Eating Out: Mel, Sue and lunch too

LUNCH; 60 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE. Tel: 0171 278 2420. Open Monday to Friday from 8.30am until 6pm. Average price per person, pounds 5. Payment by cash or cheque only

"WHATEVER HAPPENED to lunch?" I heard a tall man in a suit say to a strikingly henna-ed female companion in the City Road recently. And as they strode purposefully back to the office, clutching their ugly piles of papers and polystyrene cups, a large piece of avocado fell from his overstuffed sandwich, bounced greasily off his tie, and left a dangerous booby-trap on the pavement behind him.

Tall Man's question is right on the mark. Personally I have never been in any doubt that an hour spent in the middle of the day with real food and real cutlery, and preferably real human company, is far more likely to bring you health, happiness and business success than munching power bars on the step aerobics machine or gobbling soggy samosas during a conference call with Dusseldorf and Osaka. Yet I struggle to practise what I preach, and on the average working day I am far more likely to tussle urgently with cellophane as the blood sugar crashes at around 3pm than plan a civilised sit-down meal complete with eating utensils and talking companions. I too am a victim of the lunch crisis.

How did it all start? I think it's fair, as with most unsatisfactory aspects of Nineties life, to blame the Eighties. It was the decade when Gordon Gekko gave lunch a bad name, saying it was "for wimps". But in the Nineties, Gordon Gekko has become Nicholas Van Orton, a miserable millionaire recluse who has no friends left to lunch with. So as they say in south London, "who's the c**t?"

Recently I have encountered two projects designed to put lunch back on the menu, and the mental map. The first of these is the Channel 4 chat show Light Lunch. In this admirably frothy formula, a friendly girly double act reminds a wildly enthusiastic studio audience that lunch is an unpretentious time of day when a quick bite of something tasty and a chin wag with your mates will set you up nicely for the rest of the afternoon. Presenters Mel and Sue are like your best mate's sister and her friend: the first time you meet them you may think you have no time for Mel's pigtails or Sue's mildly mocking tough-girl jibes. But before you know it you have fallen under their spell. You're fantasising that your best mate's languishing in bed with the measles, and you're being spoon-fed strawberry Angel Delight by Mel while Sue asks nonchalantly for a back rub.

The second project is less virtual. Lunch is also the name of a new cafe in north London's natty new niche, Exmouth Market (where you will also find the marvellous Moro, and the terrifyingly cool Crowbar Coffee). The fact that it's actually called Lunch is encouraging and soothing at the same time: to me it says, "here's what you've been missing, what you need." On entering it soon becomes clear that the modern lunch crisis is being addressed with consider- able thought and panache. The space is small, but a nifty split level interior allows a decent space for lunchers who want to sit down. Tables on the pavement, and in a garden at the back, mean that, for the next few months at least, there is an al fresco option for another 30 or so to rest their butts. Consequently the place has a buzz when busy.

The food I have tried is consistently good, in a couple of instances excellent, but on the whole more intelligent than inspirational. The whole ethos of the menu and the way it is presented is "stay if you can; take away if you have to; but if at all possible find time to savour."

Hot and cold soups are served in large polystyrene tubs that don't leak, and are less inclined to topple than the usual doubled-up coffee cups. I'm a big fan of chilled soups and have tried a couple of them so far. Pea and mint was pleasant, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the mint was delivered from a branded sauce rather than freshly chopped leaves. Coriander and lemongrass vichyssoise is a lovely idea and was spot on for flavour, but just lacked the body and velvety texture that make a chilled vichyssoise such an indulgent pleasure (dropping a rice cake into the blender is a trick worth knowing when is comes to thickening soups). Nonetheless, both were better than any soup I've ever had from a takeaway, or even fresh from a carton.

The main courses, or "Lunch specials", come in white card boxes that are large and not over filled, so if you are transporting your meal back to the office or picnicking on a park bench you don't then have to pick your way through a squashed mess. Chargrilled salmon with wild rice and leaf salad is a very nice dish: the leaves well- (and not over-) dressed, the rice perfectly cooked, the salmon obviously but forgivably farmed and accurately dealt with on the grill, so still succulent. The bruschetta, which happened to come out of the oven just as I arrived, is top-notch: generous with the grilled vegetables, and some come with a slice of chorizo as a carnivore's bonus.

Lunch wisely buys its bread, and various cookies, from Clarke's, the first-rate bakery in Notting Hill. But they make their own chocolate brownies. These alone are worth the trip to Exmouth Market: as a vehicle for assuaging cravings for quality dark chocolate they rank on a par with the River Cafe's famous chocolate oblivion cake.

Wouldn't it be just too spooky if Lunch, the happening new eaterie, and Light Lunch, the groovy chat show, were somehow related? Well, they are. The owner and deviser of Lunch is in fact the brother of the series producer and deviser of the Light Lunch format. Rumour has it that Lunch at Exmouth Market could be the template for a chain of Lunches at other hip locations around the city, country, globe .... And Light Lunch looks set fair for a few more runs yet. Just how sinister is this family pincer movement on the minds and stomachs of the nation at lunch is not yet clear. For the time being I'm happy to worship, more or less zombie-like, at both shrines.

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