EATING OUT / Heaven-bound by the riverside: Cantina del Ponte

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CANTINA DEL PONTE, The Butlers Wharf Building, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YE, tel: 071-403 5403. Open every day for lunch and dinner except Sunday evening. Average price, pounds 25 per person. All credit cards accepted.

IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that I have the nicest job in the world, which is gratifying, as you can imagine. But I have recently taken to feeling slightly awkward about it. Everybody else, you see, gets up early and works all day - for the most part, I gather, staring into computer screens. As a result they all develop pasty faces. Perhaps they work too hard. Perhaps I work too little. Who knows? But their pasty faces and their alarm clocks and their deadlines - I mean their vast importance - often make me wonder whether I don't lead a very worthless life. Until one night last week I'd always assumed that the harder you worked the more sensible, fulfilled and heaven-bound a person you were likely to be.

That night I was earning my feeble crust, so to speak, doing my occasional bit for the nation by perusing a menu of mouthwatering allure. It was a beautiful midsummer evening. The restaurant's tables spread out from the light and airy dining-room and on to the Thames-side pavement. Cars were banned from view and the glories of Tower Bridge lay just yards away - floodlit, it seemed, for my and my fellow diners' sole delight. The smell of olive oil and herbs and melted cheeses wafted from the kitchens. This was very heaven - and I was in it.

The Cantina del Ponte is part of the pretentiously named 'Gastrodome' - a development of four restaurants, all of them belonging to Terence Conran. It is part of Butlers Wharf, one of the few riverside conversions from the Docklands Decade that has added to the gaiety of the nation rather than the reverse. By now you'll be wondering what all this has to do with worthlessness and workers. I'm getting there. Wait. Diners have to pay pounds 3 for the pleasure of parking their car in the restaurant's car park for the evening. You should have seen the cars - several white Rolls-Royces, Jaguars of assorted colours and so on. My companion's car let the show down disgracefully. I tried to climb out of it as quickly and as inconspicuously as possible and I don't think anybody saw me.

We arrived at five to ten - we were 25 minutes late for the booking, so we missed the chance of a table outside, but it didn't really matter. The place was still humming. Fellow diners were in their late twenties, early thirties and so well-dressed and professional looking. Without exception, however, they looked exhausted and world-wearily unimpressed. Half of them could barely speak - they spent large parts of the evening pretending not to yawn. I felt quite sorry for them, in fact. They were in one of the most pleasant environments London can muster - and they weren't enjoying themselves. Ooooh ho ho ho. How we laughed. Imagine their knicker drawers, we said to each other. You can always tell a high earner by his knicker drawer, isn't that right? I know one man who has thirty-five pairs made by Calvin Klein in his. So he's very rich. I had a quick look round to see if he was there.

Service was too slow at the beginning. It took ages for our drinks to arrive and even longer for anyone to come and take our food order. Nor, in fact, when it finally happened, was the service very friendly. We didn't seem to have an individual waiter, but a series of hurried, quite efficient and slightly snooty different ones. It was a shame, but the food and the view - and the reassurance drawn from the misery on our rich young companions' faces - more than made up for it. Perhaps the waiters didn't feel the need to please us, anyway. A 15 per cent service charge was added automatically to the bill.

We ordered two glasses of kir royale to kick off and a small plate of olives (for which they charged pounds 1.50. It would have been more elegant, I mean cooler, if they'd given them to us for free. Plenty of restaurants in similar price brackets do). The menu was short. From a choice of five first courses, among them fish soup, tomato timbale with pesto, and rocket, parmesan and white truffle salad, I went for the not particularly adventurous but quite delicious antipasto of prosciutto, mortadella and salami. It came with some especially good sweet and sour onions. Peter's salmon, spinach and avocado salad was beautifully presented and quite excellent, in a clean and simple way.

Main courses - unlike the kir royales - came too quickly. We'd started so we had to finish - soon. There had been a choice of pasta and risotto, five different types of pizza and six other dishes. The pizzas on surrounding tables looked and smelt delicious. But I ordered asparagus - six of the largest spears I've ever seen - which came sprinkled with flakes of parmesan, with a poached egg on top. In spite of their off-putting size they weren't tough. In fact, they were sweet and tender with just the right amount of crunch. Peter ordered a dish involving marinated grilled chicken, tomatoes (assorted sizes), green olives and continental parsley. It looked beautiful and he pronounced it excellent. And so it was.

Neither of us liked the sound of any of five puddings which included a fig and cinnamon tartlet - probably very good, if you liked figs - a rice pudding and a praline and chestnut meringue with vanilla ice-cream. I've since been told that the Cantina's puds have been known to prop up smart London dinner-party conversation, so I'll be going back to try them.

The bill, including two glasses of house wine, two of kir royale and coffee - and the olives - came to pounds 71.82. Not cheap. But the food was a treat, the location was a dream and fellow diners provided the opportunity for outstanding spectator sport.

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