It helps to have a satnav or to know the Sheen area of west London, just outside Richmond, when you drop in at Paul Merrett's new venture, the Victoria. Tucked away in a residential back street, with atmospheric mist spilling on to the lanes from the nearby Thames on autumnal evenings, it's not the type of showy place in which you'd expect to find Merrett, a former Michelin-starred chef and frequent TV broadcaster but he seems to be a happy, if somewhat tired, man.
"We do brunches as well as lunch and dinner, and it's full-on. When the rugby's on at Twickenham, which is just over the bridge, we get rammed," he says.
Secret weapon He is in charge of food and has a core kitchen team of two, including sous chef Chris Marriott, although this does increase to five over the weekends, the Victoria's busiest trading time. With weekend covers rising to 120 for Sunday lunch, and up to 70 on Saturday evenings, Merrett needs all the help he can muster. "My KPs are my secret weapon - I've trained them up to do pastry," he says.
Pulling trade through the doors is a tasty, admirably concise menu drawn up by Merrett to reflect seasonal produce, sourced in the majority from the UK and, as far as possible, from small producers.
Suppliers include pork from Essex, rose veal from Helen Browning's organic farm in Oxfordshire, fish and 21-day-hung south Devon beef from the West Country (served simply in the grill section of the Victoria's menu), mussels from Norfolk and salad leaves from Secretts Farm in Kent.
Merrett's forte in his Michelin days was combining classicism with a touch of exotic spicing and ingredients and, though simplified for a gastropub setting, his dishes at the Victoria continue in this vein. Typical fare on the Á la carte, served in an airy timber-framed conservatory dining room, are Jersey rock oysters with a shallot and white balsamic dressing, accompanied by a shot glass of watermelon, mint and chilli (£7.50) and a constant best-seller of cumin-rubbed lamb loin matched with braised shoulder served in pastilla form, a good crunch of sweet potato chips and smoked aubergine (£16).
His customers obviously have a taste for smoked produce, as a fillet of eel (£7.50) - tinged satisfyingly with oak-smoking and served with a nicely contrasting cut of apple and some bittersweet treacle-cured bacon - has also been popular.
At the moment, there's a lot of winter veg and mushrooms creeping on to the menu and game. A duck terrine with dried cranberries, walnuts and foie gras (£7.50) has just superseded its predecessor terrine of rabbit. And Merrett has recently put on a casserole of venison, using fallow deer meat from the Powderham estate in Devon, which he's serving with a chestnut dumpling.
Puds are properly in the realm of gastropub comfort treats: think chocolate or winter crumbles, although the crumbles can be deconstructed with fruit and topping separated on the plate - which goes to prove that you can take the man away from Michelin, but you can't totally take Michelin out of the man.
"Michelin baggage," as Merrett calls it, also surfaces in a demand for consistency. "I'd rather not put a dish on the menu than put it on and have it done wrong," he says.
It's early days at the Victoria , but you can see he's on the case.
â" The Victoria, 10 West Temple, Sheen, London SW14 7RT. Tel: 020 8876 4238. www.thevictoria.net
What's on the menu
â- Ceviche of organic Shetland salmon with lime, vanilla and wasabi dressing, lotus root and soya beans, £7.50
â- Salad of chargrilled portobello mushroom, Cheltenham beetroot and Mrs Bell's Blue cheese, £6.50
â- Spiced mussel and coconut velouté with curry leaf, basil, crisp squid, £6.50
â- Pan-fried Lyme Bay halibut on cabbage and mushroom stew, with thyme, garlic and clams, £16.50
â- Gloucester Old Spot pork chop, red onion jam and toasted polenta, £15.
â- Potato and basil gnocchi with fresh porcini, onion squash, pine nuts, truffle oil and rocket, £11
â- Grilled sirlon of British organic rose veal, wild mushrooms, herb and green pea purée, £18
â- Greengage crumble with baked egg custard and nutmeg, £5
â- Steamed sponge pudding with spiced apple, blackberry iceâ'cream, £5