Eating Out: Fishing for complements

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The Independent Culture
Livebait

21 Wellington Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7DN. Tel: 0171 836 7161. Open daily 12-3pm and 5.30-11.30pm. Average a la carte price per person, pounds 30 for two courses, with wine. Two-course pre-theatre menu, pounds 14.50. Credit cards accepted

Chicken and salmonella, beef and bones and BSE, lamb chops on the suspect list, pork so lean that it is as tasteless and dry as string ... so what can we eat, protein-wise? It's got to be fish, though as any fisherman will tell you, fishing is hardly a profession free of controversy and strife. Still, if you stop to consider the enormous variety of fish swimming about our oceans, you will agree that the overall scheme of things leaves them looking relatively innocuous. We need to broaden our tastes and branch out, giving cod, haddock and our other national favourites a break to restore stocks. Perhaps the latest clutch of food scares will finally kick people in the right direction. I hope so, because I've just written a book on fish, with fish consultant, William Black (out in April). No time like the present for a quick plug.

It is a sentiment that I share, I am sure, with the newish owners (the carnivorously inclined Chez Gerard), of the fish restaurant in Waterloo, and its first sibling, in Covent Garden. This sibling is virtually the spitting image of its older brother, benefiting from the addition of a shellfish bar. Walls are clad in white and bottle green tiles, vaguely reminiscent of a bygone fishmonger's shop.

By the time I made it to the rendezvous with my piscine co-author, who also happens to be my husband, I was on edge and needed soothing. The morning had been plagued by transport problems and I was late. Very late. William hates lateness. The greeter at the door assured me that he hadn't looked too bad-tempered, and indeed he appeared relaxed and at ease. I put it down to the genial staff, and a bowl of cockles. In a gentlemanly fashion, he'd left the last few for me. Flanked by pink shallot vinegar, they were fresh, sweet and salty and 20 times more welcome than a bowl of peanuts. No wonder he was cheery. Lateness dismissed with a smile, he opined that they had probably been culled from above the low-tide line because their shells were black, rather than white.

They gather an impressive array of fish on the menu: black bream, cobia, red emperor, brill, scallops, squid, turbot and, yes, even a token offer of cod to seduce hesitant beef-lovers forced to turn to the sea for nourishment. There's a knowledgeable fish buyer at work, and his fish impresses with its impeccable freshness.

The disturbing thing about the menu is the kitchen-sink style of composition; each item reads as an almost endless list of ingredients thrown together willy-nilly. Why, for instance, would anyone want to put turbot sashimi (which I fancied as a first course on its own) with palourde clams and Scottish rope-grown mussels in a sweet pepper and tomato sauce served with spaghetti and Parmesan? Methinks the kitchen doth try too hard. Or maybe they are trying to assuage that infuriating British habit of equating value for money with quantity.

Sometimes this baroque approach works, sometimes it just seems utter madness. My first course of Cornish squid, as tender as a jelly tot, was coated in a superb veil of crisp batter scented with galangal, ginger's more highly perfumed relative. It sat above a light broth made with smoked chicken, which moistened and seasoned the seafood sweetness prettily, the whole zapped into form with a biting wasabi (green horseradish) mayonnaise. A zany melange that gelled. William's diver-caught king scallops were cooked just so, retaining a moist, almost raw heart, set off with a salad of red mullet fillet, fennel and orange sauce. All in all, a rather restrained plateful for , with classic combinations that endure because they work.

Main courses are unnecessarily gargantuan. William was keen to order the cobia (which came with red emperor) which he had only ever eaten in the Yemen. Only now that I look at a menu do I realise that the fish were "infused in a cardamom marinade" but what delicate perfume there may have been was obliterated by dirty great mouthfuls of semi-raw red onion, and the over-ripe, over-powerfulness of a savoury goats' curd cheesecake hidden among the stack of cardoon and Swiss chard.

I think it may have been the Russian-roulette notion of both a soft-boiled egg and mayonnaise, in this haven of virtuous sea food, that drew me towards the roast cod with a jacket of dill and breadcrumbs. My overflowing plate arrived with a companion bowl of rust-coloured soup - enough for a first course all on its own. Odder and odder, I thought to myself. This was the most disappointing of the fish, saved from misery by rather good caramelised roast carrots and parsnips scented with a flush of lemongrass, which surprisingly enough gave them a pleasant edge. It came with a halo of palourdes, which were, unfortunately, stone cold.

Puddings are more orthodox with a strong bias towards fruit in tarts, sorbets and the like. They are nicely turned out, though that's hardly the point. If you managed to down first course and main course in anything approaching their entirety, you would need an elephantine stomach to manage pudding as well.

Incongruously, the restaurant shares its loos with the neighbouring Lyceum theatre, and all its red plush and the walk there is a major expedition. Perhaps that is why the portions are so enormous - to keep you going all the way there and back again, maybe even sneaking in a show en route.

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