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Graze

14 April 2005 by

Sebastien Gagnebé, head chef at new Maida Vale project Graze, is reeling. He has just been hit by a volley of verbal bullets from London's restaurant critic gang and has hardly had a chance to recover. Fay Maschler took issue with his more creative combinations; Tracey MacLeod was appalled by the mutton and lavender sauce; Giles Coren seemed fixated by an apparent incident involving what his companion thought she saw - via a CCTV monitor - of the chef's flesh.

Gagnebé, of course, refutes that particular episode, and says he feels like taking the videotapes to the Times to prove it. But he is more bothered by the reaction to his food. "I don't understand what the problem is with the mutton dish," he says. "Why did they love it at La Trouvaille but not here, when it is cooked in exactly the same way?"

La Trouvaille is the French restaurant off London's Carnaby Street where Gagnebé was at the helm before. People called it a bistro, but critics generally agreed his French-influenced dishes transcended that more straightforward tradition thanks to his trademark experimentation. "I don't think our new menu is more eccentric," he says, "but everybody seems to be shocked."

Dishes that have raised eyebrows include halibut with a peanut and dill pesto and black radish (£6.20); diver-caught scallops with a salsify and vanilla salad (£7.10); and confit goose breast with parsnip and arabica sauce (£6.50). The sauce is made by cooking crushed coffee beans with goose fat, shallots and pepper, then reducing it with Banyuls and 10 parts of mutton stock to one more serving of espresso.

Part of the problem for the critics - and, you'd imagine, a challenge for the four chefs in the kitchen - is the size of the menu, which features nearly 30 small dishes. The concept is that each diner orders as few as two or as many as five dishes - to graze. This idea has, of course, been explored already, most notably at the original Thyme, but it still has legs - particularly when many of the young, image-conscious and fairly wealthy crowd at Graze have more of an appetite for cocktail drinking than for feasting.

But the food is not just an accessory to the huge and stylish bar area. The dining room itself has 70 seats, and there is a far more serious side to Gagnebé's experimentation, as the presence of carp, perch, zander and pike together reveals. He serves haddock, plaice and other sea fish, too, so this is not just a quest to be different - but there is an interest in finding a viable alternative to endangered species.

"For a long time I have been looking into using river fish," he says, "not just because I am bored by salmon and sea bass but because everywhere we're being told that there is no cod left - and yet people still cook the same old cod and mash. Sometimes I think chefs must be stupid."

Although he says these alternatives are just as varied as sea fish in flavour and texture, sourcing the river fish creates its own problems. According to Gagnebé, the relevant fish farms are non-existent in the UK. His fish mostly come from France, with perch from Tanzania. When it comes to handling, the fish are similar to sea fish except that pike and carp have a lot of bones - "which makes it difficult in a restaurant". Pike (for potted pike) has been scarce in the past couple of weeks, so it has been taken off the menu.

Hopefully, inadequacies in the supply chain won't undermine efforts to promote more sustainable food. Hopefully, too, cold responses from the critics won't stop Gagnebé experimenting. Although he is planning to reduce the size of the menu and bunch the dishes under headings ("soups and salads", "fish", "meat", etc) to make the food more accessible, he remains unrepentant about the importance of innovation: "I read the other day about an ice-cream flavour for asparagus. People would assume it was new, but it wasn't; it was classical, from Escoffier. We all have brainwaves - that is always how we have cooked."

What's on the menu

Fiddlehead fern fritters with a creamy, spicy sauce, £3.40
Carp fish cakes with asparagus, £4.20
Marinated beef onglet with sesame seeds and ginger, £5.20
Perch fish and chips with wasabi mayonnaise, £4.80
Pig's trotter on toast with pan-fried foie gras, £4.50
Slow-cooked octopus with tomato and harissa, £5.90
Pumpkin roulade with orange flower and orange ice-cream, £3.75
Chocolate brownie with pecan nuts and olive oil ice-cream, £3.75

Graze, 215 Sutherland Avenue, London W9 1RU. Tel: 020 7266 3131. Website: www.graze.co.uk

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