EATING OUT : Kitchen tiger turns pussycat

THE CRITERION BRASSERIE; 220 Piccadilly Circus, London W1V 9LB. Tel: 0171 930 0488. Open Mon-Sat, 12-2.30 and 5.30-12; Sun 12-3.30 and 6-10. Two courses with coffee, pounds 14; average a la carte price, pounds 35. All credit cards except Diners accepted
THE CRITERION Brasserie in Picadilly Circus, after many unsuccessful reincarnations, has just re-opened as "the Criterion Brasserie Marco Pierre White". The menu features a cartoon of Marco in chef's gear carrying a cleaver. We gaily assumed this meant the inspired and temperamental genius would be cooking our dinner until we realised, it being Saturday, he could hardly bunk off from his Michelin-constellationed restaurant down the road. Would Marco, therefore, be cooking via portable phone? ("I said put the squid ink... crackle crackle... in... crackle... the creme brulee".) Biking dishes round? Or would the brasserie be themed around the great man: with cast-iron casseroles hurtling amusingly from the kitchen and waiters sporting plastic meat cleavers in their heads?

Whatever, it is a spectacular and beautiful place to step into from the hellish tackiness of Piccadilly Circus - with its mosaic neo-Byzan-tine ceiling in gold leaf, studded with precious stones: not at all what you expect to find opposite Boots. The Criterion was originally a thriving Victorian leisure centre, with ballroom and billiard rooms, bought by Lord Forte in 1948, hideously panelled over in the 1960s, and, in its most recent incarnation, turned it into a posh-ish restaurant that never got it quite right.

First impressions, on the day after opening, suggest MPW is going to get it righter. The place feels spacious and glamorous - freakishly, you can actually hear yourself think - but there were some major teething troubles.

Our starters arrived with startling haste. My friend Jane's Belgian endive was a great success, nicely arranged with chives, crumbled Roquefort and a vinaigrette of delicious walnut oil. My other friend Jane's salad of green leaf with balsamic and Parmesan was no good at all - not least because in the rush they had forgotten the balsamic dressing.

I plumped for papillotte of smoked salmon "Albert Roux". Naming dishes after rival chefs seems a roguish thing to foist on diners not au fait with the intricacies of chef politics. A "tiramisu Raymond Blanc" might spitefully turn out to be Dream Topping and Hob-Nobs sprinkled with Maxwell House (could be quite nice, come to think of it). I surmised from my perfectly formed smoked salmon pillowstuffed with cream cheese that Marco thinks Albert Roux is a bit too rich and fat. I rather wished he had been a set of lighter, bite-sized, scatter cushions.

Having sat down at 9 o'clock, by 10.30 we began to fear our main courses were stuck in a traffic jam. A waiter was dispatched to the kitchen and returned saying, "My apologies. I've seen the chef and the food is on its way."

"Marco Pierre White?" we chorused.

"Pardon me?" he replied, with a tellingly blank expression. The great chef, we later learnt, doesn't actually cook in the Criterion; he just co-owns it and, as it were, brands it.

We weren't overimpressed with the wine list, with fairly ordinary Frascati and Muscadet at between pounds 15 and pounds 20 and the cheapest wine at pounds 11.50. "Is there a house wine?" we asked a passing waiter. "A what?" he said moving on with smiling incomprehension, as if I was trying to chat him up by asking how many brothers and sisters he had.

The main courses finally arrived nearly two hours after we had. Mine was very good - pigeon (of the wood variety, not pot-shotted off Eros), served with braised cabbage and a triangle of potato cake - the only false note being a sprig of spindly thyme stuck straight up in the potato cake, making it look like something from Waterworld. One of the Janes declared her suckling pig tender and perfectly cooked. The other Jane, though, had cratered again. "This is incredibly salty," she said of her spaghetti with langoustine. There had, we agreed, clearly been an accident with the saltpot and it was returned to the kitchen. It came back some time later - delicious, but too small and without quite enough embarrassment. The three glasses of complimentary champagne that followed inspired a spirit of forgiveness. Then suddenly we spotted Marco Pierre White sitting at the other side of the room.

"So why have I been eating salty langoustines when he's over there," fumed Jane.

"Watch it. I wouldn't take him on," hissed the other one.

After pudding, a very good chocolate concoction and an unexceptional baked apple with mincemeat, Marco, alarmingly, appeared at the table next to us; we decided we needed a cigar to calm ourselves. When the otherwise reasonable bill came we were horrified to discover that the cigars had cost pounds 12 each.

Emboldened by the champagne, we leaned across to the great chef, now quite alone, and asked him whether he thought that if a girl naively ordered a cigar costing more than her main course someone ought to warn her? Far from throwing us out, Marco murmured in Mr Darcy-like tones, full of repressed emotion: "You have made a valid point. Can I reimburse you for your cigar? Please allow me."

Unfortunately, this rather went to our heads, and we began to harangue poor Marco about the absence of a cheap house wine and asked why he doesn't cook in the restaurant. What I didn't realise was that the tape-recorder I use as a notebook, instead of being turned off, was running down on its batteries, so when I played it back later I discovered a high-pitched Pinky and Perky conversation between three bossy viragos and a cowering Marco Pierre White protesting feebly: "Even pussycats have claws" and, "How much do you think this ceiling cost me?"

I suppose we would slightly have preferred Marco Pierre White to cook for us than let us boss him about. But we had had a lovely evening, and concluded that if they sort out the service, get all dishes up to scratch and take our advice about the cigars and house wine... in fact, if they'd let us organise it, then the Criterion could be a real asset to the capital.

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