Say 'Wimbledon' and the first thing that springs to most minds is usually either tennis or The Wombles, or to those of a more literary bent, Nigel Williams' brilliant trilogy of SW19-based novels.
It's safe to say that one thing Wimbledon is not closely associated with is great restaurants; save for a couple of local gems - notably San Lorenzo Fuoriporta, an offshoot of Princess Di's favourite Knightsbridge Italian that during the tennis resembles a megastar players' canteen - the dining scene in SW19 is mostly limited to branches of some of the better chains and a couple of above-average pubs.
That could well be about to change, thanks to the arrival late last year of The Lawn Bistro in Wimbledon Village, where I enjoyed a splendid dinner with my local-resident pal Will recently. Here, the food is so accomplished, service so polished and the atmosphere - for the most part, but more on that later - so enjoyable that it will surely become as much a draw for visitors as the All England Lawn Tennis Club round the corner to which its name alludes.
The Lawn Bistro was opened in September 2011 by Akbar Ashurov - a man with such an unusually light online footprint that had I not seen him with my own eyes I might have doubted his existence - and Ollie Couillaud, formerly chef at (among others) Chiswick's high-end local favourite La Trompette. Couillaud was absent on the night we visited but a brigade ably led by his affable, rugged head chef Neil delivered a meal big on aces and with only very occasional faults.
In keeping with the comfortable modernity of the long, angled room, the daily-changing modern European menu is serious but accessible both in composition and price. At £27.50 for two courses or £32.50 for three - with hardly any of the supplements which I know I'm not alone in finding a huge irritant on supposedly set-price menus - it's not cheap but is very reasonable for the quality of the food that comes out of Couillaud's kitchen.
If our pre-starter of carrot and coriander soup with toasted seeds and hazelnut was immediately forgettable after the first mouthful, everything that followed more than made up for it. Our starter proper of ballotine of crab and leek was a beautiful, long neat cigar of sweet fresh filling, bathing in a luxurious champagne velouté in which a couple of oysters had been poached to just doneness. Not normally a fan of cooked oysters I found these lovely, retaining their briny flavour and plumpness but given an extra dimension by their warmth. Pickled ginger brought a fragrant, Eastern touch to the plate.
As a (much appreciated) little extra between courses, we were given a dish of venison carpaccio which as well as paper-thin slices of excellent meat brought together the earthiness of beetroot and celeriac remoulade with salty Parmesan and a slick of wonderful beef jus that took me by surprise with its intensity. Absent from the main menu, this is one of those dishes that if you see it, you should order it, as much for the thrill of that jus as for the brilliant rest.
Our main courses were perfect exemplars of what this restaurant is about: really smart but unfussy interpretations of classic bistro dishes. Plump, pink magret of duck, sitting on a subtle artichoke purée with some fondant potatoes and crisp curls of parsnip alongside and drizzled with a sticky port and orange sauce was at once wonderfully retro and totally now, given a lively kick by the inclusion of some boozy griottine cherries. Seared tuna - a pleasingly fat slab of fish - came with just-made caponata, butter bean hummus, olives and, for texture, a chick pea crisp. In isolation the flavours were all very low-key, but brought together on the fork the undertones made for a clever, complex mouthful.
After a livening palate cleanser of lemon sorbet in vodka - there's a combination I could get dangerously used to - we finished off with a seriously good pud of croustade of caramelised apples with hazelnut ice-cream. As well as enjoying the contrast of still slightly tart apple with the sweetness of the ice cream, I loved the witty presentation; the apple-filled, cone-shaped croustade came placed on top of a scoop of ice cream so that the whole resembled a dropped Cornetto, evoking childhood memories albeit without the tears.
Wine is taken very seriously. Diners pass through the wine room on the way to the loos and it's worth stopping to marvel at the glass-fronted cabinets' contents. We decided to order from the interesting selection available by the glass, discovering along the way a Slovenian sauvignon blanc - classically sauvignon on the nose but lighter and refreshingly more acidic on the palate - and a 2008 Austrian Blaufrankisch which, with its peppery black fruit, reminded me of a Gigondas. Good old Pedro Ximenez was perfect with the apple croustade, although so too was a wine we tried out of sheer curiosity, a sweet Helmut Lang Beerenauslese Chardonnay - I'd no idea that one of my favourite minimalist fashion designers produced dessert wines as good as his jeans.
Service, from smartly-uniformed (and terribly handsome) staff was excellent, perfectly-paced, courteous yet informal and with all the niceties of a smart restaurant without the silliness or stuffiness of fine dining. The atmosphere started off quiet but soon built to a comfortable lively buzz; alas as the restaurant filled, a table of five ladies d'une certaine age and a male pal, celebrating one of their birthdays, was seated next to us and even before their celebratory fizz started to kick in it quickly became apparent that their preferred means of communicating with each other was to screech and shout. Of course, restaurants can't know when taking a booking what a table's volume control is like, but perhaps seating a five next to a two is something best avoided.
That very minor gripe aside, everything that was within The Lawn Bistro's control I liked very much indeed. Our bill, for three courses, six glasses of wine, two stickies and 12.5% service came to £125 which felt reasonable; had we stuck to a bottle of wine from the lower end of the list - prices start at just£18 - we could have shaved about £30 off that.
The Lawn Bistro isn't just a welcome addition to Wimbledon, it's a fantastic new restaurant for all of London. It's certainly won me over, game, set and match.
The Lawn Bistro, 67 High Street, Wimbledon Village, London SW19 5EE Tel: 020 8947 8278 http://www.thelawnbistro.co.uk/