Sadly disappointing search for fruits of The Vine

BY VICTORIA PREVER There s a no-man s land in NW5 where Highgate ends and Kentish Town begins. Not quite Gospel Oak and on the frayed edges of Dartmouth Park, it s populated with a succession of Persian rug shops and small retailers as well as office blocks that sprung up d

There's a no-man's land in NW5 where Highgate ends and Kentish Town begins. Not quite Gospel Oak and on the frayed edges of Dartmouth Park, it's populated with a succession of Persian rug shops and small retailers as well as office blocks that sprung up during the dotcom boom. They promptly emptied during the bust but seem fully occupied - for now, at least - and the workers need somewhere nearby to power lunch.

The Vine, a neighbourhood gastropub has lived through several economic storms and traded here for several years.

Passing through on a Sunday night, we popped in. It was a ghost town. Sunny street-side tables were deserted. Inside staff outnumbered drinkers. We were directed into the garden, where tumbleweed brushed past tables.

When we asked our charming waitress if it was always that quiet on a Sunday evening, she reminded us of that night's battle between Spain and Germany in Austria.

As the only non-football fans in town, we had the run of the place, a shabby-chic affair, packed with off-cuts from Camden Market, including long heavy wood, wicker, mosaic and glass topped tables with Lloyd Loom-style chairs.

The marquee-like ceiling is decorated with twinkly fairy lights, huge paper butterflies and those oversized paper globe lightshades that must have hung in a zillion student bedsits. At one end sat a huge silver framed empty blackboard, clad with large silver baubles.

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Grumpy said the area reminded him of a sixth form art project. With music drifting out from inside, it was a pleasant place to spend a summer's evening.

The menu is standard gastropub. What we ate was distinctly substandard. Grumpy's tomato and basil bruschetta was disappointing. Barely charred slices of garlicky ciabatta were soaked in enough oil to fill his car. It was topped with passable tomatoes and basil but no seasoning. It was a masterclass in messing up. My twice-cooked goat's cheese souffle was more like 10 times cooked. The body and flavour of the souffle were fine but the sides and thick, crusty base were more Yorkshire pudding than light and moussey. It sat on a pile of roasted peppers, soggy rocket and bland pesto.

Several couples and a group of plummy girls straight from a chick-lit novel invaded our private dining room. I totally lost the Grumpster's attention as he strained to listen to the girls discussing theirs and their friends' boyfriends.

Main courses were worse than the starters. Grumpy had ordered cod in a herby olive crust. He'd asked for it to be served with chips instead of the listed creamed potato. The chef had given him just that. A piece of fish comically balanced precariously on a pile of thick chips. It was the picture of unhealthy eating, so an emergency rocket and parmesan salad was requested. The fish had an unpleasant flavour, the chips were fine and the salad passable.

My main course Vine burger would have done some serious damage had I flung it at one of the paper butterflies. A microscopically thin slice of plasticky melted cheese coated its surface and it was balanced ridiculously on two huge ciabatta doorsteps. Even Mick Jagger would have struggled to get even one slice between his lips. I discarded the bread entirely and ate as much bland, rubbery burger as I could face, which was not much.

Almost ready to give up, we thought we'd give them one more chance with a dessert. Choices included strawberry mousse, summer berry tart, dark and white chocolate mousse, tiramisu and - our choice - a chocolate tort (sic). The torte was actually a slice of warm chocolate cake accompanied by strawberry flavoured cream and pools of raspberry coulis. It tasted reasonably good - apart from the burnt crusty edges.

At £30 per head - including a bottle of water and one glass of wine and some very friendly and efficient service - it was also expensive. I'm not sure if it was a bad night, but I don't understand how the restaurant has survived at all. North-west London customers are far too tolerant

Winner of this week's abysmal service prize goes to Pizza Express in St John's Wood. We popped in for a quick meal on a Saturday night. Most of the staff were less than keen to see us. The waiter who took our order was in fine spirits and all laughter and smiles. Presumably because seconds later he was to finish his shift and was never seen again.

The other waiters and waitresses could not have been less interested in helping us.

They took as long as possible to collect our plates or take our dessert orders and when they did venture as far as our table, could barely muster the energy to speak.

Pizza Express dedicate a lot of energy to nurturing their brand. Perhaps they need to spend some time motivating their staff too.

The Vine, 86 Highgate Road, Kentish Town NW5 1PB

Telephone: 020 7209 0038

Food: One star

Service: Four stars

Hours: Open Mondays to Wednesdays noon-11pm,Thursdays to Saturdays noon-midnight, Sundays noonto10.30pm.

Food served: Mondays to Saturdays noon to 3pm, 6pm to10pm, Sundays noon to 9.30pm.

Cost: £30 per head for three courses.