Eating out: Lots of glass, very little class

LANES: Four Seasons Hotel, Hamilton Place, London W1. Tel: 0171 499 0888. Open daily: breakfast, 7-10.30am (8am on Sunday); lunch, 12-2.30pm; dinner, 6-11pm (6.30-10.30pm Sunday). Three course set menus: lunch, pounds 32; dinner, pounds 30.50. Average a la carte price per person, pounds 45. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THE FOUR SEASONS is a celebrated chain which calls itself "the world's leading operator of luxury hotels" and currently has 42 of them in 18 countries. I've come across them here and there on my travels, and they are usually rather flash, but the one in London is an exception. It is glamorously situated near Hyde Park Corner at the bottom of Park Lane, and is cheek-by-jowl with the Hilton and the trendy Metropolitan Hotel, which is popular with models and houses the brilliant Japanese restaurant Nobu.

But the Four Seasons feels just the opposite of trendy. With its gloomy plush furnishings and its displays of Victorian porcelain, it is rather reminiscent of a grand station hotel. You have to be careful when you walk up its wide, suspended staircase not to drop your keys, for they could fall through one of the gaps between the steps and land on the head of someone below. There is an air of heavy opulence about the place which suggests it might have been intended to appeal to Arabs, but on my visit there one recent evening there were no Arabs to be seen.

I went to sample its new restaurant, Lanes, which reopened the other day after a major refurbishment and the knocking of two restaurants into one - the old Lanes and the Four Seasons Restaurant, which has ceased to exist. I don't know the origin of the name Lanes, but it has a rather dated feel to it, evoking the days when names for restaurants were often chosen to give them an aura of old-fashioned English class. If there is to be a restaurant called Lanes, it ought to be in the Lanesborough Hotel on the west side of Hyde Park Corner, but the Four Seasons Hotel clearly got there first.

The decorative theme of the new first-floor restaurant is glass. It has huge curtainless picture windows framed by strips of stained glass, which offer views by day over the hotel's private garden to Hyde Park, and by night of a large tree prettily decked out for Christmas with little white lights. That is the good news. The less good news is the restaurant's "stunning" collection of works by "25 Canadian glass artists spanning four generations" which are displayed in showcases around the room, and a central feature of which Lanes is particularly proud: "the glass buffet."

This is a square table of stained glass illuminated from within and topped by a jagged, opaque glass sculpture, looking as if it might be intended to symbolise the Manhattan skyline but which, according to a a waiter, represents "the development of human dwellings". The glass buffet is the first thing you see as you enter the restaurant, and at dinner it is laden with some tired-looking and unimaginative desserts, which once again remind you of a station hotel. The floors are made of marble, and the tables of a polished marble-and-glass composition. Apart from the wooden panelling on the walls, hard, shiny surfaces are the order of the day.

This doesn't make for a feeling of cosiness, but it doesn't convey glamour either. And it is surely a mistake for a restaurant that aspires to high fashion to make its waiters wear brass tags inscribed with their names, like people at a sales conference. But the waiters are otherwise not to be faulted. Judging from their names, they seem to be nearly all Italian, and they give the impression of being very happy in their work, as good waiters must. Their service is exemplary in every way - polite, attentive and accompanied by just the right degree of friendly informality.

The real problem with Lanes, I'm afraid, is the food. Lanes calls it "contemporary" and "cosmopolitan", and the menu indeed sounds rather rootless and experimental, with the exception of the Lanes Traditional Specialities which are things like Roast Scottish Beef with Yorkshire Pudding and Grilled Dover Sole. For a starter, for example, you can have Lobster and Mango Salad with Tahitian Vanilla-Pod Essence, and for a main course, Twice-Baked Aylesbury Duck with Tea-Leaf Sauce. I rejected both of these - the first because I didn't like the sound of vanilla-pod essence, and the second because, although I like duck, I was suspicious of the eccentric decision to bake it twice and I didn't much fancy the idea of it being smothered with tea leaves.

For my starter, I eventually chose a small portion of pasta, Pappardelle with Slow-Cooked Rabbit and Baby Onion, to warm me up me on a cold night. Pappardelle are broad strips of pasta, like tagliatelle only wider, often served in Tuscany with a rich hare sauce, and I thought this might be the same sort of thing. These pappardelle were well-done, but the sauce came in bulky plops and tasted surprisingly bland - not hearty and rustic as I'd hoped. My companion's starter, Marinated Scottish Scallops with Herb Sauce, consisted of a few very thinly sliced pieces of scallop accompanied by a dab of green sauce. It was so small and looked so deeply unappetising that it might have been specially made for someone with a troubling medical condition. The taste was delicate, but again lacking in any depth. One wondered what had happened to the marinade.

For my main course, I chose the roast beef, which arrived in the shape of a cylinder on a carving trolley, the bone having been removed according to government instructions. I was given a single, alarmingly thick slice of it, instead of the usual thin slices, and then a Yorkshire pudding which looked like a large, dried-up puffball. It tasted rather like one as well, and fell below the Yorkshire pudding standards of even a Trusthouse Forte restaurant in the bad old days. My companion's Brill and Shellfish Stew Scented with Cardamom tasted fresh, but lacked finesse and was served, as was my beef, with some dreary diced, steamed vegetables which appeared to have no butter on them and very little seasoning.

We decided to share a dessert and chose a chocolate one called Feuille de Brick, whatever that may mean. This consisted of some lozenges of thick chocolate goo arranged around a bewildering centrepiece made of chocolate- flavoured pastry, looking like a moneybag and containing a hoard of pearl barley. I can't imagine where that idea came from. Pearl barley is a cereal one usually only finds in dishes like Scotch broth and Irish stew. Contemplating the appearance of this dish, my companion rather tastelessly said that it reminded her of entering a hen coop. The bill, with five glasses of different wines (all good), came to pounds 121. We left feeling a little low.

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