16 FEBRUARY 1991, Page 41

AN UNAPPRECIATIVE sneer has taken over as the dominant critical

mode of recent years: the barbed notice, the snide interview, gleeful disappointment and smugly dissatisfied condescension have column-inched their way into fashionable respectability as if adolescent were the thing to be. Enthusiasm, praise are not simply uncool: they're suspect.

I have never had any aspirations towards coolth, and anyway, I take the view that restaurants, like first novels, that are no good should get no mention. As far as I can see, it would be futile for me to select a restaurant to write about every other week merely in order to inform my readers how unworthy it was of selection. I take a less beneficient view of well-known restaurants or those with unwarranted reputations, certainly, but generally I am happier to record delight rather than disappointment. And anyway, the selection is really made before I get to the writing stage, in cutting out rather than cutting-up.

Not that I needed to set out any apologia before bringing Sud Ouest to your atten- tion. While there's no such thing as a fool- or punter-proof restaurant (even consistent ones are vulnerable to inconsistencies) I am confident about its capacity to please. The only rub is the cost, but there is even a way round that one — of which more later.

Sud Ouest — which is scribbled on awning and menu in the uneven joined-up writing which you often come across saying romarin or sarriette on those unglazed terracotta herb pots — has been going for some 15 months now, but there couldn't be a better time for it at this moment. For one, the current vogue for chunky, rustic Italian cooking has given people a taste for the sort of food its young — and British — chef, Nigel Davis, is interested in cooking: goose-studded, bean-thickened soups and stews inky with wine and mushrooms. And for another, if the cold lingers, here at least is a place which will fill and warm you up.

It might not seem that sort of place at first, just opposite the back of Harrods, the interior Maisons &Jardins chic in midnight blue and palest toffee, but just get a whiff of that garbure. The celebrated crusading gastronome Curnonsky (ne Maurice Sail- land) hailed garbure as one of the four great regional dishes of France, the other three being cassoulet, bouillabaisse and choucroute garnie. This peasant soup from the Beam comes in a large, thick bowlful crammed with cabbage and tender little beans, chunks of potato and turnip, salt pork and duck confit. I'd have preferred a little less of the luxurious meat. I like it better as flavouring and an occasional find, rather than as a major constituent; richly, deliciously meaty as it is, it's just too much to eat for a first course.

Still, I scraped the bowl and went on to rack of lamb with whole roasted garlic and shallots. This is how I always cook lamb, and one is always a harsh judge of res- taurant versions of food one does at home oneself, so I had one reservation, which was the salty stickiness of the reduction it sat upon. But the pink lamb and burnished pearliness of the garlic and shallots were perfect: sweet-smelling, sweet-tasting and tongue-comfortingly soft.

I can also report well of the escargots Girondine — a slightly chi-chi'd-up version of the garlicky Bordeaux dish of snails with bayonne ham with a vivid hint of parsley — and the magret of duck came into two golden-seared hunks (not, thank God, fanned limply on the plate — remember those days?) with a creamy peppercorn sauce and a creamy gratin of potatoes.

I drank a lovely bergerac, a Château Court les Muts, satiny and flowery, strong enough for the food but without hitting you on the head. For pudding, I couldn't resist the beignets — a pile of them, warm and eggy and covered in sugar. The tarte bonne femme, a die of watery pastry covered in a film of apple slices, was crisp perfection — and would have stayed that way if the kitchen had been prevented from serving it with a soggifying creme anglaise.

Dinner for two did cost £80. It's not that I regret it, but you can go to the Café Sud Ouest next door and have a duck confit or steak frites with a glass of wine for about £10, or better still, go downstairs in the restaurant at lunch time and have two courses for a tenner or three courses for £12 (with two plats to choose from per course), including a glass of wine.

Sud Quest, 27-31 Basil Street, London SW3; tel 071 584 4484

Nigella Lawson