It was almost too good to be true. A friend of my wife's told me about a new restaurant that was so badly managed it made Cipriani look like the Caprice. She and seven friends had sat down for dinner at 8.30pm and weren't served until 11.15pm. The mains arrived before the starters and, when they finally got the bill at 1.30am, not only had they been charged full price, but 12.5% had been added for service. To cap it all, this restaurant was in Shepherd's Bush, merely a stone's throw from my house.
Not one to pass up an opportunity like this, I trotted along to Chez Kristof, notebook in hand, eagerly anticipating a series of disasters. Just to make sure, I booked a table at 9.30pm on a Friday when I knew the staff would be at full stretch. Located on Hammersmith Grove, Chez Kristof is in a part of London that's starved of fashionable restaurants so there was no danger of it being half empty. Sure enough, when I got there every table was encircled by a party of noisy West Londoners and there was an unruly mob at the bar waiting to be seated. This promised to be a meltdown of legendary proportions.
Alas, nothing went wrong. The people on my right had to make do without any plates and the people on my left complained about being overcharged, but my meal went off without a hitch. I literally had to dig around in the back of my seat to try and find something to moan about and all I came up with were a couple of loose screws. I felt thoroughly cheated.
To tell the truth, even if something had gone wrong, it would have been difficult to take a dislike to this restaurant. It's the latest offering from Jan Woroniecki, the man behind Wodka and Baltic, and, whatever the shortcomings of the food at these establishments, he's a genius when it comes to atmosphere. Like Wodka and Baltic, Chez Kristof has a wonderfully louche, aristocratic air about it, as if the staff have just returned from an incredibly debauched house party at a stately home. They give the impression of being willing to tolerate almost any behaviour, however outlandish, provided it's carried off with enough style. As a critic, I feel obliged to return the favour.
The food is about as unpretentious as you can get and still be described as "French". It's served in iron skillets which, judging from their temperature, have just been removed from the oven. I had pigeon breast accompanied by lentils and bacon, while my companion, Derek Draper, had pork and peas. My waitress sweetly asked me what I thought of my main course and when I told her it was a little bland she said, "Well, that's lentils for you." You can't argue with that. Derek had more luck with his main course and neither of us had any complaints about our black pudding starters.
Chez Kristof is in the same site that used to be occupied by Maquis, Sam Clark's unsuccessful attempt to duplicate the success of Moro. Ironically, Maquis served almost exactly the same regional French cuisine as Chez Kristof, yet I've no doubt that this restaurant will succeed where Maquis failed. The truth is that when it comes to attracting a young, gregarious crowd, atmosphere is much more important than food and Chez Kristof already has the kind of buzzy ambience that 192 enjoyed at its height.
The interior is so basic, I couldn't tell if it's meant to look like this or whether it's simply unfinished. There are huge expanses of white space where you'd expect there to be some form of decoration. It may well be unfinished since it had only been open for two weeks. On the way back from the loo I took a wrong turn and ended up in a room full of building materials. However, the fact that it's impossible to tell is somehow in keeping with the relaxed, anything goes atmosphere. I daresay Jan Woroniecki has plans to decorate Chez Kristof eventually, but simply hasn't got round to it. I have a hunch that he'll have at least 20 years to procrastinate. Chez Kristof has the unmistakable smell of a West London fixture.