EATING OUT; Clash and clamour a la mode

BELGO CENTRAAL; 50 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9HP. Tel: 0171-813 2233. Open 7 days a week lunch and dinner: lunch special pounds 5; lunch and dinner special, pounds 10 Average price a la carte menu, pounds 25. A ll major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
WHEN we arrived at the newly opened Belgo Centraal on the hottest night of the year, a queue of people was standing weakly on a metal walkway as staff moved to and fro shouting out names and checking lists. Hot air blasted up from below. There were clunks and clashes, vast metal pipes, PA announcements and an air of bustling, terrifying, epic purpose being carried out in the basement beneath us. It felt more like arriving at a prison camp than at a Belgian restaurant.

We were given a potion to drink by a woman holding out a wooden stick containing glasses in holes, and, since our name was on a list, were led into a large hydraulic metal lift, with mesh walls and a metal concertina door which crashed shut, rattling us down to the basement. When the door crashed open again we were in a vaulted cellar where monks in long burgundy habits were milling around computer screens, wire-mesh cages and boiling cauldrons.

Belgium, once the butt of cruel jokes about featurelessness, seems to be the very height of fashion in London this summer with Belgian designers all the rage, Belgian beer sales booming, and the opening just this week of a film, The Sexual Life of the Belgians, directed by the curator of the Brussels Museum of Underpants. Even so, those who have not visited the original Belgo, which opened in north London three years ago, might wonder what features a Belgian restaurant might sport. Chips are very Belgian, but also strangely American, French and English. Chocolates are extremely Belgian, whereas monks are only quite Belgian. Nevertheless, the original Belgo seized upon monk-style waiters to manifest its Belgianness along with chips, mussels, beer and mayonnaise. All is contained in much industrial metalware in a stylishly barren and modestly sized space.

With the new Belgo Centraal the theme is blown up to a preposterous, scary scale, with 400 seats and 12,000 sq ft in the cellars of a 19th- century former brewery. Restaurants the size of Furnitureland are very much the happening thing, of course, as is the new "transit concept" of restaurant eating. The idea is that you hurry up and eat your food then go away so they can get some more people in quickly. The transit concept is being encouraged in Belgo Centraal's beer hall, where 200 of the seats are set in lines at wooden tables, and you queue rather than book.

We had plumped for the smaller, bookable section, where the tables are separated by sheets of smoked glass and stainless steel and you can actually stay for 212 hours. It's as well to book well in advance - at my first attempt they tried to persuade me it would be nice to have supper at 5.30 in the afternoon. This will no doubt soon become another fashionable eating concept. "Welcome to Belgo - as we're trained to say," said our monk, in a charming, postmodern sort of way, handing us large cardboard menus. "I wonder if they're all celibate," murmured my friend.They wouldn't get much chance to be anything else, poor darlings, sweltering under trousers, monk's habits and long black aprons in the stifling heat.

The original Belgo menu has been extended to bewildering proportions, too. There were over 20 headings, including stoemp (Belgian mashed potato with vegetables), herrings, lobsters, cuisine a la biere and waterzooi (creamy stew), each with a sub-list of dishes. Then there were the 100 varieties of beer to choose from; we selected a raspberry one, which tasted Tizerish, and the Beer Cocktail of the Week, which tasted like beer with pineapple milkshake flavouring.

By this time our conversation was degenerating into ever louder versions of:

"What?"

"What?"

The theory goes that in restaurants the noise level rises to that of the noisiest table. In some places the waiters control it by hovering near the loudest table, watching for the lumbering approach of punchlines, then interrupting with coffee or bread rolls just before they arrive. No so here. They love noise, love it. The original Belgo, in a trendy but out-of-the-way spot, with little passing trade, tends to get pretty high-spirited, and a visit there leaves you feeling vaguely hysterical. But on most nights Covent Garden absolutely heaves with young people spilling noisily out of pubs on to the pavements and into the nearest restaurant. So what with them, the clash of metal, and the loud-speakered orders in Belgo Centraal it was hard to hear ourselves think - a problem the waiters evidently had too. "Here we go," said one of them gaily, presenting us with two pancakes covered in chocolate sauce before we had even begun.

When our ordered starters arrived we quickly realised that what you should do is stick with the basic big pots of mussels and chips which are very good and excellent value at pounds 8.95. Foolishly, we had experimented with the new extended menu, which was just too ambitious for so many tables. My leeks, which came as a starter with Ardennes ham and vinaigrette, were both parchmenty and watery, as though the monks had dropped one of their ecclesiastical manuscripts in the sink. My friend's asparagus was a good texture but its egg and melted butter accompaniment was as bland as banana custard without the bananas. "What it needs is a bit of piquancy," she said.

More piquancy, though, was last thing her duck in blackcurrant beer sauce needed. Had the duck not been dead it would have flown off, shuddering. The accompanying celeriac puree was too sharp, too; it needed some potato and creme fraiche in there to take the edge off it. My mussel platter escargot, which sounded like a sort of writhing Mollusc Hell, was actually just mussels served like snails in an indented stainless steel platter. They tasted nice but were swimming in far too much melted garlic butter.

For puddings, we chose one white and one dark chocolate mousse. The white was the best: the dark one wasn't dark enough, and low on delicious bitter aftertaste. We finished with coffees and a couple of flavoured Belgian spirits called genevers - and ended up feeling really rather drunk and sicky.

By this time the atmosphere had metamorphosed from prison-cum-monastery to casualty department: the sweating waiters rushing round like brave young doctors coping with an emergency. "If you were very, very young," said my friend, "and had a good, sharp pair of ears, you'd probably have a lovely time."

And indeed the place was packed with birthday parties, jolly double dates and young people bringing their parents out to startle them. No doubt it will do very well and make lots of money. But we decided that next time we wanted a Belgian experience we'd stick to north London - or Belgium.

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