A discreet, but tasteless, affair

HOLLIHEAD; Jason Court, 76 Wigmore Street, London W1H 9DQ. Tel: 0171 224 2992. Open for lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2.30pm, for dinner Monday to Saturday 6 to 11pm. Average price, pounds 20 per person. Major credit cards accepted
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There Are times in the life of even the most frivolous restaurant critic when the heart sinks. My own sank several centimetres as I entered Jason Court, an alley on the north side of Wigmore Street opposite the famously fashionable and richly boutiqued St Christopher's Place, to find the door of Hollihead. On the right of Jason Court there is a trichological clinic, with a shop window full of enlarged scalp disorders and guarantees of hair replacement in English and Arabic. Hollihead, which glows in designer blue neon over the doorway, is on the left a few feet in, and the swimming pool-patterned carpet leading down into the basement of the restaurant is, if anything, less stimulating to the taste buds.

My wife, who has been around a bit, said it reminded her of one of the Lebanese restaurants that opened in Lagos immediately after Independence. I think this is unfair, if only to late- Fifties Lebanese decor in West Africa. Hollihead looks very much as if it had been designed from pastel drawings of other restaurants in quality Sunday magazines. There is a vaguely leaf-shaped pattern in blue glass in the ceiling, leaning elliptical windows in all the doors, a wall of bottle and glass motifs in frosted glass to hide the wine store, an entirely gratuitous ship's rail curving down the middle of the room, and oblong, high-backed chairs in pastel red, turquoise, purple and eau-de-nil. Even the very attentive waiters, who automatically laid a splayed hand in the small of their backs when pouring wine, had the look of those gangling, wide-shouldered, tiny-headed approximations of humanity added by illustrators to make the room look a bit more real.

The staff themselves, as I say, could not be faulted. They had strong, vaguely French accents and wore a variety of costumes from comfortable gents suiting to blue tunics. The greeter, in a suit, congratulated us on making the journey from Kensington. The head waiter, in a slightly more expensive suit, explained that the chef aimed at what he called "Modern European" food as he did not wish to be limited by any particular etiquette being attached to his work. This, as French speakers among you will know, means a label.

Some things about Hollihead are fine, and one of them is the pricing. All the starters are pounds 4.50, main courses cost pounds 10.50 with vegetables extra and one supplement, and all the puddings cost pounds 4.50. The "optional gratuity" of 12.5 per cent which is automatically added to the bill I am not so sure about. The clientele is roughly what you would expect from the dental and medical end of Marylebone, with an earnest American entertaining shy English guests, a very loud Egyptian lady in the throes of bathroom conversion and a table full of Chinese businessmen one of whom smoked his cigarette with the strange, twisted smile shown in illustrations of opium dens.

Faced with the choice of hot Vichycoise, cured breast of goose, soused fillet of mackerel, terrine of port confit, tuna carpaccio, pressed terrine of artichokes, and salad of trotter and black pudding with sauce gribiche, we had a bit of a think. In the end, my wife ordered the goose, which came with orange, juniper and pancetta, and I thought it was my duty to have the trotter salad.

Influenced perhaps by my wife's talk of the exotic, I also searched through the wine list for something suitably louche. There was a good variety of wine from all over the world. The Lebanese wine was rather expensive at pounds 27 a bottle, but I found a Chilean De Martino Maipo Valley 1995, at pounds 14.50. It was a very vivid purple, and rather corrosive.

By this time, our first courses had arrived, and my wife had gone into her Cassandra impersonation. Her cured goose came on a tossed green salad, draped with a propeller pattern of what turned out to be very salty streaky bacon. She did not like it at all. It was not on the menu. It was terribly salty. Fortunately, the Egyptian lady won on decibels. Underneath, among the frizzy lettuce and parings of cheese there was another wilted propeller of pink goose. It was chewy. I did much better with my first course of black pudding and trotter salad. The little discs of black pudding were very mild, the trotter salad practically non-existent, and the cold green sauce - usually, I later discovered from Larousse, served with fish - had a rather subtle flavour.

For our main course, my wife, thinking she could buy her way out of trouble, had haunch of venison, honey-roast parsnips, button onions and choux de Bruxelles, all of which carried the pounds 4 supplement. I, more modestly, had confit leg of duck, braised red cabbage and rosti. The alternatives were blue-cheese risotto, fried fillet of cod, roasted salmon or braised shank of lamb. The venison came in big, rarish chunks, with a texture suggesting a deer that had led a very sedentary life. The parsnips were good, there were no Brussels sprouts, but there were some pretty insipid slices of swede. My duck-leg arrived with a thin, biscuit-like disc of rosti resting on top like a drunken halo mounted on a little pad of red cabbage, and was fine.

For puddings, there was a range of sticky things, including a hot mango souffle with passion fruit sauce which would take 20 minutes, white and dark chocolate sorbet, spicy baked chocolate pudding, roasted pears and ice-cream, and a mixed-nut tart with mead ice-cream. We had one banana creme brule, which was a mistake, containing as it did slices of greyish raw banana, and one citrus sorbet on a lemon yoghurt mousse with orange syrup, which was excellent.

On the whole, unless you are having an affair that demands absolute discretion, I think I'd probably give Hollihead restaurant a miss. Dinner for two, including the optional gratuity charge, came to pounds 68.06.