22 APRIL 2000, Page 49

Deborah Ross

EATING in London is such an extreme business. You can get good food, yes, but, goodness, how you have to pay for it. And I don't just mean the final bill. Actually, it's not even that I especially object to. It's all that silly, napkin-flapping nonsense. I know about the other extreme, too. Which is bad food served badly, if at all. In this particular category my own absolute favourite is the café in our local park, run by a singular Irish woman who is known locally, without any affection whatsoever, as the-hag-in-the-hut. Apart from serving incredibly lacklustre refreshments and hat- ing children — which is appropriate as her site is midway between the playground and the toddlers' paddling pool (That child has not got shoes on. Children cannot come in here without shoes on!') —she then does her utmost to turn away any remaining custom. `I can't serve you unless you have the right change.'

`Well, I haven't ordered yet, so I don't know if I have the right change.'

`I'm just saying. I'm just saying.' `I'll have a coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich.'

`The toaster's not working.'

`I'll just have a coffee, then.'

`Coffee will be 20 minutes.'

I tend to go to this café a lot. Why? Because my son plays football in this partic- ular park and, if I didn't retreat inside, I'd have to stay outside shouting 'Good shot' at random and irrelevant intervals, which everyone seems to find rather annoying.

Anyway, I was there the other day, com- plaining like mad about how, in London, it's impossible to find good food that is rea- sonably priced and reasonably served when Stuart, the father of one of my son's friends, said, 'Oh, I'll have to take you to Ta Dilina, then.' Ta Dilina?' It's Greek.'

Now I must say, at this point, my heart sank rather. It's not that I have anything against the Greeks. After all, they gave us the myth which is, I think, the female moth, and, if we didn't have female moths, then what would boy moths do with their surfeit of hormones? Take up ram-raiding and crack-dealing, probably. So, it's not the Greeks as such. It's just that I'm not so keen on their cuisine, or what I know of it. OK, to date this hasn't amounted to much More than the odd kebab after the pubs Close. And, OK, I do quite like the odd kebab after the pubs close. Trouble is, such kebabs have rarely liked me. Indeed, the last one woke me at about 4 a.m. to bid a rather unpleasant farewell. As did the bloke I'd picked up. Ill-mannered losers, the pair of them! Ta Dilina is in Archway, a spectacularly charmless area of north London, at the end of the spectacularly charmless Holloway Road. Here you will find little beyond one huge, ugly, tower block and a number of those shops that have yards of old cookers out the front. Ta Dilina, frankly, fits in rather well. It has a small frontage with just a dirty lace curtain. It could never attract pass- ing trade but, then, there is no passing trade, and it doesn't have to. It is owned and run by a Mr Antonio Halloumi — would that, translated into English, be Mr Wayne Cheese? — who says that 90 per cent of his customers are regulars who just know he is here. 'See that table?' he says at one point. `It's been booked every Wednesday for the last ten years by a QC.'

Inside it is, yes, most satisfyingly modest. A few crummy, mass-produced paintings of Cyprus, just the 12 tables, all gingham tableclothed, and one of those blue, strip- light things for doing in flies and, perhaps, the occasional myth. There is no kitchen as such, just a big chargrill at the front. There is no chef as such. Just Mr Cheese. There is no waitress as such. Just the very delightful Mrs Cheese.

The four of us go. That is, me, my partner, Stuart, a brilliant entrepreneur who is about to do something huge on the Internet, and his sex-kitten wife, Louise. Louise didn't think she was a sex kitten; she thought she was an e-kitten. This is because, on her birthday, Stuart had addressed her card: To Louise, my very own –e– kitten. What's an e- kitten? she asked me. Is he about to sell me over the Net? When I explained that an s `Yes, I will have a starter.' and x might be teasingly missing, she blushed happily and exclaimed, 'Oh, my goodness.' No, I wasn't jealous, actually. I'm a sex kitten, too. Unless it's after the pubs have closed. Then, until the kebab gets me, I'm a tiger!

We order the fish meze at £16 a head. It was much too much. As I've previously mentioned, I am a very greedy person — I put mayonnaise on aspirin! — but, still, it was excessive. First, the starters: hummus, taramasalata, tzatziki, yes, but also a big green salad, little fishy things, lima beans in a tomato sauce, warm pitta bread.

Then the fish, and what fish! Antonio buys it nightly, at 3 am., from a place on the Liverpool Road which, he says, also provides Buckingham Palace. He mari- nades it slightly — with lemon, oil, garlic just to enhance the fresh flavours, then sim- ply grills away. We get sea bass, monkfish, swordfish . • . stop! . . . I'm stuffed! . . . oh, all right then . . . salmon, huge thumping prawns, octopus. Octopus!

I have never liked octopus, I must say. I've always rather been of the mind that if I want to chew on rubber bands, I'll go and buy a pack of 200 for 40p from Ryman's. But this octopus is like no octopus I've ever tasted. It is sweet, tender, slightly charred. I scoff the octopus before anyone else can even get a look in. I love octopus now. I adore it. I wish I could breakfast on it, even. I wish there was a cereal called Octopops. The only thing I didn't like was the grilled halloumi, which tasted like an oversalted driving glove.

Antonio, who has been running Ta Dili- na for 23 years now, loves what he's doing, and loves doing it right here, in run-down Archway. He is happy. He has no interest in extending his opening hours, or moving somewhere nobbier. He knows his cus- tomers, and adores them. He will never present a table with its bill until it is asked for. Anyone can sit here until 4 a.m., if they like, he says. He offers us brandy and that Greek sweet that isn't balaclava, but sounds very much like it. I resist. My teeth can't do those kinds of sweets. My teeth shout help at the first nibble. I think Greek sweets were probably invented by a dentist who needed to drum up business. Ditto Indian sweets. Perhaps, even, a Greek-Indian den- tist dreamt up both. A certain Theodophi- los Shah, perhaps?

The total bill comes to £111. But we could have done it a lot, lot cheaper and we did drink rather a lot of Otello wine, which, by the seventh bottle, tasted very nice. Ta Dili- na is what I have long been looking for. Tip- top fresh food, cooked and served unfussily. Long live Ta Dilina. And the Greeks who, now I think about it, also invented the col- umn. And where would I be without this col- umn? Still hanging out at the hag-in-the- hut's, moaning like mad, probably.

Ta Dilina, 122 Junction Road, London N19. Tel:• 020 7272 0318. Open Tuesday to Satur- day, evenings only. Booking advisable.