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Gresslin, Hampstead NW3

Richard D. Carreño packs his passport and goes North!

What's a 'West End restaurant' doing in a North London neighbourhood? 'Well, times change,' says Michael Gresslin, chef-owner of Gresslin's, a Hampstead restaurant that's putting West End pizzazz into neighbourhood dining. 'We want to be a destination. We don't want to be just a local restaurant,' Gresslin said recently during a brief time-out from his cooking chores.

It wasn't always like that. When German-born Gresslin first opened the restaurant in Hampstead's main drag in 1996, the original target audience emphasised strictly a local clientele. But Hampstead has been a hot fashionable address and, in that climate, Gresslin's fitted in snuggly. Not surprisingly diners responded swiftly and loyally, drawn to Gresslin's innovative style combining modern European cuisine with Oriental concepts.

'Now', says Michael Gresslin, 'it's time for the rest of London to be treated to what north Londoners have been raving about for the past two years'. We had heard the raves too and were eager to get the Gresslin treatment. Our party of three trundled up from central London one evening and the journey (ours was by car) was surprisingly easy. We even parked near the restaurant, just two streets away. The nearest tube stop is Hampstead.

The restaurant itself is a warm, friendly place decorated with striking black-and-whte photographs by Marc Schlossmann. Bare, blond beechwood tables also maintain the motif of informal simplicity. Service is attentive but never intrusive.

In all, fifty-six diners can be accomodated on two floors. A private dining room seats another sixteen diners. Follow our experience and try for a ground floor table. (Ours looked out onto Heath Street and we enjoyed watching the activity outside.)

Gresslin's signature dishes accent his ingenious blend of European and Oriental tastes. Main courses range from the imaginative - grilled mahi mahi with cous cous - to the exotic - ostrich with a caramelised mango and green pepper sauce. One of our starters underscored the fusion theme. This was a warmed spring onion hopper with Thai salad, sauteed squid and crispy seaweed (Stg.95). We were knocked out by the combined tastes, enlivened with a sweet-and-sour dressing flocked with garlic.

What inspired Michael Gresslin to such creativity? At first, his culinary background was relatively traditional - eleven years at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Germany. His interest in Oriental cooking then got a boost from spending two years in the mid-1980s in Sri Lanka. Later he moved to London and cooked at the Berkely Hotel and at the Hotel Inter-Continental. But his 'most influential' experience was working with the renowned London chef, Anton Mosimann.

Our main course selections were more traditionally European although Michael Gresslin's Oriental twist still prevailed. A tender braised lamb shank served with chick peans, root vegetables and a star anise sauce (Stg12.95); delicate tasting roast cod with leaf spinach, spiced aubergine caviar and gumbo sauce (Stg12.50); a barbecued chicken breast served with roasted sweet potatoes, a tomato and garlic confit and hosin sauce (Stg11.50) were all blockbuster palate pleasers.

These and other menu treats are also remarkably affordable. The most expensive starter (a prawn and noodle salad) is Stg6.95 and the most expensive main course (guinea fowl with red cabbage) checks in at Stg13.95. (The ostrich main course, a special on the night we visited, was Stg16.50.) Wines are also reasonably priced.

For dessert, restaurant manager Robert Holland suggested that we try a combination platter for two. For an economical 11 pounds we sampled five mouth-watering desserts including pecan brownies, a caramelised lemon tart, baked pears and three different flavoured sorbets. Individually the deserts run from Stg3.50 to Stg4.50.

Gresslin says he wants to continue to break new ground. Sauerkraut - mining his German roots - may even pop up one day. He also notes that customers frequently ask if he plans to open another restaurant closer to where they live. 'When are you coming down to Richmond?' is one such refrain. Perhaps one day. But, for the time being, diners will have to travel to Hampstead. And, as we discovered, the trip will be memorable.

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