Such was the suction less than a week after it opened that when my friends Sharon and Tina and I arrived young people were already being kept at bay by two sturdy black guys wearing earpieces. We, however, were waved through because we had a reservation, in itself no mean feat: "Your call is being transferred. Please hold"... two-minute wait... "Hel-lo! Thank-you for calling the automated answering service. Press star for a list of requirements or hold"... further wait... "Hel-lo! Thank you for calling the automated..." and so on. For nine minutes before I got a person.
Inside, it was like arriving at the end of a gallery opening: a beautiful space and everyone in black, but all pissed and shouting. After nosing round the bar and the Mezzonine cafeteria - lines of blonde wood tables, two-thirds empty - we swept down the grand fin de siecle staircase to the restaurant proper. It looks rather as if the Cotton Club or a huge Parisian brasserie had found itself in the kitchenware department at the Conran Shop. Built on the site of the former Marquee club, it is a vast basement with tables for 450, bustling with waiters and dressed-up diners, reflected in huge mirrors: with jazz at the front, glamorous red banquettes round the edge and a kitchen in the corner.
"I'm really enjoying myself," enthused Sharon as we were led to our table. "You feel, wow, you're in somewhere really smart." "I feel under pressure from the mirrors because they're slanting in on me," muttered Tina. "It makes me anxious because it's so large - the service will be probably bad."
"Let me drape you, ma'am," murmured our charming young waiter, slipping Tina's serviette on to her lap. "Those are beautiful jackets you're wearing," flirted Sharon. "Jasper made them," said the delightful young whippersnapper. "Jasper Conran? Marvellous!" we gushed. "It's not silk or anything," he said, backing off nervously. "Let's keep it in perspective."
The menu offers a broad mix, with an emphasis on grills and seafood. "The words lobster and caviar make me feel very excited because I was born on a council estate," boasted Sharon. "Well, I went to a comprehensive school," said Tina defensively.
Starters were a huge success. My mussels were very good, served with rocket and a light tomato dressing. Sharon was feeling insecure because the last time she'd come with me to do a review her friend Tracey had stolen the limelight by being sick. Although I explained that I didn't want people to feel they had to be sick, she'd insisted on ordering crab salad, salty duck egg and coriander, but unexpectedly loved it. "It's sheer perfection. Very, very nice." "My cheese and onion tart with artichoke salad is very good though I have a slight reservation about the pastry, which I would prefer a little crisper," bellowed Tina. "However, the flavours are very well executed with nothing overpowering so that the lesser ones can rise to the fore. Thank you."
It was, what with the jazz and the 450 seats, extraordinarily loud. But gigantic noisy restaurants are the thing of the moment - with Belgo Centraal, the Sports Cafe and Conran's other giant haunt, Quaglino's, all seating more than 300 in the West End already and two more whoppers on the way. They are, apparently, catering for a new breed of customer - young and willing to include upmarket food with shouting in their idea of a good night out. You're not going to find your Michael Caines in Mezzo, or a smart foodie crowd - more likely people coming in from the edges of London for a lovely night on the town, and they were certainly having that. "If I wasn't in such a good mood I would find this intolerable," roared Tina.
The main courses were a bit patchy. Sharon was very disappointed with her grilled leek, tomato and fontina tart. "It's a pizza with a leek on it." she said, hurt. I thought my duck with red curry was really good: crisp outside, tender in, not too fatty, served with whole coriander leaves, good rice and an excellent coconutty sauce. Tina violently took against her grilled poussin with pancetta. "It's over-blackened and too oily, with a thick slimy cheese sauce on the potatoes, like being given a great big brick to eat."
For dessert, Paul, our waiter, recommended the griottines cherry parfait. "It's so alcoholic you wouldn't believe it. You mustn't take big mouthfuls." "I'll have that then," I said quickly. Tina went for the creme brulee and Sharon chose the lemon tart which, annoyingly, impressed Paul. "Very good choice," he said. "It's one of the hardest desert to make well." "Oh exactly," purred Sharon, "very brave in a new restaurant." "Oh it is. It is," agreed Paul. All the deserts were excellent but I don't think the lemon tart warranted quite so much fuss. "It doesn't look spectacular..." Sharon and our waiter were still gushing on when it was all eaten "...but then the work that goes into it..." "Well, quite. Was it made by he chef or a she chef?" "A she chef." "Really? A she chef?" "Who is a she chef?" bellowed Tina. "Now," said Paul, collecting himself, "Would anyone like a coffee?"
The bill came to pounds 120 all in. If you arrive after 10.30 they will charge you an extra pounds 5 each for the jazz, which we would happily have paid not to have. Personally, I'd rather eat somewhere smaller and less hysterical - but it's hard not to see such a bold, well run and beautifully designed set up as a wholly good thing. And the service is divine.Reuse content