Eating Out: Frocks in the treasure box

TECA; 54 Brooks Mews, London W1. Tel: 0171 495 4774. Open Monday to Sunday, noon to 2.30pm for lunch and 7.30 to 10.30pm for dinner. Menu changes weekly. Average a la carte price for lunch, pounds 15. House wines (from a list of 6) from pounds 12. All credit cards accepted.
DINNER is a really stupid time to go to Teca, which is located just round the back of New Bond Street and would be much more lively at lunchtime when it's thronged with Ladies Who Shop. But I wanted to try out its renowned Italian wine list and I never drink during the day, lest my enemies gain an advantage over me while I'm sleepy and enfeebled. So I booked a table for 8.30pm.

At this hour, Teca was indeed a sorry place to dine. Only half-full and charged with an air of desperation and barely contained hysteria, it felt as if I had entered the last restaurant on earth to survive the Apocalypse. Gangs of marauding Italian waiters competed fiercely for the attentions of the diminished clientele. No fewer than four surged up to bring our main courses; three fought over our puddings; and when one of my friends went to the loo, a ragazzo leapt forth to seize his discarded napkin, fold it with a flourish, and replace it neatly on the table.

It's nice to be wanted, I suppose, but I couldn't help wondering what we were doing there. Nor, I suspect, could my companions. Of course it was all terribly exciting to be given a starring role in an actual real- life restaurant review, but as some-one said, Teca had all the atmosphere of a doctor's surgery with hospital radio playing in the background. Couldn't we have gone somewhere just a bit more simpatico?

Still, we did our best to work up some enthusiasm. Nicola the sculptor decided the firmly-padded leather banquettes were the most comfortable ever. Dan the furniture designer was impressed by the clean, stark decor, especially the natural oak table-tops and the glass-fronted display room housing 4,000 wine bottles. I liked the staff's dinky navy-blue uniforms (surprisingly restrained, given that they were designed by Vivienne Westwood). And Tiffany thought the starters looked "very pretty".

Which they did. The sun-dried tomatoes in her salad - bright scarlet, meltingly soft, pungent, a million miles from the shrivelled reddy-brown husks you find in jars of oil - contrasted quite gorgeously with the creamy Parmesan and electric-green frisee. And the soft pastel shades of my ricotta ravioli with courgette flowers were so summery that you felt warm and happy just looking at them.

They tasted even better. Delicate, sublimely buttery without being too cloying, it may well have been the finest pasta dish I've ever tried. Not that I got to eat nearly as much as I would have liked - my companions fought as greedily for a gobbet as sharks in a feeding frenzy.

Almost as good as the ravioli was the bottle of red recommended by the wine waiter. I didn't think much of his judgement at first; I asked him to find me a bottle of white, around pounds 20, which was incredibly interesting and would completely change my opinion of Italian wine. And all he did was go through the white list, pointing at the bottles costing pounds 19 and saying: "That is interesting ... and that is interesting." Yeah, I can read too, I thought. But when I upped my budget to pounds 30 for our red, he suddenly started to take me seriously. The feisty Morellino di Scansano Riserva 1995 was indeed of a calibre that makes you go: "Bugger France and the New World! I'll stick to Italian in future."

From there, sadly, it was pretty much downhill. Our first indication that all was not perfect in the kitchen - which you'd expect to be damned good since it's run by two former chefs from The Halkin, William Lamberti and Marco Tori - was Dan's starter of green tagliolini with skate, capers, olives and light tomato sauce.

Dan thought it was delicious, so when the rest of us tried it and found it wanting, we just didn't have the heart to tell him what we really thought: that it was oversalted and worryingly fishy. But when poor Dan picked up another duffer for his main course - Roasted John Dory with Swiss Chard and Beetroot Vinaigrette - we showed no mercy. It looked as though it had been drenched in stage blood and (according to Nicola) it smelled and tasted like the inside of a trawlerman's boot.

Tiffany fared much better with her beautifully presented, succulent fillet of pork with potato puree, pea sauce and garlic confit. Matt the art dealer was safe with the ricotta ravioli, though he wished he'd had a bigger portion since it was his main course. But Nicola and I were slightly underwhelmed by our Roasted Pigeon with Cherries and Sauteed Spinach.

We'd chosen it on the principle that since pigeon is such a horrid fowl - a rat with wings, basically - a good chef will work spectacularly hard to transform into something wondrous. Instead it just tasted of pigeon. Good pigeon, admittedly, but nothing you'd want to boast about to your grandchildren.

The puddings were a flop. The fig tart for two people (and anything designed for two you expect to be extra-special) had a nice caramelised base but a frighteningly bland top. The pancake with orange and mint sabayon was off-puttingly eggy and floury, though the tangerine sorbet on top was a revelation: like instant Christmas.

Apparently, Teca ("treasure box") is part of the third wave of Italian restaurants in Britain - the first wave having consisted of trattorias with phallic pepperpots and the second, of modish rustic Tuscan. Its cuisine is supposed to be lighter, more inventive and more representative of food as eaten in modern Italy. But to judge by our experience at Teca, it's a trend we can probably live without.

Over some truly excellent espressi, we did try putting forward a few arguments in Teca's favour - a jolly place to drop in for lunch, brilliant wine list, when the food's good it's very very good - but when we had to concede defeat when Matt posed the all-important question: "Would you look forward to coming here again?" With one voice we all said : "No!"

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