13 September 2004

If you're a French-trained chef and experiment with a few Asian influences, you are bound to upset one or two restaurant critics - as J‚r"me Tauvron found out when he opened the L'Etranger restaurant a year ago in Kensington, west London.

Tauvron's cooking has Malay peninsula overtones (think along the lines of Thai chicken souffl‚ with coconut milk and holly basil), along with a few nods towards Japan, that didn't meet with approval from the Sunday Times's acerbic AA Gill, who felt the menu was "not from anywhere". On the other hand, and somewhat unpredictably, the verdict of the London Evening Standard's equally opinionated Fay Maschler on the Oriental touches in Tauvron's food was that they were done "with discretion".

Not that any of this bothers Tauvron, as he just gets on with his cooking, enjoying exploring "all the flavours I didn't know when I was 10". Nor should it bother him. He and owner Ibi Issolah (a former general manager of Oliver Peyton's Atlantic Bar & Grill in Piccadilly) have a hit on their hands.

And you can see why. The 50-seat restaurant itself is one of those circumspectly designed urbane eateries, with lots of window frontage as well as more dimly lit nooks stretching back into the dining room proper. This means that the great and good of Kensington (including, it's rumoured, Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie) can either pose or hide away, according to mood.

But let's get back to the food. Tauvron shows a sure and exciting touch with his ingredients, based on sound classical techniques - but you would expect that from someone who has worked with both Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse. This is evident in the warmed scallops, beef and prawn in a lime leaf broth (£16.50), and in the more mouth-tingling foie gras terrine with smoked chilli jelly (£13.50) - the chilli successfully cutting through the richness of the liver.

There are some more classical options for the faint-hearted: a tasty confit shoulder of lamb with grilled aubergine steak (£16.50), for instance. Or steak - either a piece of peppered Charolais with home-made chips (£19.50) or, if you're feeling expansive with your wallet, a piece of pampered Kobe beef fillet, flash-fried, served with roast wild white and green asparagus and summer truffles (£49).

It's clear that Tauvron, who visits Singapore twice a year, uses Asian spices and techniques cannily, where the flavour matches are appropriate and when he thinks his market can take it. Kensington's girls about town, for instance, can certainly take prawn and vegetables in a crisp, light tempura (£10.50), and a selection of sashimi (£19.50) - tuna, salmon, scallops, sea bass and sea bream.

Tauvron tweaks the menu as and when produce and his own whim dictate - "when I get bored with what we are doing" - making sure not to over-stress his eight-strong brigade with a blanket change. Most dishes he puts on his menus seem to sell well - he takes off those that don't, or tweaks them until they hit the spot with his diners.

Actually, playing around with sorbets and ice-creams is a bit of a trademark at L'Etranger - temptations include plum wine sorbet (served with a fruit soup) and the massively popular black sesame ice-cream, which comes cleverly matched with raspberry macaroon (£8.50).

Nor has Tauvron forgotten the British obsession with chocolate. Once more, though, he eschews the safe route of putting out a chocolate fondant on its own. Instead, he has gone for a platter which has, in addition to the fondant, a white chocolate mousse, a crisp chocolate spring roll and a parfait (£9.50), all of which give a satisfying chocolate rush to cocoa junkies.

Kensington had better watch out for the new dishes to come when Tauvron comes back from his summer jaunt to Singapore.

L'Etranger 36 Gloucester Road
Tel: 020 7584 1118
Website: www.etranger.co.uk

What's on the menu - Iced pumpkin soup with crab r‚moulade, £7.50
- Charolais beef tartare, £10.50/£15.50
- Lobster ravioli with lemon grass, £15.50
- Gingered chicken breast with aubergines and coriander, £15.50
- Roast veal chop with summer truffled mash and mushroom cream, £42 (for two)
- Steamed fillet of sea bass in dashi, with enoki and shiitake, £18.50
- Lychee and kiwi soup with plum wine sorbet, £6.50
- Mango souffl‚, tofu and yuzu sorbet, shizo mojito, £8.50
- Apple tart with caramel fudge and vanilla ice-cream, £7.50

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