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Cult of Celebrity

London -- Would we have eaten at Fifteen London if owner Jamie Oliver weren't a television celebrity? Would anyone? The answer is a definite yes — not because of any famous-person allure (Oliver was absent the night we visited, his name and face hardly visible except in a cookbook on display), but because the experience of dining there was resoundingly good.

London is known for its spectacular Indian cuisine and still-dreary pub fare, and for the incursion of American fast-food franchises on many corners. The golden arches are within queen's-eye view of Windsor Castle; the Colonel is more evident than the prince. So it's no wonder that a television chef as charming and well-branded as Oliver would attract his own cult of followers and that his claim to fame — natural ingredients simply prepared, thus his title of Naked Chef — would qualify as a still-hot ticket for locals and food-minded tourists.

The restaurant's mission, to support an apprenticeship program for underprivileged young people, makes its fare more palatable, but people don't continue to fill the upstairs trattoria and downstairs dining room because of charitable instincts. They come because of the confluence of dining experience musts: excellent food well-presented, professional service and an interesting atmosphere made more so by lively customers and well-chosen spirits. The London location of Oliver's brainchild just hit its fifth birthday; other branches in Amsterdam, Cornwall and Melbourne carry the ethic a bit farther.

As in other London eateries, such as the natural fast-foods café Leon, menus emphasize locally grown and raised ingredients and subtle preparations. Fifteen's menu of rustic Italian dishes ranges from cauliflower risotto or oxtail-sauced gnocchi to trout wrapped in speck, confit leg of Telmara duck or root-vegetable gratin. A roomful of happy diners captured the Oliver spirit, whether he was at home with his young family or on a publicity junket elsewhere. No doubt some of his ideas will eventually find a home here too, as diners clamor for honest, local food wrapped in comfortably trendy packages.

Try the Special

Jimmy Tsamouras, who bought the North Side hangout Dot's Back Inn not quite a year ago, got his first, fleeting shot at stardom last week when the Food Network came calling. "They shot 10 hours for six minutes of airtime," he says, "which means I still have nine minutes of fame left." The program, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," enters its third season in January, and the local episode airs in a couple of months. Spiky-haired host Guy Fieri charmed the diner's regulars, who camped it up for the cameras. "Everybody he talked to loved him and had a great time — they didn't want him to leave," Tsamouras says. He counts himself among those new fans: "Our chemistry was great, we cooked well together, and this makes me want to have my own show." And while The Village Cafe in the Fan was also featured, word is that Millie's Diner declined to be involved. S

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