EATING OUT / Academic caff goes upmarket: Museum Street Cafe

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Museum Street Cafe

47 Museum Street, London WC1. Tel: 071-405 3211. Open Monday to Friday, lunch and dinner. Fixed-price menu, two courses: lunch pounds 12, dinner pounds 17; three courses: lunch pounds 15,

dinner pounds 21. All cards except Diners and American Express. No smoking in the restaurant.

THE PROPRIETORS of the have just done what Andrew Lloyd Webber did to Sunset Boulevard, and, from the look of it, at comparable expense. It is, I am sorry to have to report, no longer quite the same production.

I first went there just before Christmas to meet an academic and a theatrical fight director. The seemed the perfect place to meet, a kind of bourgeois academic workers' caff among the bookshops and picture dealers in the little street opposite the front of the British Museum. It had a few very good things written up on a blackboard in chalk; quick, discreet service at cramped little tables in slightly drab surroundings; and the cooking went on at the back of the shop. When I say very good things I mean it. I can remember the lentil, red wine and chestnut soup and the grilled guinea fowl even now.

It was also rather quaint having to go out to the wine shop on the corner to buy your own wine. I put this down to the New England puritanism of one of the proprietors, Gail Koerber, who comes from Boston - her partner learnt his trade at Clarke's in Kensington - but she said it was to do with not being allowed a drinks' licence until they had built new lavatories with access for wheelchairs.

Now, after several months with the builder, the new lavatories are there, and the is open again. My stepdaughter, who spent quite a lot of time in the Ladies, said it was very prettily decorated, and the Gents has a couple of saucy Modigliani nudes, a wash-basin with one mixer tap that produces a less than adequate flow of cold water, and new sparkly composition flooring.

The restaurant itself is also transformed. It is hard to define what the new decor is, but it has white walls with a few cheerful pictures, a shiny black bar with the grills and ovens behind it. There are red skirting boards and red linoleum on the floor. My stepdaughter said it reminded her of Amsterdam.

I was also encumbered on this occasion by a wife, and they made a fairly alarming team. They were both hungry, and, as it transpired, thirsty. I ordered a bottle of reasonable French red at pounds 9.90 and a bottle of mineral water and let them make their choice.

The blackboard has now given way to a single sheet of writing paper with a blue folded 'M' motif at the top, on which the stark choice is presented in handwriting - the waiters have a different Greek-column logo on their blue T-shirts, worn with jeans and uniform crew-cuts. Two kinds of starters. Two main courses, two puddings, and 'cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy'. The two-course menu costs pounds 17, the three-course, pounds 21. No mucking about.

Both my companions said they wanted to start with char-grilled leeks and asparagus with chopped egg and prosciutto, forcing me to have the fish and coconut soup with coriander and ginger.

My stepdaughter originally offered to sit in the chair nearest the door so that her cigarette smoke wouldn't blow over us. I showed her the line at the bottom of the menu, above a note about a service charge of 12.5 per cent being added for parties of five and more: This is a No Smoking Restaurant. She sat obediently in the chair I had first offered her, but after about 10 minutes couldn't stand it any longer and blew off to the Ladies for a quick gasp.

I began to sympathise with her. The starters took what seemed to be an amazingly long time to arrive. It was actually 38 minutes from the moment the waiter took the order, but it seemed even longer. One cook was moving gracefully about behind the bar doing the cooking, and there were four waiters looking after not more than 15 tables. They were all being perfectly polite, but not over-concerned with our well-being. Other diners chatted patiently and seemed unconcerned.

I was more anxious. Given their thirst, the ladies had finished the bottle of wine, together with all the water, a basket of bread and a little dish of olives, long before the first course arrived, but none of the waiters asked us if

we wanted another bottle of wine. I ordered

it, the food came, and it was predictably

very good.

My wife and my stepdaughter, through the haze of booze, said they thought their char- grilled leeks and asparagus with chopped egg and prosciutto were very nice but a bit fiddly, and my soup was excellent. It was a very pretty yellow, with coriander leaves floating on the surface, full of subtle flavours, and contained large pieces of white fish.

For the main course I had my eye on the char-grilled guinea fowl with hazelnut and parsley vinaigrette. They both wanted it, so I had salmon fish cakes with sherry and cayenne mayonnaise. These took too long to arrive but were otherwise faultless, my fish cakes being slightly more delicious than their guinea fowl.

The choice for pudding was lemon ice- cream with pineapple, mint and lemon clove biscuits or chocolate and almond torte. Most of the placid clientele seemed to be favouring the torte, but my wife had the ice-cream, I had the cheese and my stepdaughter had Silk Cut in the Ladies. The ice-cream tasted to me a bit like a knickerbocker glory, and the cheese was no great shakes.

I blame the delays on the placid clientele: they seemed to me to be mostly people of high moral seriousness, concert-, lecture- and exhibition-goers, who would enjoy suffering.

Knocking off my stepdaughter's dinner and the extra bottle of wine, the bill, with tip, came to pounds 64.28.-