Eating Out: Dover sole, Dover-priced

J SHEEKEY 28/32 St Martin's Court, London WC2. Tel: 0171 240 2565. Open daily, 12-3pm for lunch (3.30pm on Sunday) and 5.30-midnight for dinner. Weekend lunch menus: pounds 15.50 for three courses. Average a la carte price, pounds 40 per person. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the best tests of a really good restaurant, I reckon, is the way the staff behaves when you try sending back your food or wine. I'll always respect the Ivy, for example, for the time that I pathetically quibbled that my "spicy sausage" wasn't spicy enough and the waiter re- placed it apologetically and without demur. And I'll always loathe Little Italy, that appalling restaurant run by the people who own Bar Italia, because when I grumbled once that they had drowned my hideously overpriced iceberg lettuce salad in vinegary dressing, the waiter came over all bolshie and argumentative.

Judged on this score, J Sheekey (newly taken over by the people who run the Ivy and Le Caprice) is among the best. It's always a bit awkward when you suspect that your wine may be corked - have you wrecked your palate with fags? Is that musty flavour part of the vintage's style? But when I said as much to a waiter at J Sheekey, the offending bottle was whipped away and replaced without the slightest hint that I might have been a prat who didn't know what he was talking about. And as it happened, I was right.

Among the surest signs of a not-very-good restaurant, on the other hand, are when your waitress keeps forgetting which of you has order-ed which dish; when your pommes allumettes arrive lukewarm; when the sauce hollandaise that's supposed to go with your Dover sole never comes; and when you end up being given the wrong bill at the end. The latter is especially annoying if it's 80 quid less than yours and you own up and then spend the rest of the evening kicking yourself for having been so stupidly honest.

Anyway, all the above bad things happened to us on the evening we visited Sheekey's, which just goes to show you shouldn't believe a word of that let's-suck-up-to-my-mate-the-proprietor rave review written by A A Gill the other week. But you can trust my unbiased opinion. And my unbiased opinion is: don't bother. The food (almost exclusively fish) may be fine and the decor - Forties-style dark wood panelling, black-and-white photos of theat- rical luvvies - is engagingly Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. But the clientele is stuffy and plutocratic, the service (on our table, anyway) patchy, and the dishes just a touch too expensive.

Take my Dover sole, which I ordered for the rather silly reason that the Ipcress File is one of my favourite films and there's a line in it where someone asks: "Good bit of lunch at your club, is it?" and Major Dalby replies: "Dover sole's not bad." It cost pounds 23.50, which strikes me as scarily steep. At my local fishmonger, Steve Hatt, you'd pay pounds 9 at most for a Dover sole that size. So Sheekey's price represents a mark-up of over 150 per cent. Similar rules apply to the halibut ordered by X. I know it's a noble fish, hard to catch and probably the most delicious there is apart from turbot, but is it really worth pounds 18 for a fried slab? I think not. Not when you could have it at home, done just as nicely, for a third of a price.

And I know what the people at J Sheekey will say. They'll say something like: "Does this pillock James Delingpole have any idea what it costs to run a restaurant bang in the middle of the West End? Our overheads are enormous; our staffing's astronomical; our fish is scooped up from the North Sea every hour by a Concorde with a special fish-scooping device and then helicoptered in directly to our kitchens. Our pounds 23.50 Dover sole and our pounds 18 halibut are the bargain of the century." To which I'd reply: "I don't care. They're still a massive rip."

I suppose if you were looking for value you'd be better off with the Fried Fillet of Haddock, chosen by my friends Katie the editor and Simon the publisher. It cost pounds 13.50 and came complete with minted pea puree (posh mushy peas, basically) and a bowl of chips for which, had you been a Dover sole eater, you'd have had to pay an extra pounds 3.

Simon and Katie thought it was totally brilliant, but I soon put them right. First, I explained, fried haddock is not meant to come served looking like an enormous banana fritter. Second, it is not meant to be coated in batter that tastes like banana fritter batter. Third, it's not nearly as good as the version they serve at my local chippy - Faulkners of Hackney. That soon wiped the smiles off their faces. It's always sad when you have to ruin your friends' dinner but hey, being a miserable pernickety bastard's my job.

As, indeed, I went on to demonstrate further with the wine. I'd foolishly opted for the Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 1998 Marlborough (pounds 22), thinking that I might have landed myself a poor man's Cloudy Bay. But I hadn't. What I'd got was a bottle of liquidised oak with a little white wine thrown in. Katie thought she liked it. "No you don't," I said. "It's horrible." For the next bottle, Katie and Simon suggested we went for some Bourgogne-Aligote, which they like very much. "Sorry," I said snootily, "the Aligote grape is a poor man's Chardonnay." So we had a Jacques Lurton Sauvignon le Fume Blanc instead.

It was at this point that I blew my wine-snob credentials completely: even though I could tell from the first taste that the Sauvignon was pretty rough, I put it down to the fact that it was the third-cheapest wine on the list, instead of recognising immediately that it was corked. "Does this wine taste OK to you?" I asked Katie. "Fine," she said. Luckily, Simon knew better. We decided to send it back, which was just as well, since otherwise we would have ended up with godawful bad-wine hangovers.

I haven't yet mentioned the starters, so now I will. My Grilled Baby Squid served with Creamy Polenta was easily the best; Katie's Dressed Crab (pounds 13.50, a fiver less if you do it yourself) was the second best because it tasted all white and fresh instead of crabby. X's and Simon's potted shrimp was the worst: not nearly as good as the version at the Quality Fish House, reckoned X, because instead of being buttery and comfort-foody, it was fishy and pate-like. And there wasn't enough toast with it, either.

As for the main courses, despite my quibbles about the absent hollandaise and the Mickey-Mouse price, my Dover sole was excellent; and the pommes allumettes would have been brilliant (properly potatoey, cooked in good oil) if they hadn't arrived cold. X's halibut was fine too. And you know what I thought of the haddock. We didn't have anything from the boring pudding menu (in fact the whole menu's boring, far too English traditional) because we felt bloated.

Having read all this, you probably won't want to go to J Sheekey. But since they're making loads of money already and since they're so popular that they ring you at breakfast to check you're coming and throw you out (politely) at 10.30pm to make way for the post-theatre crowd thronging their way in for the second sitting, I very much doubt that they'll care.

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