Café Renoir is one of a clutch of places that seem to have been part of the fabric of Kentish Town forever. In fact, owner Karim is one year shy of two decades slap bang at the centre of the high street action.
Years ago I remember lunching, sat out on the nice-if-you-can-bear-the-traffic terrace, tucking in to decent enough omelettes and crepes. It was one of the main drag’s posher café options, but still not really somewhere for much more than a swiftly gobbled lunch.
Then came the revolution. The Canteen opened just up the road, neighbouring pubs applied the polish and started offering posh grub, even the nicotine-yellowed caff opposite was transformed into the UK’s most celebrated kebab shop.
So Renoir refocused, refitted and relaunched, adding a full evening menu. With the swelling Frentishtowner contingent, they played to the strengths of being an all-day brasserie, and also offering a ‘healthy choice’, presumably the range of salads and juices, not the burgers.
Long overdue a proper visit, we finally took a seat in the window last month and ordered a keenly-priced decent bottle of red, La Fontaine Pinot Noir (£18.95), to kick things off. Meanwhile our starters were swiftly dispatched.
Simple classics, they were nevertheless both heartily enjoyable. A very generous mound of Scottish smoked salmon topped neat slices of wholemeal bread (£5.45), the quality of the fish shining through (although a more interesting loaf would be preferable). A hint of horseradish offered a hit on the side too. Grilled Halloumi was plentifully loaded, the salty cheese ideal for accompanying juicy tomatoes and a sweet balsamic glaze.
We enjoyed the casual ambience and unfussy service, and Karim, who had invited us, pulled up a chair to explain more about the patchwork of various Renoir paintings that brightened up the walls long before the arrival of the French school gave the area its latest accent.
For mains, a sirloin steak came served atop a whole heap of broccoli with a punchy whisky, mushroom and onion sauce (£12.45). While a good value piece of meat, its flavour was no match for more expensive examples on offer locally, yet it was cooked perfectly medium-rare. The lack of chips (plus all that broccoli) chimed with the ‘healthy’ mantra too.
Better was the seabass fillet (£10.95): crispy skin, light and delicate, again coming with a more-than-decent (too much?) serving of spinach.
And, as we polished off our vino, making preparations for home in the harsh elements (via a fortifying ale at the Southampton, as it happened), we agreed that this is an underrated local spot for dinner.
It’s difficult to quibble with the value and the staples all executed well. You won’t find anything too adventurous, yet the familiarity of the dishes and their provenance has all been carefully considered.