Eating Out: A glass half empty

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Le Meridien, 21 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171 734 8000). Lunch Mon-Sat noon-2.30pm, Sun 12.30-2.30pm. Dinner Mon-Sat 6pm-11pm. Average price per person (excluding wine) pounds 40. Service not included

THE TRUTH is, I don't deliberately set out to write nasty reviews. It takes an awfully strong incentive before I'm prepared to fork out for a babysitter and sacrifice one of my precious evenings vegging out in front of the television. And the idea of going to a restaurant and praying that the food will be disgusting and the service awful, just so that I can be funny about it in print afterwards, really isn't one of them.

So it's with a heavy heart - honest - that I have to report that the cuisine at , the new, allegedly bistro-style restaurant in Piccadilly's Le Meridien hotel, most definitely wasn't up to scratch on the evening I wasted there with X and John the arts editor. With the exception of the charming and helpful service from an elegant maitre d', an agreeable sommelier and a darling blonde waitress who pronounced pears "piers", I can't find anything nice to say about the place. Least of all about the cooking of executive chef Michel Rostang.

Before we get on to that, though, let's dispense with the decor. Though it sounded gorgeous in the PR blurb - "soaring elegance", "a giant conservatory" perched above Piccadilly - the reality was an unwieldy, vulgar mix of neoclassical and retro-modern. A cross between the Royal Academy's Sackler Gallery, the Pompidou centre and the set of Alien, executed with that sheen of lush mediocrity you only ever encounter in big city hotels. No doubt it would have appeared jollier and more bistro-like if the joint had been buzzing. But as we know, no one ever eats in hotels unless they're residents or the restaurant has an incredible reputation (inapplicable here). The place was empty save for a few bewildered diners who, John reckoned, looked as if they were minor characters in a Jeffrey Archer novel.

And so to the food. John was up for the pounds 21.50 table d'hote menu until he saw that it consisted of uninviting things such as duck liver soup and thought again. I, meanwhile, was having difficulties with the a la carte. Normally, the rule with menus is that you fancy the starters more than the main courses. At , it was the other way round. Not one of the 14 starters held much appeal. The scallop and mussel soup, for example. I like scallops, and mussels, but does it really make sense to mix the subtlest and creamiest of shellfish with the dustbin of the seas?

Happily, the maitre d' came to my rescue. It would be her pleasure, she declared, to arrange for me to have one of the two main dishes I fancied - seared scallops in shells, crunchy vegetable duxelle, crispy basmati rice - as a starter. I wish she hadn't bothered. The scallops were quite monstrously disappointing. For one, they weren't seared; the duxelle was greasy but not crunchy; and any remaining subtleties had been swamped by an excess of butter, rock salt and (I think) cumin. Also there was no crispy rice. And I was charged pounds 13.50 for three scallops, only a fiver less than if I'd had them for the main course.

X's plum tomato and green beans tartare, tossed in grain mustard dressing, wasn't much better. Basically, it was a bog- standard salad with a bog-standard dressing. And the tomatoes, pale and wishy-washy, suggested that the kitchen's sourcing isn't up to much, either.

Nor did John break into the Hallelujah chorus over his snails with puy lentils and celeriac leaves emulsion. "If we were going to be hypercritical, which we are," said John, "then we'd have to point out that the lentils outnumber the snails by about 1,000 to one." It was sludgy, and predictably over-salted.

Perhaps we'd simply ordered unwisely, we thought. Surely the chef's reputation would be restored by the delicacies to come. It was not to be. X and I had ordered the roast, mustard-coated Bresse chicken for two. It was a mildly posher version of the stuff you get deep-fried at KFC. I do not exaggerate. The only difference was that it was served more poncily, with the breast prettily sliced on one plate, the leg served on a bed of lettuce on another. It came with a potato gratin even worse than the one I make at home and believe me, potato gratin is not one of my specialities, I've got nothing against KFC, but when I eat it I expect to pay rather less than pounds 39 for two.

John's gratin of macaroni and lobster, meanwhile, tasted exactly as by now I expected it would: too rich and creamy, too much salt and unforgivably overcooked pasta. The only surprising bit was the generous amount of lobster claw.

We didn't have any puddings because we'd lost our appetites, though I was sorely tempted by the souffle of fennel flavoured with star anis. John reckoned it sounded about as appetising as blancmange with peppers, but I remain convinced that it would have been quite delightful. I mean, surely there has to be something on the menu the chef does well. Hasn't there?

After drinking one of the depressingly few bottles of wine at under pounds 30 (a pounds 29 Chablis), we asked for another half, but were told they don't do half bottles. So we asked for three glasses instead, for which we were charged pounds 9 a piece. For two more quid we could have had another whole bottle and taken the rest home. With no aperitifs, pudding or coffee, the bill for three with service came to pounds 165. This is not a bargain.


Richard Ehrlich's selection

Pinotage Clos Malverne 1996, Stellenbosch, pounds 26

This list boasts huge mark-ups and a general lack of inspiration. This South African Shiraz is a good bottle and one of the cheaper ones, though no bargain

Gewurztraminer Hugel 1995, Cuvee Tradition, pounds 38

The price is wrong, but the wine is right, a product of one of the most reliable names in Alsace. Great aperitif

Shiraz 1997, Collines Rhodaniennes, Tain l'Hermitage, pounds 19

A house wine and therefore one of the cheapest (the price is not a misprint). I think they should be calling it Syrah, not Shiraz, but what the hell