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Can the XO factor really work a treat in Belsize Park?

PUBLISHED: 14:41 22 February 2007 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 September 2010

The press may not get the concept according to the charismatic Aussie owner of a Belsize Park newcomer - but that won t stop patrons enjoying the food, says our restaurant critic, VICTORIA PREEVER. XO, 29 Belsize Lane, NW3. Telephone; 020-7433 0888. www.rickerrestaurants. com. Food: Four st

The press may not get the 'concept' according to the charismatic Aussie owner of a Belsize Park newcomer - but that won't stop patrons enjoying the food

XO, 29 Belsize Lane, NW3.

Telephone; 020-7433 0888.

www.rickerrestaurants. com.

Food: Four stars

Service: Four stars

Opening hours: Monday to Friday noon-3pm and 6pm-11pm; Saturday noon-4pm and 6pm-11pm; Sunday noon-4pm and 6pm-10.30pm.

Cost: Three-course meal with wine approx £50 per head.

I make no apologies for dining in Belsize Park for a second week. Just a short walk from Haverstock Hill, there's a sexy newcomer in the village. For nine months, residents have been tantalised by black and red hoardings outside what was the Belsize Tavern. Then a few weeks ago, the glamorous XO finally emerged.

XO is the latest offering from Ricker Restaurants. Founder Will Ricker - a charismatic Australian - started his empire in 1996 with Cicada in Clerkenwell. In the past 11 years, he has opened five more. His stable of high pedigree haunts includes Notting Hill's E&O and Chelsea's Eight Over Eight. All are fashionable, buzzy places serving Asian fusion food to trendy types in designer labels.

Despite a soft launch, nine months of eager anticipation meant that within days of opening, XO was swamped. I'd tried for a table a week earlier and was offered 6.30pm. At that hour, I'd barely be out of the shower and, as the table had to be vacated by 8.30pm, would be home before most people have finished their mascara. I declined. A week later, I could choose to eat when I wanted but the irritating two-hour slot remained.

We took another couple. The curfew meant that by the time we sat down to eat, I was in the company of not just the usual one - but two grumpy men. It's immensely irritating to have to eat within an allotted time. Surely it's outside of my control how quickly I'm fed? It's down to the kitchen and waiting team. If they take too long must I then take the rest of my food with me? You go to a restaurant to eat and relax in the company of your fellow diners. If you're constantly watching the clock - as we were - that defeats the object.

Ricker's restaurants are famed for attracting "celebs". I saw none - but the crowd were definitely glamorous. Seated around us on the green padded bench seats were tables of Sex And The City-style women with impeccable, glossy straight hair, tasteful manicures and far too fashionable clothes, poseurs in thick-rimmed spectacles and moneyed brayers in cashmere jumpers over striped shirts. I'm not sure where they came from - not the folk you usually see around Budgens - they didn't look remotely local to me.

The menu caused us some confusion and increased the male surliness. It's divided into soups and dim sum; salads, tempura, curries, sushi/sashimi, bbq/roasts, sides and desserts with a "specials" section for those dishes they couldn't fit into the other categories.

It's not obvious how to order. It was one of those places that makes you feel an outsider on your first visit, not helped by the waiter, who unhelpfully provided little guidance. Feeling under pressure to order - the clock was ticking after all - we chose a selection of dim sum to start and then a random cross-section of

the menu.

The dining room is simply decorated - black wood floors and some black wood panelling on the walls, a long mirror on the back wall and huge funky designer light fittings. The windows on one wall have been covered with black floral stencils. Along the back wall are five booths with green, padded bench seats for tables of six. Highly irritating, I imagine, for mid-meal toilet visits if you're sitting in the middle or near the wall. I'm not sure designer folk enjoy a clamber in their finery.

By the time the dim sum arrived, we were chomping at the bit. Prawn and chive dumplings were sticky but tasty; chive and sesame siken tofu - a bonsai topiary exhibit - two coated in chives and two in sesame but were also delicious. Lemon sole tempura had crisp batter and perfectly cooked fish but were heavily salted. The lemony dipping sauce was excellent. Spinach and mushroom dumplings - presented in a bamboo steamer basket - were also very good. Salmon tataki, laid out on the plate like a big fishy flower and garnished with herbs and wasabi-flavoured fish eggs, was fresh tasting.

We'd wondered why the linen tablecloth had a café-style paper one over the top. After only one greedy scurmish with our inarticulate chopstick techniques, it was covered in a rainbow of sauces, gravies and seeds. Worst culprit was my "bursting chicken long bau", which did as it said on the tin and exploded on impact with my mouth, launching thick, brown sauce over the table.

Halfway through our allotted table time, the second course arrived. I'm not sure I recall any asparagus in our aubergine, asparagus and lychee red curry - but it was good and coconutty. The now ubiquitous Asian fusion signature black cod with sweet miso was delicious. But, as a rectangle about two inches by three inches, it was really not worth its outrageous £21 price tag.

Green beans XO were a favourite but the vegetable pad thai, least liked - too much tamarind and a bit flabby. Peppered tuna was four, half-inch thick large circles of tuna with a dough-like casing around their edges. Tasty, but the miso aioli accompaniment was dull.

The clock ticked towards 9.30pm - our cut off - and we wondered if we'd be forcibly evicted. We ordered one of each dessert. Blueberry and coconut sorbets were both good but star anise ice cream was sickly. Iced berries with white chocolate is a bit hackneyed, but pleasant enough. Chocolate pudding was a warm, gooey, melting fondant that we fought over. The only disaster - the pistachio and orange brandy snaps - a sticky unpleasant inedible construction.

Every table in the house changed occupants at least once during our meal. A conveyor belt of expensive blonde hair, manicures and smug trader types.

To his credit, Will Ricker himself was in the house. Checking dishes out of the kitchen, directing guests to the (Fired Earth) toilets and generally being very affable. He told me that a takeaway and coffee shop will be opening next door - XO to go. He feels the press doesn't really "get" the concept. But with 4,000 to 5,000 bottoms on seats in his establishments each week, the punters seem to be.

The food was good and at £50 per head for three courses, including two bottles of wine, not horrendously expensive compared to West End prices. The problem is this isn't W1. I wonder if it's the place for Belsize village? Belsize Park has been hungry for a smart (non-chain) restaurant for years - so perhaps Ricker, in keeping with his track record, has got it right and maybe others will follow.

If you like noisy bustling haunts full of poseurs then trot on down there in your best togs.



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