A festival of fine food strikes the right chord

Guests: George Vass & Helen Lawrence of the Ham&High Festival Venue: Bradleys - HELEN LAWRENCE and George Vass, two of the people most responsible for bringing you the Ham&High Festival, have a reputation for being exact and expecting the same of others.

Guests: George Vass & Helen Lawrence of the Ham&High Festival

Venue: Bradleys

HELEN LAWRENCE and George Vass, two of the people most responsible for bringing you the Ham&High Festival, have a reputation for being exact and expecting the same of others.

When conducting orchestras, George has to be. Precision is also a useful skill when shouldering the responsibility of artistic director for a festival that goes from strength to strength.

Acclaimed opera singer Helen can be relied on when things need to get done, not only as the driving force behind the festival, but in her work for the Heath and Hampstead Society and other organisations that are fortunate enough to have her support.

When inviting them to lunch for an update on this year's festival, it was therefore important to find a venue that sets its own exacting standards.

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Hot foot, then, to Bradleys, one of my favourite north London haunts not just because the food is of a consistently high quality, but because at Bradleys, everything is just right: from the rich golden lustre of the stained beech flooring to the calming cream paintwork and burgundy trimmings; from the discreet recessed lighting to the delicate orchids placed in glass bowls on each and every table.

The walls are hung with works by Polish artist Joanna Bailey, whose paintings have adorned Libertys department store as well as many leading galleries.

Amid the polished floorspace is a raised area shaped like the bow of a ship, with a long table where, on this visit, a party of ten lunchtime diners was in full flow.

It is no surprise to learn that Bradleys is about to celebrate its 15th anniversary in this same spot. It has that easy air of self- confidence that comes from knowing its place and its market.

And in the light of the rapid redevelopment the area has seen of late, chef Simon Bradley's decision all those years ago to locate in this tricky corner of Swiss Cottage, appears inspired.

Invariably, customers will be greeted by his wife, Jolanta, and today is no different. We are relieved of overcoats and shown to our seats near the rear windows which look out to a little oasis of tropical greenery.

In fair weather the french windows are opened, but it is wet and windy, a good day to be on the inside looking out while choosing something unusual from the bread basket, like warm apricot rolls.

A dumb waiter is situated in full view. If this was planned, it is a clever touch: the procession of dishes is meticulously and attractively presented and the aromas so beguiling that by the time your own orders arrive, the anticipation is enormous.

The menu changes frequently and with a little luck, you will find something to suit in the set menus (£9.95 for two courses, £13.95 for three). This rises to £19.50 for the menu du jour and £22 for Sunday lunch, which can be traditional or inventive, but still represents astonishing value.

A lightly seasoned cauliflower soup appears to be the obvious starter on this cold day. Helen orders a particular salad which is not on the menu, but is created for her with the minimum of fuss.

Bradleys has a particular reputation for fish dishes and Simon Bradley can do magical things with halibut, but on this occasion, salmon is Helen's choice. Here is a woman who is not comfortably acquainted with mediocrity in any form and her enthusiastic endorsement speaks volumes.

George, on his first visit to Bradleys, promises to return often on the strength of his tender and succulent corn-fed chicken.

If appropriate and available, the olive oil mash at £2.50 is a great side dish and I know of one vegetarian friend who was perfectly content with ordering the full array of sides for lunch.

No humble fare was this: they included spinach with hints of lemon and garlic and purple sprouting broccoli, although it seemed a strange choice since the vegetarian options are always imaginative. A leek and goats cheese souffle, served with stuffed courgette and mushroom brochette, is so light that it seems capable of floating.

A glass of chardonnay at £3.20 washes it down a treat, but the excellent wine list cries out for a more indulgent evening visit. There is a good range of dessert wines to accompany tempting if somewhat pricey treats like hot passion fruit souffle (£7.50) and caramelised lemon tart with raspberry sorbet (£6.50).

It is no small feat for a restaurant to survive in the same place for 15 years in an area of low footfall where, until now, there has been no great hope of attracting a great deal of casual trade. Bradleys has succeeded by building up a viable bank of satisfied customers who return regularly. It isn't the cheapest place in NW3, but some establishments which charge more would do well to achieve the same level of consistency.

As with its near neighbour, The Globe, my only misgiving is the optional service charge added to the bill. Again, this is a judgement that ought always to be left to the customer.

We all acquiesce, don't we, to avoid embarrassment, but when service is as good as it usually is at these two fine establishments, is there any reason to browbeat the customer into paying a precise amount by way of gratuity?

o Helen Lawrence & George Vass dined with Geoff Martin


o BRADLEYS, 25 Winchester Road, NW3 (020-7722 3457).

o Noted for fabulous fish but offers much more besides.

o 12.00-3pm, Tues-Fri and Sunday; 6-11pm Tues-Sat for dinner. Set lunch and pre-theatre, £13.95 for three courses. Sunday lunch £22. Otherwise expect to pay around £25-£30 a head for three-course lunch with wine.