Unbeatable service - but what's cooking in the San Carlo kitchen?

T here s been a lot of activity of late in and around the village – Highgate village, that is. New owners have taken over some of the long established drinking holes and eateries. The Victoria and The Red Lion & Sun pubs are just two examples. Another is

T here's been a lot of activity of late in and around the village

- Highgate village, that is. New owners have taken over some of the long established drinking holes and eateries.

The Victoria and The Red Lion & Sun pubs are just two examples. Another is San Carlo - Highgate's best-known restaurant - taken over by Gail Ganney earlier this year.

Buying an existing, much-loved restaurant might seem an easy option. You've got all the kit, the kitchen and a location everyone knows is a restaurant. However, winning over the loyal customers of the old, established place is not so simple.

Ms Ganney seems to be finding this at San Carlo, which has been a village stalwart for

15 years.

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She found herself out

of favour when she applied for an entertainment licence. There was a recent skirmish as locals fought her application but she was successful.

When I dropped by for a meal on a Sunday evening, the place was deserted.

A table of four other diners arrived at the same time, taking the spotlight off us and providing some entertainment as they performed detailed critiques of many of their absent friends throughout their meal.

The huge dining room is very Conran - with large black Venetian-style chandeliers, dark brown corduroy-clad walls and clear screens decorated with a damask-looking pattern. There are thick white tablecloths and a single orchid in a funky black vase on each table. The lighting is good and an Arabic sounding chill-out compilation added to the atmosphere.

Any pretence that West End chic had travelled up Highgate Hill was shattered when the menus arrived. The huge list of dishes - presented in an unimaginative folder full of plastic sleeves - was more Wimpy than Wolseley. A dream for the producers of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

No less than 11 starters - 26 if you include the starter sizes of pasta or mussel dishes. Pasta/ risotto (seven pastas and three risottos) and moules (five variations) each have their own separate sections. There are five salads, umpteen side dishes and a whole page of 16 main courses - none of which are vegetarian. Can any kitchen manage to produce so many dishes well? This is a kitchen with an identity crisis.

After 10 minutes of wading through the menu, a charming waiter - Elliott - took our order.

Some good bread - a rosemary and cranberry baguette arrived and things started to look up.

With only two tables, the kitchen was able to send us our starters double-quick.

Grumpy raved about his feta salad, which looked fresh and well presented. My chicken liver salad was also fine but the croutons were unpleasant, tiny, anaemic (apart from the crusts) flavourless cubes.

On a quiet evening, the chef had found time to do a spot of vegetable carving for the overly fussy plate presentation of my halibut steak. An attractively griddled (but marginally overcooked) piece of fish sat on excellent sautéed potatoes. Green olive tapenade - looking a lot more like black olive to me - was piled into the length of hollowed-out cucumber elaborately styled as a flower at the top. At £18.95 it came without other vegetables. I chose the mixed green vegetable combination - sounding more like an old-fashioned modern dance routine - which was undercooked and entirely without seasoning.

Grumpy's tasteless linguine with pesto, basil, pine nuts and parmesan was the nail in their culinary coffin. We asked for more pesto to pep it up. Several minutes later, a small dish arrived containing a flavourless mix of oil, basil and toasted pine nuts. It hadn't been close to a piece of cheese. I could have done a better job. Ronald McDonald could have done a better job. A pesto without cheese is flavoured oil.

To be fair, the helpful Elliott offered to refund our money or to give us a complimentary dessert.

We took the latter. They probably should have done both. But with three waiters and two tables, perhaps this wasn't an option.

Desserts are a mixture of old favourites - chocolate mousse, sticky toffee pudding - and clichés - frozen summer berries with hot white chocolate sauce and carpaccio of pineapple drizzled with hot chocolate.

We chose the special cheesecake - apple and cognac. Unfortunately, it hadn't set and we had to choose again. The warm apple tart tatin was a worthy replacement.

At £28 per head without the dessert and with only a glass of wine each, the prices here are too high not to serve top-notch food.

Ironically, service - the best bit about our evening - was not included in the bill. Elliott and his co-waiter Roberto were charming and efficient. The best I've seen in a long time. Great service, a great room but a kitchen that let's them down.

San Carlo does offer a weekend brunch which looks better priced and, with a shorter offer, more achievable. There's also Wi-Fi. Perhaps that's the time to visit.

A few snippets of local food news. This week, I tried a few goodies from XO's new XO To Go outlet which has opened next to the main restaurant. They'll be doing breakfast (pastries, muesli, coffees), lunch (bento boxes, sushi and sashimi and salads) and dinners to be reheated at home. They're also planning picnic hampers for when the sun returns. I'll let you know what they're like when I look at picnic hampers next month.

San Carlo, 2 Highgate High Street, N6 5JL


020-8340 5823

Food: three-star rating

Service: five star rating

Opening hours: Monday- Friday noon-midnight

(dinner served from 5.30pm), Saturday and Sunday 10.30am-midnight

Cost: Two courses with wine about £30 per head.