Gabriel, just opened in Golden Square, exudes an air of instant confidence. It has, insanely - if one is not dining with a Gladiator - heavy doors of glass and gold, a sheer plate-glass front, a rich red designery bar area downstairs, big banquettes in trendy-restaurant blue, reproductions of classical pictures portraying fights and struggles projected through lightboxes on to the walls, and a chef who was formerly at Pied a Terre - the Michelin-starred restaurant, rather than the shoe shop.
Not that they have been throwing money around willy-nilly. "Well, the tables are nice and big but they haven't got any tablecovers on them," said Mum as we sat down. "And I don't think it's a good idea to have a coat rack in the entrance without a curtain over it. I mean, whose are all those coats, anyway - there are only four people in the restaurant?"
At nine o'clock on Saturday night it was pretty empty, with warbly soul music not helping. But the place had only been open one day, and all the advertising and film executives would presumably be busy kissing miniature Maxes and Isabellas goodnight before sitting down to dinner in country mansions full of Andrew Lloyd Webber, minor Picassos and members of the Cabinet. "Of course, nine o' clock's probably early for London," said Mum. "Well, it would be in Spain, wouldn't it? You wouldn't call it romantic, would you? You've got a lot of battles behind you, they're all dying. And that entrance looks like an office."
"Would you like a bread roll?" asked our waitress who was very nice and, like all the waitresses, looked like a Spice Girl who had had a makeover by The Face. "Well, I haven't got a side-plate," said Mum. "Don't worry, you can crumb out on the table," the waitress assured her.
"No. I think I'd like a side-plate please," said Mum, adding darkly. "I don't like not having any-thing to put my bread bun on. It's too Frenchy."
Gabriel's menu, in fact, is much more Frenchy than most new London restaurants: not an ostrich steak or chop suey with salsa polenta in sight but many gelees, boudins, tartes tatin and crepinettes with just the occasional spooky twist.
"Sole deep-fried in basmati rice? You can't deep-fry things in rice," said Mum, as she found herself "crumbing out" with unexpected pleasure and success - "I've never had a table top so ... responsive as this." But then our Face Spice arrived with the side-plates and dusted the crumbs away, leaving Mum complaining that there was nothing to play with now. The tables, in fact, were startlingly bare of candles or accoutrements. There wasn't even any salt and pepper - a sure sign of an arrogant chef. When our starters arrived we both agreed he had every right to be pleased with himself but not to the point of wilfully withholding salt and pepper.
Mine was scallop with a flake of truffle per-ched on a bed of white beans in a scallop shell, the whole in a delicate exquisite truffle-oil dressing. Beneath the scallop shell was a quantity of French seaweed which tasted like nothing so much as nothing, and seemed very large compared with the solitary pounds 6.25 scallop.
"This sole isn't fried in basmati rice, it's coated in it," muttered Mum. The rice made the bits of sole look like coconut biscuits, but otherwise made you wonder: when for centuries people have not been deep-frying their fish in basmati rice - why start now? The saffron sauce underneath, however, was another matter altogether - really fantastic - though as Mum gleefully pointed out "It's a little short of salt and pepper."
The wine list, as befits a new restaurant, is fairly ungreedily priced; house wine starts at pounds 12.50 with an even spread up to pounds 65. There are no half-bottles, though the three cheapest reds and whites come by the glass at around pounds 3.50.
By this time the restaurant was filling up a bit, but still not enough to justify the wait for the main courses, or their lukewarm temperature, though it was explained to us that this was all to do with a lift which would soon be a new improved faster, hotter, altogether zippier lift. They were, when they arrived, interesting and good: a rich, moist, stewed sort of cooking. The spicy coating on my guinea fowl was not as complicated or exciting as its "eight-spiced" title suggested but the accompanying apricot, fig and foie gras croustade was superb - even if they hadn't exactly splashed out on the foie gras. Mum's "crepinette of lamb with creamed white beans" arrived looking like a haggis, with some confit of garlic and a long, crispy slice of leek laid across it. Inside, the lamb was shredded, moist and almost steaming. "You know that plant I've got under the window?" said Mum, looking at the leek. "When the leaves die and drop off, it looks like that. It's good but it's got the old disease of all these fancy restaurants. This is very rich and beautifully cooked but you could just do with some crisp, green vegetables to go with it as a sort of contrast to the richness, and a bit of cheeseplant isn't a substitute."
Apple tart for pud was okay, the apple slices a bit dry, the pastry on the overdone side, and ser-ving it with an overpowering blue cheese was like having the Richard and Judy show presented by Winona Ryder and Lily Savage. Poached plums with fromage blanc infused with vanilla were heaven- sent, though we couldn't help whispering that it was somehow very Delia.
The bill with coffees, service and wine came to pounds 80.72 which seemed fair enough for some pretty classy food. We both agreed Gabriel seemed to have what it takes to make a success of things in the competitive Soho market - as long as they invest in a good tidy curtain for the coat rack and some nice salt and pepper pots.Reuse content