Dressing for dinner

FROCKS; 95 Lauriston Road, Victoria Park, London E9 7HJ. Tel: 0181 986 3161. Open weekdays, 11-2.30, Monday to Saturday, 6.30-11, and for all day breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, 11-4. Average price per head, pounds 20. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
Frocks in Hackney isn't at all what you would expect. The restaurant may be plumb in the middle of London's East End, but there is absolutely no-one eating jellied eels, or tucking their thumbs into the armholes of their waistcoats, or calling the waiter their old cock sparrow, or shouting "Oi!"

Our sophisticated guest, who had kept us in fits all the way there with her story of entertaining a party of millionaires in Pittsburgh with rubber fried eggs and imitation chips, thought from the mulberry coloured shop front that it might originally have been a frock shop. Her theory was reinforced when we sat down at the marble-topped table in the window and found a sewing machine treadle underneath. This my wife operated from time to time while we were waiting for our food, irritatingly spinning an unseen metal wheel against my inner leg.

Our other guest, an Australian architect of great distinction, fine good looks and extreme charm, was delighted with the view from the window, which was of a wide boulevard lined with nice houses, and was particularly intrigued by what he thought was a red brick Arts and Crafts church opposite whose design he liked and went on liking.

Inside, Frocks is perhaps just a bit dated camp, with a lot of scraped and polished pine, Edwardian stained glass panels in the doors and tastefully painted directions to the lavatory, telephone and dining room downstairs. On the way down the floral-carpeted stairs to the dining room - a very cosy place with a gas imitation fire and a joke notice saying Please Mind Your Head on a very high doorway - there is a rack full of pamphlets for the National Theatre, the Royal Ballet and other such clutter, witness to Hackney's continuing cultural renaissance.

Our sophisticated guest suggested it might be a lark to write the entire review about the decor and never mention the food once, but even she - and she really is very sophisticated indeed - withdrew that when she saw the menu. This is changed once a fortnight, but the night we were there there were seven starters. Of these we eschewed the soup of the day, a monkfish terrine with a tomato and basil sauce, and a salad of french beans, pears and walnuts with warm Cambozola croutons. Instead we had, between the four of us, kedgeree fishcakes with lime yoghurt, a scallop and broccoli flan with a sweet pepper sauce, linguine with guinea fowl and bacon and an orange tarragon sauce, and parmesan risotto rissoles with caramelised tomatoes.

The other side of the laminated sheet was the drinks list, some well chosen wines ranging from pounds 7.50 to pounds 17 a bottle, with a good selection of halves, suggesting a frugal Hackney hedonism, from pounds 5.50 to pounds 8.50. In more expansive mood ourselves, we drank two bottles of Burgundy, a robust Chateau de Chamirey at pounds 14.50 a bottle. Without harping on the decor again,the tap water we ordered came in a charming ribbed glass jug of the kind found in schools and hospitals in the 50s.

We all tried a bit of everybody else's starter, and it was hard to say which was best. The linguine, probably, for the texture of the pasta and the tarragon flavour of the guinea fowl, but the parmesan risotto rissoles were deliciously crunchy, the scallop and broccoli flan more delicate than sounds possible, and the kedgeree fishcakes tasting like the best of both. Having been doing this job for quite a long time now I was over- confident enough to ask the waiter whether they used potato in the fishcakes, to which he very reasonably said "Why? Are you thinking of making them?"

The main courses included mozzarella, basil and asparagus in puff pastry topped with pine nuts with a tomato sauce, and free range chicken breast on a warm tomato and onion salad with a dill vinaigrette, but my sophisticated friend chose a salmon and tiger prawn brochette with saffron rice and a spinach sauce, all of which she wolfed before the rest of us could get a sniff of it.

My wife had a big bowl of wild boar and beans casseroled with peppers and olives under a coriander gratin of which I was allowed a few tender and subtly-flavoured chunks, as well as a slice of our architect friend's roasted magret of duck with fondant potatoes and a thyme jus. I had ordered venison sausages with mashed potatoes and a juniper gravy, and distributed half-sausages in exchange, with some relief as I thought they were a bit gristly, but other people liked them more than I did.

All this time, as we were in Hackney, the conversation sparkled and glittered: how good the magazine Perspectives - had become, how Country Life started, how lovely the column about ancient handicrafts was, and whether one architect skilled in loft extensions deserved the accolade of "the Closet King".

There is a warning on the menu about the food being freshly prepared and the customer's need for patience, and it is true that our coffee and camomile tea - the last brought in another 50s collector's piece of a naff teapot - had been on the table for half an hour when the pudding finally hit us.

We chose three of the selection and four spoons, bursting through the door of Frocks into the Hackney night after steamed marmalade pudding with an orange blossom cream, chocolate truffle tart with a soured cream sauce and bananas flambeed with rum and sultanas with banana ice cream, barely able to cross the pavement. I sympathised with our Australian friend's shock, on the way home, at the sight of so many Londoners sleeping in the street.

Sparing you our guests, the bill for two of us without the tip came to pounds 51. !

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