Eating Out: Bullish old boys' reunion

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The Independent Culture
STEPHEN BULL

5 Blandford Street, London W1H 3AA, tel: 071-486 9696.

Open Monday to Friday for lunch and Monday to Saturday for dinner. Average price: pounds 25 for lunch; pounds 25- pounds 30 for dinner, excluding wine. All credit cards except Diners

, it seems to me, must be a good egg. Stephen Bull's Bistro, just north of Smithfield market, is excellent - very merry both at lunchtime and in the evenings - and the food is delicious. His more recent enterprise, the Fulham Road Restaurant, is so fashionable you can't move for the stars but it does wonderful Irish-influenced food. The colcannon (mashed potato with cabbage or greens) was so good that I have since persuaded my long-suffering wife to make it. I've even tried to make it myself.

I was therefore interested to see what his original restaurant was like - called simply Stephen Bull - in Blandford Street, just round the corner from Marylebone High Street. I was very slightly disappointed.

Taking Richard Ingrams to dinner there as my guest was probably a mistake: no respectable restaurant can be expected to show itself at its best to a shambling, vacant-eyed old tramp, let alone a pair of shambling vacant-eyed old tramps. I was greeted at the door by a nice but severe young waitress who was a bit nonplussed at the idea that I might have made a reservation. She sought out an equally austere older colleague, who checked the book and reported unsmilingly that 'another gentleman' had already arrived. I was shown to a table, and found the old boy sitting with his back to a bare white wall under a modern lamp-bracket of spiral design. 'You can say,' he said, 'that your companion found the decor rather bleak.'

We then floated off into the usual hotchpotch of scurrilous anecdote and reminiscence, during which the restaurant began to fill up with other more expensively dressed diners. That part of Marylebone has always been very cosmopolitan, favoured by megarich dentists and psychiatrists from Harley Street. There was a fair mix of them, together with a lively table of Indian dentists or psychiatrists, all in suits, a couple of dentists' or psychiatrists' widows, and some sort of Euro-table at which the guest of honour was a Belgian businessman with a toupee, none too securely anchored.

Knowing that Ingrams, after a misspent youth, only ever drinks fizzy water, I concentrated on the wine list. I considered some quite expensive wines, including an Australian Brown Bros Cabernet Sauvignon 1983 at pounds 28 a bottle and a Volnay Premier Cru Champagne 1987 at pounds 46, but decided to start with a glass of Beaujolais Villages at pounds 2.90.

My companion then plumped for a warm Thai beef salad and I asked for a mixed leaf salad with pecan nuts, orange and crispy duck skin. The waitress returned almost immediately with a goat's cheese souffle and a stuffed globe artichoke, but then discovered it was for another table. We talked for a while about a party, reported at length in the evening paper, given in honour of his old hero Sir 'Jams' Goldsmith by, among others, the wife of David Frost (whom Ingrams referred to for some reason as 'Lady Ocarina'). Then the waitress came back and gave me his warm Thai beef salad and him my mixed leaf salad.

I thought the combination of textures and

flavours created by mixing salad, slices of orange and pecan nuts was very exciting and original. All I could get out of my companion, however, was that the beef was 'good'.

The restaurant remained quiet: discreet conversations were going on, the dentists and psychiatrists were still smiling as they discussed their profits, and there was even a bit of Belgian bonhomie at the table with The Toupee. But it felt more like a lunch restaurant than a place to go for dinner.

My old chum then slipped up very badly through ignorance. The menu advertised a 'Tartlet of Swiss Char', which came with saddle of rabbit. He ordered it, unsure what it was but amused by the idea of it sounding like an Alpine cleaning lady. It so happened that I had heard of it three days earlier, when my wife had brought some in from the garden, so I was able to explain rather patronisingly that it was a kind of spinach. It was only when I got home that my own ignorance (and the menu writer's) was exposed: the stuff in question is, of course, chard.

I made a safer choice with the roast monkfish and wilted rocket, sweet peppers, mussels and garlic. The poor old boy was rather gloomy about the rabbit, which he said didn't taste of anything much, but then remembered that rabbit never does. He said he quite enjoyed his 'Swiss char'. I found the monkfish OK but slightly dry, and ordered another glass or two of red wine.

For pudding my guest ordered pear tart and butterscotch ice-cream, and I thought I'd have the elderflower custard with poached gooseberry. This in fact turned out to be gooseberries plural, and the custard was a round, jelly-like thing - all very good. Ingrams chomped through his tart and ice- cream quite contentedly; as he wasn't drinking I thought I could afford a glass of Black Muscat - actually red - at pounds 4 to go with it.

We then sat chuckling away very happily for a bit, working out an idea for a new play that would make us all rich, but which I think we are probably both slightly too idle ever to write. Afterwards we took a taxi to Notting Hill to join Ingrams's daughter, son-in-law and young poetic friend who were dining at Kensington Place. It seemed suddenly a great deal noisier and more fun than Stephen Bull. Perhaps it was the mood of youth.

Dinner at Stephen Bull with coffee, extra booze and the tip, came to pounds 78.50.

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