Eating Out: Keeping to the law of averages

LANGAN'S COQ D'OR; 254-260 Old Brompton Road, London SW5. Tel: 0171 259 2599. Open Tuesday to Sunday, for breakfast 9.30am-noon, lunch noon-3pm, and for dinner 7- 11pm. Average a la carte price for dinner, pounds 25 per head. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
BEFORE I knew anything about food, taste or style, Langan's Brasserie was my favourite restaurant in the whole of London. My honorary stepfather, Alun, used to take me there when I was a teenager and, being a wide-eyed boy from the provinces, I never failed to be blown away by its unutterable glamour: the paparazzi on permanent duty outside; the pictures of major celebrities - like, er, Rula Lenska, probably - on the walls; the fact that it was co-owned by Michael Caine and that, if you were lucky (I never was), you might actually get to see him eating there; the thrilling possibility of being abused by the whale-like proprietor Peter Langan; and the chance to savour chef Richard Shepherd's legendary Spinach Souffle with Anchovy Sauce.

That was 15 years ago. Since then, Peter L has floundered off to the great brasserie in the sky; both Caine and Shepherd have opened many more restaurants; and I have turned into the sort of ghastly metropolitan snob who wouldn't be seen dead in a place like Langan's because the food's too bland, the ambience too glitzy and the clientele rather dominated by vulgar out- of-towners who don't know any better.

Still, for old times' sake, I thought it would be a jolly idea to take Alun and his friend Gail along to the latest restaurant in the Langan's chain, the Coq d'Or in the Old Brompton Road.

This is another location charged with many strange memories for me. It's very close to the Troubadour, where I hung out in the days when I wanted to be a hippie; it's bang opposite the gay leather bar The Coleherne, where I once went on my own dressed in an incredibly camp sailor outfit because someone had bet me the price of the dinner we'd just had at the Troubadour if I did; and it's on the site formerly occupied by Pontevecchio, which used to be my mother's favourite Italian restaurant.

Perhaps the Pontevecchio's loyal customers have decided to boycott the usurper for, on the Saturday lunchtime we visited, Langan's Coq d'Or was virtually empty. Either that or it's just not grungy enough for the area (on the fringes of scruffy Earl's Court). It's done up like an Eighties designer's idea of a French brasserie: mirrors, fancy light fittings and that painfully over-familiar style of paintwork where a rich yellow base is overlaid with a reddy-brown wash. The walls are decorated with bright oil paintings which look as if they might have been exchanged by indigent artists for free dinners in the Seventies. They were probably done by quite famous people - one's an original fake by Tom Keating - but you wouldn't want to own any of them. And, of course, there are lots and lots of black-and-white photos of celebrity clients like Robert Powell grinning in the peculiarly nauseating celeb-in-restaurant-photo way that makes you want to reach for an Uzi. But I'll bet the out-of-towners and American tourists will love it.

They'll also love the menu which is stuffed to the gills with friendly, recognisable dishes that you always end up ordering when you're feeling unadventurous; things like fish soup, Bayonne ham and melon, grilled Dover sole and grilled calves' liver with bacon. Similar rules apply to the wine list, abundant with safe, reliable names like Rosemount's Hunter Valley Chardonnay and Beringer Furne Blanc. If you don't know much about food and wine but you know what you like, you'll probably feel very happy here.

If, on the other hand, you're a miserable, pernickety so-and-so like me, you might well find yourself wondering why you didn't instead go to the Caprice which does this sort of cuisine so much better. It would be unfair to say that the food at Langan's Coq d'Or is at all bad; it's just deeply average. So average, in fact, that I wonder whether each dish isn't expressly calibrated to be just a fraction above the borderline at which any reasonable person might lodge a complaint.

I suppose the best example of this is the chips. If a brasserie can't do decent chips then it might as well give up immediately, as far as I'm concerned. And the ones here simply aren't up to scratch. Although superficially they do all the things that brasserie-style chips are meant to do - longish, thinnish, golden, crispy exterior, soft interior - they don't bear close scrutiny. They're not thick enough, they don't taste of potatoes and the oil they're fried in is only a few notches above Castrol GTX. But though I disliked them enough not to finish my bowl, I didn't hate them quite enough to feel justified in sending them back. How does the chef manage this? It's spooky.

It was much the same with almost everything else we ate. X (I've been banned from calling her "Tiffany" or "my wife" in my reviews) was deeply underwhelmed by her endive and bacon salad with poached egg: the bacon wasn't anywhere near the free-range, dry-cure, smoked we eat at home; the egg was luke-warm and mildly unpleasant; the presentation, banal. And Gail was totally unenthused by her spinach and feta salad: and if you met her, you'd realise what a condemnation this is, for Gail is American and normally enthusiastic about everything.

Alun struck a little luckier with his crab and ginger dumpling which looked like mousse of sick but tasted, well, of crab and ginger, I suppose. His fish soup too was fairly pukka - rich, not too livery and with all the proper trimmings (rouille, croutons) well done.

I didn't do too badly with my calves' liver, either. It came in the usual jus with some sweet, baby onions and the liver itself was good, tender and free of horrid tubey bits. But I would have preferred it to be more charred on the outside and pinker in the middle, and the bacon which came with it was rubbish. GOOD BACON IS TERRIBLY IMPORTANT. Does Richard Shepherd not know this?

Oh, I've remembered that the other reason I wanted to go to Langan's Coq d'Or, apart from those given above, was that I'd read that Richard Shepherd had banned the London Evening Standard's critic Fay Maschler from his restaurants for being too rude about them. I'd consider it an incredible honour if he felt I was worthy of a similar ban, though that's not why I've given his new gaff a dodgy review. I make my criticisms because they are well deserved. Almost all the dishes we ate at Coq d'Or I could have prepared much better myself at home - and I'm not a superchef or anything. The ingredients aren't good enough and the preparation betrays serious complacency. To me, that's the point of the Langan's chain: food for people who don't know and don't care.

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