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Poetic new venture is a soaring sonnet to success

PUBLISHED: 11:57 16 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:31 07 September 2010

Are you being served? Open kitchen at Poem

Are you being served? Open kitchen at Poem

BY VICTORIA PREVER visits a restaurant bold enough to open in the worst recession since paper money was invented Running a restaurant will never be easy. Hours are long, customers rarely grateful and the competition - especially in London - is now so fi

BY VICTORIA PREVER visits a restaurant bold enough to open in the worst recession since paper money was invented

Running a restaurant will never be easy. Hours are long, customers rarely grateful and the competition - especially in London - is now so fierce that making any sort of name for yourself means delivering something special.

Add the worst recession since paper money was invented and opening any new restaurant venture could be seen as downright foolish. With approximately 60 per cent of new restaurant openings failing in their first year in the previous economic climate this might not be the time to act the catering hero.

Despite this, some courageous soul has taken on the smart restaurant unit on the ground floor of a new block of flats on the corner of Abbey and Boundary Roads. It's visible, smart, with a ready-made customer base living over the shop, but it still takes a brave man to lay himself on the line in these times of crashing banks and tumbling economies.

The hero is Ilir Beqiri, who has spent the past 10 years toiling at the stoves of N1 stalwart, the Camden Brasserie. He met his front-of-house man Lucas Rycaj there.

A little unfairly, Grumpy and I visited on their third day of trading. I'd waited months and couldn't wait a moment longer. On a soggy Sunday, a single table of four girls was occupied. Tables are widely spaced and probably only number 12 at most, so no one is jostling past. With two glass walls, the room is bright and airy - even on such a grey day. Decor is clean and modern - burgundy and grey walls and dark wood tables. The kitchen is open, giving Beqiri a direct view of his punters. Grumpy had clocked his eager eyes starring out from the pass, taking more interest than normal in the goings on.

The menu is fairly broad. Food is an international selection of favourites. Starters include salads - Caesar and duck - asparagus, soups and merguez as well as pastas and risottos, which can also be taken as a main course.

We kicked off with grilled haloumi and vegetables. The salty cheese was nicely charred and still tender enough not to have reached chewing gum consistency. The veg were well seasoned and sat on a bed of salad leaves. A good start. A basket of bread with was warm and fresh with decent cold butter in a neat white dish. The charming and friendly Lucas was excellent.

The peace of our private dining room was interrupted by a party of six adults and two children. High chairs were found for the smaller members of the party. Beqiri is clearly ready for his market.

Mains are similarly varied - a compendium of crowd pleasers. Grilled chicken, sausage, duck and liver, pastas and risottos, four types of fish - three of them with chips - and long lists of grilled beefburgers and different cuts of steak.

Grumpy played it safe with tagliatelle in a creamy pesto sauce. It did what it said on the tin - a bowl of piping hot pasta coated in smooth sauce. Although it was more creamy looking than Pesto-ey it was flecked with plenty of basil and (unusually) almonds. It got a thumbs up from that side of the table.

My hamburger, topped with Kirkham cheddar was good, although could have done with a bit more seasoning. My only, very minor, complaint was that I'd asked for it medium but what arrived was rather more rare. I chose not to send it back but I'm sure it would not have been a problem. The brioche bun was a classy touch, as was the thick mayo on the side and nicely dressed salad leaves. The wooden bowl of French fries - which Lucas announced as the best in London - were hot, crisp and fought over.

Two more tables arrived while we were eating our main course, diverting Lucas slightly but he seemed to just about stay on top of things, and more staff began to arrive.

We asked for the dessert list, which are all listed as homemade. It's another roll call of Euro favourites - creme brulee, tiramisu, cheesecake, black and white chocolate mousse, Vin Santo with cantuccini.

Running late, we asked if we could have ours "to go". Unphased, Lucas presented us with our orange cheesecake with fresh passion fruit in a foil package. It was excellent, a solid biscuity base under light, fluffy cream cheese topping, flecked with vanilla. The acidic, tangy orange flavour was well matched with the fresh passion fruit.

With no alcohol and a 12.5 per cent service charge, the bill came in just short of £40, which is not bad value. It definitely gives Cafe Med - whose food seemed a bit off the mark on my last couple of visits - a run for its money and is a great local asset. I'll definitely return. I hope Beqiri's courage is rewarded. He deserves success.

Poem, 94 Boundary Road, London, NW8 4JG

Telephone: 020-7372 7987

www.poembarandgrill.co.uk.

Food: four star rating

Service four star rating:

Hours: Mondays to Fridays 11am to 11pm, Saturdays and Sundays 10am to 11pm.

Cost: £40 for two (no wine) including service .

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