Service with a smile would improve Kenwood's impressive breakfast

Kenwood House offers great food – but whatever happened to service with a smile? William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield, was a successful lawyer and man about (18th century London) town. Like many of its current residents, he chose Hampstead because he

Kenwood House offers great food - but whatever happened to service with a smile?

William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield, was a successful lawyer and man about (18th century London) town. Like many of its current residents, he chose Hampstead because he wanted a place in an area close to the City - where he worked - pleasant for entertaining.

In common with many of Hampstead's current eligible young men, Lord Mansfield had a few quid to spend so he hired the architect Robert Adam. His bachelor pad, intended to be suitably grand for his influential guests, was Kenwood House. Subsequent Earls of Mansfield slapped on an extension or two, gave the interiors a lick of paint and brought in (landscape) gardeners. It was a true party house, used by several generations to entertain a series of titled and crowned guests.

Subsequent generations - less keen on the London pad - let it go and eventually, in the early 20th century, the house's contents were auctioned off and the estate divided among various bodies.

In 1925, Lord Iveagh - heir to the Guinness empire - bought the estate to house his art collection. After he'd pulled his last pint in 1927, he was kind enough to bequest the house and its contents to the nation.

For the last 80 years, we've had him and English Heritage to thank for the beautiful house and grounds, which cost about a million pounds a year to run. Much of this money came from the outdoor concert income so who knows what's in store for this north west London icon.

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The Company of Cooks is the organisation responsible for feeding today's visitors to Kenwood. Formed by Mike Lucy in 1996, it took contract catering at tourist venues several leaps forward from the bad old days of curled-up sandwiches and dry scones. Its sister company, Caper Green Holdings, is also responsible for the (similarly improved) food offer in the Royal Parks - which include Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Green Park and Primrose Hill. My last experience of the Company of Cooks was at their café at the Roundhouse, where I was disappointed. Have they grown too big for their catering clogs?

A recent morning power trot around the grounds and onto Hampstead Heath with Petra (my exercise buddy) terminated with a fuel stop at Kenwood's Brewhouse café. This self-service canteen style affair is unusual in NW3 - a postcode inhabited by many with little experience at carrying their own trays. Nonetheless, on sunny weekend mornings, it heaves with locals carrying their hand-selected breakfast to the large wooden tables in the attractive garden.

Big display fridges offer muesli, yoghurts with seasonal fruit or honey and nuts, and bottled juices for those attempting to retain the sanctimonious feeling of fitness after a tramp in the great outdoors. At the hot counter, most of the components of a full English are displayed in white china dishes for the Atkins contingent and, for those throwing dietary caution to the wind, there is a selection of viennoiserie, scones and muffins on a central display counter.

Petra and I ended up at the hot counter. The sulky female assistant loaded up our plates and handed us each a cover with which to keep our food warm. The hard plastic covers - reminiscent of hospital canteens - oddly have holes in the top, which slightly defeats their purpose. With our food selections we slid our

trays (in the manner of the institutionalised) towards the drinks and tills counter.

There's a full coffee menu available but the product is not quite as accomplished as you can now buy in most of our high streets. Tea is served motorway service station-style in metal pots that seem to have been designed to facilitate simultaneous table washing while filling your cup.

At 10am on a chilly Monday, only the ruddy-faced, wind-swept dog-walking contingent were braving the cold. Inside, the dining area is bright and airy, with brick walls painted white, stone-tiled floors and rustic-looking heavy wooden tables and chairs. The other diners were mainly mothers with tiny children, exercisers and the odd older couple.

Scrambled eggs and tomatoes were surprisingly good. The congealed offering you normally find on countless hotel buffets is evidence that scrambled eggs, like time and tide, wait for no man. The perfect texture is described by the French as "baveuse" - literally translated as runny. But what leaves the pan light and fluffy carries on cooking and solidifying. Time in a heated display unit only helps them edge closer to yellow stodge.

These eggs were warm, soft, slightly solidified but perfectly acceptable, if unseasoned. Four halves of roasted tomatoes were excellent - roasted to sweetness, but not soggy destruction. Petra's eggs were accompanied by mushrooms, which were firm, dark and packed with mushroom flavour.

My croissant had good flaky layers, was a little flabby inside but had a good, sweet, slightly fermented flavour. No complaints either on the wholegrain toast. A glass layered with Greek yoghurt and poached rhubarb was attractive but could have done with a little more sweetness to counteract the fruit's acidity. At £16 for two, it's also pretty good value for a substantial plate of food.

Public park mass catering has come a long way. With a captive audience, the Company of Cooks could easily send out lacklustre food while sitting back and counting their pennies. They don't. The food remains of a high standard, making it a café worthy of the elegant surroundings.

If you're happy to wait in line and schlep your own formica-look tray then it's worth a trip - with the added bonus of a gorgeous setting. Now if they could just get their staff to smile...

Kenwood House, The

Old Kitchen, Hampstead

Lane, NW3

Telephone: 020-8341 5384

Food: Four star rating

Service: Two star rating

Opening hours: March to September - 9am until 6pm, October - 9am to dusk, November to February - 9am to 4pm.

Cost: Breakfast with drinks approximately £8-10 per head.

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