EATING OUT: And now for designer dinner

Click to follow
THESE days, a designer clothes emporium without a smart in-store restaurant is practically a pan- fried halibut without its chargrilled pumpkin confit. Georgio Armani has one, Harvey Nichols has one. Mixing food and shopping can be fraught with hiccups, however. It is a mere four months since Nicole Farhi opened her restaurant, Nicole's, in the basement of her New Bond Street store, but already the entire complement of designer ashtrays seems to have vanished into thin air. As our Australian waiter confided in shocked tones, handing us a make-do ramekin, the customers have been "stahling the ish-tries". You really would have expected better in a place like this, with its curving staircase, long metallic bar, pale wooden floor, tan leather banquettes and air of a grand 1930s ocean liner, its upper decks selling fluid garments in muted shades of anthracite and mould. But then there are all sorts of designer bits and bobs on the tables, themed around the bottoms of broken bottles, which, frankly, could get the better of you if you had one too many glasses of Chablis and a big shopping bag.

The Tuesday night of our dinner would have been a poor one for tableware-lifting. With only four or five tables occupied in the sunken dining area, we were all a little exposed. After tremendous success at breakfast and lunch-time, Nicole's (under chef Annie Wayte, formerly at Clarke's in Kensington) had started opening for dinner only one week previously. And it was a filthy night, raining an unusually wet sort of rain, so it wasn't really their fault.

Nicole's had an unlucky PR start back in the autumn, when tout London was abuzz with the news that its computer ordering system had broken down on the day Nigella Lawson came to review for the Spectator. The staff are clearly working overtime to make amends. Before we had even had time to poke a fork, our waiter was upon us, asking how we were enjoying our starters. He asked us again half-way through, and the same question about each course. I'm not sure that this is a good idea. It's a bit like being on a date with someone who keeps pressing their hand on yours, saying, "Happeee?"

We did enjoy our starters, though. Mine was a tall mound of salad leaves, mushrooms and shaved parmesan which wobbled like a jelly when you shook it. There's something I have to say about green salads in restaurants now: Marks & Spencer. How can you tuckinto a mix of perfectly trimmed oak-leaf, radiccio and frisee without imagining them tumbling out of a cellophane pack? Think of the poor sous-chefs after all that selecting and trimming and washing-off of slugs. I once misguidedly spent a whole afternoon making a tiramisu, only to invite a guest who said, "You must give me the recipe - or maybe the bar-code."

My companion chose grilled squid with lime and chilli which he said was "delicious, and not at all chewy". Then, after a moment's thought, he added, "but strangely cold". It was a mark of his confidence in the general stylishness that he assumed it was meant to be so.

The menu (which is the same for dinner and lunch) is full of imaginative ensembles: serrano ham with roast figs and grilled fennel on grilled soured dough; calves' liver and polenta with caramelised shallots; pumpkin risotto. (Homely vegetables are the last word in chic this year. Watch out for turnips in the spring.)

For my main course, I went for grilled fillet of halibut with wild rice, fennel confit and salsa verde. It was a good combination - light and tasty, and yet... it somehow lacked that glistening, steaming, piping-hot sense of having been rushed to the table. My companion had the special: rib-eye of beef with red wine jus, grilled chicory and onions and straw potatoes. He thought the beef "perfect", the chicory and onions "delicious", the jus tasty and yet... somehow "lacking in driving force", the unfortunate straw potatoes "greasy, cold, doing nothing for the dish".

On to desserts, beautifully arranged and trendily dredged with icing sugar. My poached fruit was perfectly pepped up by a firm scoop of scrumptious marscapone and a really top-class madeleine, moist and not too sweet. My friend's "chocolate souffle pancake" was a delicate little thing, with the chocolate sauce tucked inside - not the big, chocolatey plateful we expected, but gorgeous nonetheless.

One of the nicest things about Nicole's is that although the wine list is not huge, almost all the selections are available by the glass for between £2 and a fiver, which makes the meal much more fun - though, if you loose concentration, startling at bill time. The food is not cheap (around £12 for a main course) but really stylish and good, and yet... we kept saying "and yet..." Was it perhaps the recent adjustment to serving dinner? It lacked those extra things that make you go "Hmmmm" - perfect texture and temperature, unexpected layers of deliciousness. "Yars, yars," we both agreed, "Self-aware but lacking in hinterland."

We decided Nicole's would be just the thing at lunchtime, if you were feeling flush; toying with a glass of Pol Roger and a morceau of grilled scallop while you made your shopping decisions - the silk in the fog, the viscose in the slurry? - then simply popping back upstairs to buy the bloody lot, sweetie.

I'm not sure about an evening excursion to New Bond Street that doesn't stem from shopping, though, surrounded above and on all sides by closed shops. Hopefully the dinners will really catch on and the place will begin to fizz after eight. There is, of course, the draw of perhaps seeing Nicole Farhi herself.

Towards the end of our meal an elegant, corkscrew-haired woman burst in with a self-confident, queenly air, graciously acknowledging the room then zooming on to the table nearest the kitchen. "Is that Nicole Farhi?" we asked the nearby waitress, breathlessly. "Er, no," she said with some embarrassment, "She's a local hairdresser."

NICOLE'S 158 New Bond Street, London W1Y 9PA. Tel: 0171-499 8408. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch, Monday to Friday for dinner. Average £30 per head for lunch, £40 for dinner. All major credit cards except Diners accepted