Eating Out: Brotherly lunch

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The Independent Culture
DENIM

4a Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2. Tel: 0171 497 0376. Open Mon-Sat for lunch, noon-3pm, and Mon-Sun for dinner from 6pm-midnight. Average price for dinner, pounds 25 per person. Visa and Mastercard accepted

EVERYONE thinks that being a restaurant critic is the best job in the world. But it isn't at Christmas, when the last thing you need is a trip into the hell of the West End for more drink and rich food. And it's even worse when you've just had a five-day bout of gastric flu and you've barely the appetite for half a banana, let alone, say, Dublin Bay prawn bisque, braised pheasant and roasted fennel, and chocolate and plum pudding torte.

So you'll gather that I wasn't in the best frame of mind to do justice to this week's trendy new restaurant. Fortunately, I came up with a cunning plan which was bound to make everything better. I decided to take my brother Dick with me.

Now the good thing about Dick is that, being impoverished by multiple fatherhood, he doesn't get to go to fancy restaurants all that often. So taking him out for an pounds 80-for-two lunch is a bit like spending your first Christmas with a young child: instead of being all blase and grim and oh-God-do-we-have-to? you start seeing everything through his innocent eyes and suddenly it all seems wonderfully fresh and exciting.

On the journey there, he was as frolicsome as a brat on the threshold of Disneyland. "Hey! We're going to Denim. Just as well I wore my denim shirt!" he chortled. Then he remembered that Seventies aftershave ad and put on a deep, macho voice. "Denim. For men who don't have to try - too hard." When we got there he asked me, wide-eyed: "Do you mean that all we have to do is sit here and order anything we want and the waiter will bring it to us just like that?" No, he didn't really. But I could tell he was dead impressed.

Mind you, I doubt that even if you weren't Dick, even if you were the most enervated sophisticate on earth, you couldn't fail to be impressed by your first sight of Denim. It's like walking into the Cantina sequence in Star Wars, only more space-age. One wall is a huge bank of pink TV screens; the dining-room's on a curvy balcony overhanging the terrifyingly trendy bar area; the light comes from pendulous, mutant puffballs; the ultra-designed (and amazingly comfortable) chairs are an aggressive fuchsia. Even the square Perspex handles on the huge, glass front doors are interesting. So interesting, in fact, that during lunch we watched a passer-by stop to experiment with them. "These are indeed very interesting square Perspex door handles," said the thought-bubble above his head.

If it sounds like the sort of wacky place which might have been set up by two 26-year-olds who used to be in a boy band called Boys Inc, then you must be a good guesser because that's exactly what it is. For added muso credentials, it has a heavily guest-listed clubbing area in the basement and some rather cramped, nasty loos with plain, badly grouted tiles. I wondered why, having spent so much time and trouble elsewhere, the architect should have given toilet-users such a raw deal. But Dick pointed out that clubbers prefer it that way: dodgy bogs equals street cred.

On the day we visited, the staff were all knackered having worked until five that morning at Boy George's Christmas party. This explained the smell of stale tobacco, cigarette burns on the floor and the horrified expression on the waitress's face when we told her we'd booked a table for lunch. For most of our meal we were the only diners and if I'd been our waitress, I think I might have punished us with some really slow, insolent service.

But she was extremely helpful and pleasant, as was her colleague, a Canadian who looked a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio only not so revoltingly Norman Lamont-ish. Good service, to my mind, is every bit as important as a restaurant's cuisine and Denim's - perfectly balanced between def- erence, efficiency and laid-back friendliness - is reason enough for going. And Dick and I both appreciated the bit later on in lunch when another leggy waitress bent over so her top rode up to reveal a splendid tattoo just above her left buttock.

We also liked the fact that our waitress wasn't of the tedious everything's- good,-it-just-depends-what-you-feel-like-eating school. For my starter, I'd have gone for the same thing as Dick (creamy wild mushrooms, caperberries and polenta) had she not pointed me in the direction of the langoustine bisque. She was right too. While Dick's mushrooms were perfectly pleasant (though the polenta was a touch on the heavy side for a starter), my bisque was a revelation. Rich, creamy and intensely crustacean, it was, I declared to Leonardo, quite the finest I'd ever eaten. "Oh. Do you eat a lot of langoustine bisque then?" he asked, saucily. "Er, no," I said. "But that's not the point."

I was similarly indebted to the waitress for my main course. As I say, I wasn't very hungry and I'd probably have opted for the light-ish sounding Dover sole, vine tomatoes, green-lipped mussels and slow-roasted Thai aubergines. But on her advice I chose the braised pheasant and baby fennel which sounded dry, gamey and dull but wasn't at all. The pheasant was crisp on the outside and tender and succulent within, the accompanying neeps and mash were silky smooth; the potential for old-fartishness warded off by the strong, dark-brown game-stock reduction that came with it.

Dick's sole, on the other hand, was a bit of a yawn. It was perfectly cooked but came unedifyingly swamped in cream, and the mussels - plain, steamed and apparently unseasoned - were quite revolting. Dick said he thought it was "subtle", which is what ingenuous diners always say when they're too nervous to venture an opinion. And what of his mussels? "I don't eat them often enough to be able to judge," he said. "Yes you do, Dick," I replied. "Your opinion is as good as anyone else's." "All right, then," he said meekly. "They're boring." (Good. I'll make a fastidious, obstreperous, know-all of my little brother yet!)

For pudding, we shared an enormous chunk of that plum pudding torte I mentioned. It was nice, but not terribly interesting. And in case you're wondering, we drank a gin and tonic, a watery Virgin Mary, a glass each of pink Champagne and some not-all-that-good coffee.

Would I go again? Definitely - for the service, the arrestingly weird ambience and to try the proper menu which looks far more interesting (very Pacific Rim, very Sugar Club) than the Christmas menu I had to make do with.

A word of warning: Denim insists on taking credit-card details when you book so that if you don't turn up they can charge you. I was going to rant about what a disgusting practice this is until I was told that one day they lost half of their 32 covers when two tables of eight failed to show. So my wrath has been redirected to those 16 ill-mannered individuals: a pox on their heads!

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