Blair-free zone

Food - Bee Wilson lifts the curse off <em>that</em> new Labour restaurant

From its very beginnings, new Labour has been associated with one particular restaurant. It was at Granita, in Islington, north London, at a discreet table hidden away at the back, that Tony Blair, one fateful night, persuaded Gordon Brown to support his leadership bid. And it is Granita that still gets mentioned in those sneering references to the fashionable polenta-eating mores of Tony's cronies, even though it is years now since the Blair family actually lived in Islington.

The apolitical silly season might not be the best time to attempt such a mission, but I dined there the other night, with the aim of seeing whether, three and a bit years into the party's term, Granita really is the new Labour of the restaurant world. Our first impression was that Granita was less like a politician than a retiring civil servant. If Blair is the master of grinning self- promotion, Granita is self-effacing. It is located on Upper Street, a restaurant-packed thoroughfare quite as deceptively long as vermicelli that stretches from Highbury Corner to Angel. We got completely lost from one end to the other, but three different shop owners assured us that they had never heard of Granita. When we found it, the front was masked in scaffolding. Inside is a long, subdued, Habitaty kind of room, more Frank Field than Derry Irvine or John "Two-Jags" Prescott.

The first thing we tasted, however, gave us a momentary frisson of Toniness. On the menu, "crispy chicken, soy, sake, ginger marinade, spring onion, coriander" sounded as if it might be a burnished fowl of the kind you see hanging in Chinatown windows. When it arrived, however, it looked more like fast-food chicken nuggets with a bowl of dipping sauce on the side. My friend, who excels at melodrama, exclaimed in disappointment that the owners had put it on the menu only to make Lord Sainsbury feel at home - a touch of populism "for the kids", or the Dome-going fragments. But this was unfair. The chicken was, in fact, delicious: good brown meat in light, greaseless batter, with a nice freshness from the sprigs of coriander and pieces of spring onion, only marred by a too salty sauce. I've eaten at the Dome; it would be impossible to find chicken one-tenth as good in that preposterous tent.

As the evening progressed, the polenta jibes thrown at Granita came to seem more and more slanderous. The food was the essence of substance over style, executed with real taste and flair, but without any pretension. I wanted to eat everything on the menu (which did not actually mention polenta). Most dishes delivered on all their promises. You get lovely little pots of unsalted butter and excellent sourdough bread. The aubergine puree was the best I've ever tasted, refreshingly cuminy, with a crisp, frangible flatbread and a tomato, parsley and green-olive salad, seasoned with intelligence.

Duck braised with carrots and rosemary fell off the bone in moreishly gelatinous mouthfuls. As for "chargrilled squid", served in an aromatic broth of "potatoes, peas, fino and mussels", it banished the thought that this sea creature could ever be anything but melting and sweet. Everything was reasonably priced (£4.50-£5.95 for starters, £10-£14.50 for main courses). We drank good half-bottles of Pouilly Fume and Rioja (£8.95 each), and developed a sense of gratified well-being.

The service was charming and efficient. The clientele seemed grown-up, but not in a pagers-and-bullet-points kind of way. As I ate an unctuous orange creme caramel with pleasingly squidgy raspberries, I felt a sense of mounting fury that Granita should have been wrongfully labelled in this way. It is actually less representative of the fleeting and populist values of modern party politics than perhaps a hundred other establishments in the capital.

Tony and Gordon should have eaten in a Conran gastrodome that night. Granita doesn't need their notoriety. It is a good restaurant in its own right - perhaps even a great one.

Granita, 127 Upper Street, London N1 (020-7226 3222)

This article first appeared in the 28 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Secrecy laws will never be the same