A game of English patience

THE SQUARE; 6-10 Bruton Street, W1X 7AG. Tel: 0171 495 7100. Open Mon-Fri 12-3pm and 7-11pm. Sat 7-11pm. Sun 7-10pm. Three-course dinner costs pounds 39.50. Major credit cards accepted

There is a certain atmosphere around Mayfair restaurants which comes from the vague feeling that 98 per cent of the clientele are not actually paying for their own dinners and quite a few might be paying for the company of their companions. Things seem high-class, luxurious, comfortable and insouciantly expensive, but somehow loveless.

The Square, newly transferred from its well established origins in St James's, is much more individual-seeming, modern and stylishly designed than most, without a strict dress code and with a distinct lack of stuffiness. While not the sort of place you'd go in the normal run of things unless you were very rich or mad (they have a drinks trolley which is purely for Armagnac), if you found yourself wanting to go for a businessy posh meal in Mayfair it would be a good choice.

The English Patient had just opened the week we visited, and there was a most appropriate deserty feel. I know that halogen lighting, splurgy modern oil paintings and flower arrangements the size of tumble driers are not a feature of your average desert landscape but, on the other hand, the walls were painted in a sandy textured beige which was very Sahel and the windows draped in muslin blinds, and the far wall was a shade of deep terracotta like a Moroccan pot. The bread rolls, which contained raisins, were so piping hot they might have been rushed to us straight from the top of a pedestal rock.

The waiting staff who, though otherwise charming young whippersnappers, required us to be both English and patient by forgetting first the butter, then the wine list, then the bottle of sparkling water (one waiter even accompanying his forgetfulness by joking: "You want it for tonight? You should have said so!"). Although the clientele was not particularly Ralph Fiennes, being more the grey-suited or big-earringed type, there was a definite hint of adultery hanging around the foursome at the next table, the blonde ringleader of whom was wearing a very tight Prince of Wales, checked mini-suit with a red handkerchief in the pocket.

"This is taking the p**s", said my date, as he glanced down the wine list. And certainly the sort of list where you can't find anything really nice to drink under about pounds 30 always seems a bit of a cheek, especially since here our chosen bottle of Chablis had to share its wine cooler in a loose, almost wife-swappy sort of way with the table next door,

The set three-course menu at pounds 39.50 plus service and coffee is one of those which includes surprises: the first of which was a little cup of cappuccino-like white bean and truffle oil soup. It was good, but we both agreed that a Cup-a-Soup - as my date insisted on calling it - at the start of a smart meal seems all wrong somehow, almost as if you should be having it in the office by the microwave or out of a flask at the top of a mountain. It was also quite salty, another desert theme which was to develop and mature as the meal progressed.

Decoration is an important part of The Square's cuisine. "This isn't ravioli, it's a raviolo," said Howard, looking at the single parcel of shellfish with samphire and herbs, which sat like a pair of big lips in the middle of a clockface of asparagus. He declared it delicious but thought it would have been more delicious if it had been smaller and several. "Ravioli's like a chocolate advent calender: even though it's the same chocolate every time, opening the parcels is part of the excitement." The sauce was good but a bit salty. My langoustines (at a pounds 5 supplement), looked very exciting, with three home-made crisps arranged like the propellers of Ralph Fiennes plane on top of a really successful ensemble of wild mushrooms and thyme and the plumpest, freshest-tasting, juiciest langoustines. It was a scrumptious starter, my only criticism being that it was the tiniest bit, well, salty.

The main courses reached dizzying new heights of food design. My sea bass looked like a successful version of that computer game called "Civilisation" where you have to design a city: there was a tagliatelle tower on top of a long, low building (sea bass) with a swamp underneath, and lots of parks and stuff (vegetables). The tagliatelle was lemony and fab, the sea bass sort of modern-tasting: crisp on the outside, beautifully judged on the inside, though a little salty. The vegetables were great, too, but just a teensy bit on the salty side.

"Mine looks like a slice of fruit cake which turns out to be lamb. It's very good, but if you were a crofter in Scotland it would keep you going for about five minutes," said Howard. Mercifully, however, it wasn't salty at all, and we looked forward to our puddings.

"I've had a little thimble full of cappuccino soup, then I had one raviolo, then I had the smallest piece of lamb ever known to mankind and a potato that was cut up into three little pieces, so I hope these puddings are big," said Howard. They were not only big but treble, being preceded by an exquisite creme brulee and followed by petits fours. They were not only big and treble but also mad giant sculptures on square glass plates: mine had a great horn protruding from it, like the kind of pudding the Wicked Witch of the West might make; Howard's was all sorts of multi-coloured streaks and very Jackson Pollock. Personally, I don't like this sort of sculpture park business at the end of the meal - it makes you feel all messy and tired.

But my rhino horn thing was the one to order - a pastry containing warm apple puree and accompanied by green apple sorbet. Complete heaven. Dinner for two including wine, drinks and service came to something over pounds 70 a head, but then salt can be very expensive when you're in the desert.

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