Eating Out: A tricksy business

The Birdcage; 110 Whitfield Street, London WC1, 0171 323 9655. Lunch Tues-Fri 12-3.30pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6-12pm. Four-course dinner pounds 36.50. Service not included
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The Independent Culture
I KNOW we're out of place, and the waiters, being waiters, know too. Seamas the Derryman and I are not well enough dressed, not hip enough, and not nearly good-looking enough to be in this trendy, tricksy, intimate little spot. I might have walked straight back out but for the fact that when you book at the Birdcage they take your credit-card details - not to show means paying for a meal you won't have enjoyed.

Staying, on the other hand, means having to endure those frozen smiles that say you've been assessed - rapidly, ruth lessly - and been found wanting, by quite a way. I take my seat, back to a mirrored wall. Left and right hang birdcages and conical straw hats and other sub-Emmanuel props. Seamas thinks the decor reminiscent of a 19th-century bordello, the lamps, the dark red walls, the heavy chairs. It seems to be a popular first or early date rendezvous. A blonde woman from television takes the table next to us with her new boyfriend. At least I assume he's new when he tells her that the tie he's wearing is "a departure from my usual look". There is a slight pause, and just a hint of gentle, mocking humour: "And what would you say is your usual look?"

Meanwhile, we are not exactly being fussed over. I'd like to blame this on Seamas, who once told me that the reason there are so few restaurants in his home town is that eating out really cuts into your drinking time, but have to accept it's probably me. Until very recently I've been strictly utilitarian about food, a food- is-fuel person, and I'm getting visibly nervous about the prospect of having to describe something I'm more used to shovelling down without a thought as to texture, taste or temperature. The menus appear, along with a basket of breads. The one thing an Irishman knows is his bread. It's a good selection: chewy bread, floury bread, nutty bread, and, my favourite - possibly because it reminds me of crisps - flat, salty bread.

I examine the menu. I'll never be able to remember the dishes. Seamas isn't particularly sympathetic. He's been staying with me to work on a film script and it's been a trying week. He can be touchy, so can I. He stares at me: "You're not going to have one of your tantrums, are you? Because if you are, I'm going for a smoke." We haven't fully made up by the time I am worrying about the job in hand.

I start scribbling on a scrap of paper. The waiters spot me. I hide the scrap under the napkin. Good way to get attention, though. We're offered the wine list. This arrives in a small wire-mesh box painted gold. It has a magnifying glass on top. I open the box not to find it printed in tiny type, but folded in the shape of a boat, or perhaps a hat.

While the wine waiter is distracted, I make a move for the napkin, but then he turns round. Sweat is blistering on my forehead. I need some water, lift a large, chunky glass to what I think are my lips. The water pours down my chin, down my shirt front. The wine waiter smiles heartfelt condolences, then smiles with interest as I lift the napkin and expose my notes. I slip them quickly under my leg and choose the 1992 Chateau Lynch-Bages Pauillac. Seamas is chuckling. "I've never seen you look so uncomfortable," he says. "How do restaurant critics do this?" I ask, an edge of hysteria creeping into my voice.

I have just decided that I'll have to steal the menu, when the waitress comes up. Seamas picks a hot-and-sour broth with a coriander base, followed by the Tibetan lamb. I go for sushi with mussel ceviche (because I practically lived off ceviche during a stay in Peru), followed by chicken stew with apricot dumplings (for me, meat and fruit combinations rarely fail). I'd like to list the other options, but my attempted larceny is thwarted by the waitress who, once we've ordered, promptly removes the menus: she counted two menus out, she is damn well going to count them back in. Restaurant critics are much under-rated: the grace of a James Bond comes in handy, but the main requirement is clearly the criminal genius of a Moriarty.

Seamas declares his broth "lovely", and my sushi with mussel ceviche is delicious. The ceviche is nothing like I had in Peru, but that's more than compensated for by the sweet mint leaves in which the mussels are wrapped. The second courses are a bit of a disappointment. My chicken is too spicy - this is "fusion" food, after all, East meets West - for the apricot to come through. Seamas says his lamb was OK, though he could have done with a few more chunks. The desserts - Japanese gold plum for me, tamarillo for Seamas ("tasteless," he says, before correcting himself: "subtle") - are like the Birdcage itself, a bit gimmicky, more interesting looking than they actually are.

Over flavoured coffees (cinnamon for me, slightly too sweet) I make one last effort at my notes. It's no go. They're all watching now. "What's in that tube thing?" Seamas asks. I peer inside, pour a little sugar into my hand. Milk spills all over the table, my lap and my notes. I pay the bill (pounds 145 with tip) and the waiter asks: "Are you a chef?" Seamas splutters into his mocha. Two weeks living with me and the only hot food he's had has been the egg, bacon and chips from the cafe across the road.

He'd lobbed me a line that afternoon. "That's terrible," I said, "that's really silly." "Not as silly as your line this morning." "This is worse," I said, looking at him with something near loathing.

By this stage I'm ready to concede that


Richard Ehrlich's selection

Quinta de la Rosa, 1995, Portugal, pounds 15

The unquestionable choice for drinkers of moderate means, even if the mark-up is moderately high. This is one of the best table wines made in the Douro, and compulsively drinkable

Chateau Rieussec, Cru Classe 1988, pounds 9 a glass

Nice to see a dessert wine of this quality and (relative) maturity offered by the glass, and at a price that can buy nothing more than a flute of feeble fizz. It'll last another few decades but I'd happily sip it here and now