At last, a chain with links to real excellence

BY VICTORIA PREVER I prefer to avoid restaurant chains in favour of independently owned outlets, but a local newcomer has proved too big a draw. Since it first opened two months ago, Strada s latest branch, slap bang in the middle of West Hampstead s plethora of cafes and

I prefer to avoid restaurant chains in favour of independently owned outlets, but a local newcomer has proved too big a draw. Since it first opened two months ago, Strada's latest branch, slap bang in the middle of West Hampstead's plethora of cafes and bars has been calling out to me.

Small restaurant owners are generally passionate about food and their product. They have bravely leapt into the insecure world of catering. More than likely they've a huge amount personally riding on their venture. In the better ones, this desire to succeed is reflected in the food and service you receive.

Many chains would have started out like this. The big idea started by an individual or team, their enthusiasm fuelled by even grander plans for growth. By the time this team has opened three, four, five or more outlets, the chef and waiting staff are hired help with no more incentive than a night's salary and the odd tip. Corners are cut to make savings, portions reduced and standards starting to slip.

The key to a successful chain is to remain consistent and not many do that. Even Pizza Express - pretty constant since the 1960s - has come under fire for its supposedly shrinking pizza portions.

Strada's chain of command has grown just a bit in the nine years since it was founded in by ex-Caprice Holdings MD Andy Bassadone and Chris Benians, formerly a chef at the same company. In five years they grew to 26 restaurants before selling out to entrepreneur Richard Caring (for £56million) who added a further 20 sites and £84million to the chain before selling it to Tragus Holdings, the current owners.

The team at West Hampstead are a long way down the food chain and the brand itself is now very much subject to corporate policies. Nonetheless, they seem a keen bunch. The manager had managed to get hold of my email and invited me down to see them several times. As I prefer to eat incognito, I'd (rather rudely) ignored his offers.

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He didn't seem to be on site when we popped in Monday evening. An extremely friendly hostess greeted us and even let us sit at a table that could accommodate three or four instead of insisting we sat at a table for two.

The dining room is large and airy, with windows at both ends. Separated into sections, and decorated in Strada's signature deep maroon and bay green, it doesn't feel too cavernous. Decor is easy on the eye and borrowed from the Habitat school of simplicity - raffia-type wallpaper, huge drum-like pendant lights and random displays of squash and other colourful vegetables. It all looks spotless.

The 90 or so covers were probably less than half full, but it didn't feel empty. The majority of diners were pairs of female friends sharing a bottle of rose and semi-awkward couples. The low lighting, mid-priced menu and popular food make it a great early date venue. That's what Grumpy says, anyway - and he's always claimed to be the expert.

The menu is fairly predictably pizza, pasta, some salads and Italian-themed meat and fish dishes. There are also a few specials. Ravenously hungry, we asked that the pizza bread be delivered at warp speed to avert a mood swing - from me, not the Grumpster. It took a while, but when it did arrive was as hot as Etna. Large wedges of thin pizza dough topped with rich tomato sauce and a piped lattice of pesto were gone in minutes.

Close behind were our starter salads. Both were fresh and generous if a little drenched in dressing. My salad of spinach leaves, avocado and thick slices of parmesan were thickly coated in a sweet balsamic flavoured mustard dressing. My husband's caesar (cesare) salad was also a passable version with the same fat slices of parmesan strewn across the top.

Our waiter was prompt to collect our plates and deliver the next course. Grumpy's tonno nizzardo (grilled tuna) was - in his words - "immaculate". An attractive and generous juicy slice of fresh tuna, grilled (at his request) medium to well done on a pile of rocket, beans, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and red onions. To me it looked to have drowned in its dressing, but he had no complaints.

My pollo Milanese was less pleasing to the eye. The plate had several piles of different colours - crisp, dark golden crumbed chicken sat next to a pile of fried potatoes, marginally overdone green beans and a clumsy cherry tomato sauce. It tasted fine, but looked like something my school dinner lady could have served up. Eternally greedy, I prefer my Milanese with (more traditional) spaghetti, which might have improved the "paint by numbers" look.

We were so full by this time, we weren't able to even attempt one of their desserts. There are the usual Italian suspects - tiramisu, pannacotta, ice creams and sorbets as well as a few less cliched additions - a torta della nonna (pine nut and lemon tart), a crowd-pleasing molten chocolate pudding and a pannetone bread and butter pudding.

We were offered a complimentary glass of limoncello - nice touch.

Our food was for the most part of a good standard and the service we received was exceptional. The restaurant's hostess returned to check we'd enjoyed our evening, our waiter was efficient and the other waiter who delivered our food, also extremely likeable and keen to please.

I'm not sure how Strada has succeeded in maintaining such high standards nor how they motivate their staff, but others could learn from them. If I lived in West Hampstead I'd be there regularly.

Strada 291 West End Lane NW6.

Telephone: 020-7431 8678.

Food: Four stars

Service: Five stars

Cost: £44.15 for two courses, including service and glass of wine.