth of the French bistro. Natu- rally, all culinary pointers suggested a veer- ing towards Lebanese food, but hunches are the most reliable form of prognostica- tion in these matters. Now, newly opened in London's hippest quarter — or at least within the catchment area of those living in it — is not quite a French bistro, but per- haps 'the 1990s reworking of it: a refitted pub with dining-rooms above, serving char- cuterie, navarin of lamb, coq au yin and poached salmon with hollandaise sauce. In a territory otherwise dominated by char- grilled squid and rocket salad, where Parmesan comes shaved not grated and the olive oil flows, this comes as a revelation and some relief. There are Italian touches, but these seem to show confidence rather than cravenness. This is a restaurant that doesn't have to try to be anything in partic- ular: it serves, simply, what it serves.
The confidence comes, no doubt, from Tom Conran, son of etc., chef-patron of this gaff and owner of the almost admirably expensive delicatessen which bears his name just down the road. That's to say, it is his stamp on the place that earns our confi- dence. The Cow — I presume this must have been what the pub was called in its pre-makeover days, though in years of driv- ing past it I can't think I ever noticed it is serious Notting Hill stuff. The air is thick . with those very local 48- going on 22-year- olds with little rucksacks on their backs and big DMs on their feet. The room downstairs looks like a slightly inauthentically spanking new and gleamingly clean Irish pub; upstairs it's airy and cream-walled. My inclinations are firmly to-resist describing the child in the light of the father, but it is striking that the uncluttered but cosy Frenchified briskness of this room, a pottery jug on every table, a cheery menu-scrawled board by the wooden bar, is very much in the style of the early Hi, Dad, can I borrow the car fleet tonight?' Habitat days of the now more Milanese- inclined Sir Terence.
Tom's, the delicatessen, seemed a smart exercise: cleverly stocked but not always sat- isfying to shop in. With The Cow, at least culinarily speaking, he's got it right. It has an honesty about it, which emanates from the kitchen. Conran and Jean-Marie Cane cook the sort of food one's parents might have eaten at dinner parties in the late Sixties, only rather better I don't doubt.
There is a catch = or as the waiter explains it, 'a concept'. That's to say, tables are large and to be shared. There are two sittings, one at 7.30 and another at 9.30: there is not much choice and as little priva- cy. If you are not relaxed about this kind of thing this isn't the place for you. The only problem with the menu is that one is more or less told what one will eat. The night we went it was explained that there was bouill- abaisse to start with, then poulet au vinai- gre with pommes vapeur (or asparagus grating with Parmesan and fried egg for vegetarians, though I don't see why they should eat eggs, still I know they mostly, unjustifiably do), and tarte tatin or cheese to finish. The price for this, including a half litre of house wine per head, is £19.50. This is pretty cheap but, because one could almost get the impression that one's paying for being told what one must eat, it doesn't feel like as much of a bargain as it should.
Still, the principle apart, it's no hardship to be bullied into food like this. The bouill- abaisse, a light, grainy broth meatily filled with dense-fleshed fish, was perfectly judged. The chicken, in a sprauncy, spiky but not too sharp tomato sauce, must sure- ly have been a poule de Bresse: it was so sweet, so tender, like satin. The tarte tatin, I'm afraid, was not good news. It was icy, icy cold. I have a horror of anything going straight from fridge to table, but it's partic- ularly important to serve a tarte tatin sticki- ly warm. The Cashel blue — a favourite of mine — was slightly on the frigid side, too. The house white, an Italian chardonnay, was unexpectedly good. Dinner for the two of us, including 12.5 per cent `optional' ser- vice charge, which is added to the bill, came to £46.70.
The Cow, 89 Westboume Park Road, Lon- don W2; tel: 0171 221 0021