Eating Out: Moving in the smartest circles

AXIS; 1 Aldwich, London WC2. Tel: 0171 300 0300. Open Monday to Friday for lunch from noon to 3pm, and Monday to Saturday for dinner, 6 to 11pm. The Express Menu costs pounds 14.95 for two courses and pounds 17.95 for three. Average a la carte price for lunch, pounds 25 per head. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
I CLEAN FORGOT the leather floor. A terrible admission, I realise, but it's true. A leather floor is quite a talking-point. So how could I have missed it? I passed through the bar and never once glanced down at the floor. I didn't notice any particular lightness of step as I tripped gaily towards our table, nor indeed as I exited, with the slower, duller pace of one who has just been exceedingly well fed.

Once I'd braved my way into the entrance hall, past the tall, blond doorman complete with walky-talky, I began the gentle wind down towards the bar. The polished stairs spiral down like a magnificent ammonite, and the theme of the interior is instantly made plain: cool, perfect circles, layered and linked like the cogs of the old printing machines that once churned out the pages of the Morning Post right here in this building.

The second descent from the circular gallery of the bar brings you to the restaurant proper, and reveals the back area, a circular room centred around the hub of a large circular table. My friend Dominic eyed it with approval. Perfect for client meals, he explained to me, because everyone can see and talk to everyone else; strangely enough, that's not so common in the more up-market London restaurants.

Ordinary, square tables radiate out around the other room, emphasising the circularity. A striking mural drives home the theme of the circle and its axis. Exploding out from the cen-tre are blocks of dull yellows and ochres and browns - a circular city scape. Actually, I didn't much like it. Dom said it looked like the kind of thing you used to get on canteen walls, or other large institutional expanses, and I had to agree.

The menu, on the other hand, was a distinctly pleasurable read. It's nice to escape from the incessant obsession for all things chargrilled and sub-Med. The chef, Mark Gregory, is not scared to be different or to stand by his own preferences, which have a leaning towards the finer things of this country. This is particularly evident in the meat section. How often do you see jugged hare on a menu, or indeed hay-roast lamb and champ?

The Mediterranean is not entirely ignored - he's too good to make that kind of tactical error - and I was tempted by the risotto with crab, but let my attention wander and refocused on another crab starter, this time a cocktail of crab and artichoke. It came without any untoward fuss or the showy dramatics of up-to-the-heavens vertical styling. A perfect artichoke base, denuded of leaves and tough fibres, gently cupped a mound of lightly bound crab, finished with a tuft of bitter salad leaves. An entirely relevant vinaigrette drizzled around the plate, brightened here and there with tiny cubes of tomato. Even the vinaigrette was exemplary, suitably tarter than one would want for a plain green salad, to balance the intense, nutty sweetness of artichoke and the rich crab cocktail. The one thing that tarnished the whole was the deathly chill of the artichoke base, straight from the back, I imagine, of a very efficient new fridge.

A similarly icy hand touched at the heart of Dom's Savoury Summer Pudding. Very fetchingly clad in a summery, pale orange-pink hue, the flavour of the interior dice of tomato and (we guessed) aubergine was seriously muted by cold, which was a pity as the outer reaches were quite delicious, with good bread nicely sozzled in a pale, tomatoey cream.

To celebrate a balmy early autumn day, I ordered lobster. True to tell, it was the presence of a rarely spotted but favourite herb that was the deciding factor. Accompanying the lobster was a salad of chicory, grapefruit and lemon verbena: a great combination of a mildly bitter vegetable and fruit, electrified with the lemon-zest zing of verbena, the rough edges polished off with a judicious coating of thin, creamy, mustardy dressing.

Dominic tangled with the lamb, and we both admired the simplicity of presentation: several generous slices of barely pink meat, blanketing tender carrots, and a gorgeous swamp of buttery mashed potato speckled with spring onions. The ingredients were of the best, and quite rightly left to shine without further ado.

His pudding came with a rather curious English love potion - an iced eau-de-vie, heavily flavoured with all kinds of spices, and laced with slugs of gin - accompanying a rather plain plum cake, the whole set off with a very non-English plum (that round sort with the almost black skin that you can buy all year round) and a jaunty sprig of mint. I actually fared rather better, with a neat little drum of rice-pudding, but then I can't resist rice-pudding at the best (or indeed, the worst) of times. The exterior was crisp with crumbs, having been deep-fried, thus heating the interior to a divine molten state. As I cut into it, a river of rice and apricot goo flowed out to greet me. Nothing nurseryish about that at all, then.

Next time I come here (and there definitely will be a next time, if luck is on my side), I hope to sit with my back to the mural (I found it rather distracting), in a spot where I can watch my fellow diners and invent their life histories. And I promise that I shall make a great effort to glance downwards as I make my way to the table, so that I can admire and appreciate the curious leather floor. Do they polish it every morning? Do they treat it just like a conveniently flat pair of shoes, untrammelled by buckles and seams and eyelets? It must scuff something rotten ... and just think how many tins of wax they must work their way through in a week ...

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