11 JULY 1987, Page 44

IN THIS designer age we've rather lost our talent for

Bohemia. Pink venetian blinds and neon tubing now map out old Fitzrovia and Soho; Portobello is dwindling into gentility; and who knows what dark corner Terence Conran plans to colonise next.

The thing is, we were so good at it: an unrespected intelligentsia, a radical lack of chic and a defiant shabbiness — these characteristics are still with us, but you have to look hard. Camden Town is probably the last remaining outpost. It may be the only place of its kind in London — where, namely, there are signs of life on a Sunday — but it belongs so peculiarly to London: grimy, compacted, furiously cli- quy.

The piles of gaping black plastic rubbish- bags, the faint smell of urine and decay given off by the canal, the neo-punk wariness of the only just fashionably dis- possessed young, their fresh complexions dulled by make-up, giving them the wan look of electric light-bulbs left on in daylight: this is Sunday in the city; it may not be everyone's idea of a vital centre of activities but it seems the best we can do.

Le Bistroquet (485-9607, 275 Camden High Street), which started out life three years ago as a wine bar and has expanded into a bar at the front (where you can drink without having to eat anything except when the law forbids it) with a two-room restaurant further back and downstairs which spills out into a conservatory, the roof of which can be opened should sum- mer be sighted, represents the more raffine element in Camden Town: the interior is agleam with quarry tiles and magnolia eggshell, there are real flowers and real linen on the tables, wheatsheafs and corn- dollies on the walls, and conversation is straight out of Posy Simmonds.

I prefer it at lunch rather than at dinner: it's quieter (especially if you get in before two) and the menu is more successful. Both menus offer the sort of French bistro food you get in a French bistro in England rather than a French bistro in France. At lunchtime this is less the case: then the menu is shorter and simpler — and safer. For £6.25 you could have the prixfixe — which may be soup (a gamble) followed by boiled silverside with carrots, leeks and onions, then coffee. Otherwise start with lentils, warm, with tiny dice of carrot, an earthy, herby dressing and croustades smeared with anchovy paste (£1.95), homemade pâté or penne Bistro quet — short pasta with a ratatouille-like sauce — which would have been saved if they'd been left to cook for just a little less.

Since their bread is good, I'd have the assiette de charcuterie (£2.95) or the assiette de fromages for a main course (or a mixture of both), and ask for a green salad at the same time. The cheese was a little disappointing: the tray, just visible, is pungent with promise, but what you get is not selected by you (though I don't see why you can't ask), and £3.25 for four small pieces (all good, admittedly, though one was in a state of extreme deliquescence) is on the steep side. If this doesn't seem substantial enough, a steak sandwich (much vaunted) or steak frites should be sufficiently filling, and you could end with their chocolate mousse, untried by me though well reported. The bill for a light lunch with a glass of wine or beer will probably come to between flO and £14 a head.

Dinner is more expensive, nearly dou- ble, it seems, though I can't see why this should be so — the prices on the menu don't appear to be so much higher. The salade frisee au rocquefort is a favourite of mine to start with, though the cheese can sometimes be just too chalky. For a main course, stick to steak or Bratwurst with warm ham-and-potato salad. When I tried to be more adventurous — choosing the duck livers with capers, peppers and spring onions and the brochette of lamb with ginger and coriander — I was not re- warded. Finish with a tarte or sorbet or their homemade amaretto ice-cream with macaroons. Their house wine is good enough to stick with (£5.25 a bottle, £1.10 a glass), their Estandon rosé Ca rose joyously quoffed [sic] in virtually every bar in Provence') a bitter disappointment at £8.75, the Vouvray (£11) better, though all of them suffered from being served too warm. Still, the place has got charm: if you're near, try it.

Nigella Lawson