Eating out: Pump up the volume

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The Independent Culture

8 Lancashire Court, London W1Y, 0171 659 1500. Lunch Mon-Fri noon-3pm. Dinner Mon-Sat 6.30-10.30pm. Three-course dinner about pounds 60 (including service). Major credit cards accepted

BY COMPARISON WITH the Feeding of the 5,000 it may not be much, but I do make a point of taking a different person out to dinner every week. It is not charity, it is professional conscientiousness. Other people notice things you would not. And so it was very handy, when I slid out of the taxi at the bottom of South Molton Street, that a pregnant woman in a fur coat and high heels slid out after me.

"Will it be glam?" she had asked, when I suggested that we go to .

"It's owned by Roger Moore's son," I had replied.

"Ee," she had said. "I'll dress up posh then."

And she did. Though she paused when emerging from her flat wearing most of a family of bears, and asked whether there was any danger of the people there being "PC". Having seen the press release, I was able to assure her that grim capitalist ostentation would almost certainly characterise the clientele, rather than environmental or social concern. "Excellent, excellent," she replied.

To get to , you duck down a little alley into a cobbled courtyard, and here my furry friend made a reasonable point: "They should warn people about these bloody cobbles - I wouldn't have worn such high heels if I'd known."

With the 15 yards of cobbled ground safely negotiated, we found ourselves on the ground floor of , which houses a standard-looking brasserie with lots of wood and uncovered tables. A woman took the fur coat. "Oh no," said its owner. "She's Californian. She'll throw paint on it."

Upstairs, where there is a bar and the "fine dining" restaurant (hateful phrase), Furry looked around at the crushed velvet, the Art Deco, the staff in their Donatella Versace outfits, and the little nests of gun- metal grey tables and said, "Thank God I did wear heels. I wish I'd worn higher ones. Imagine coming here in flatties. You'd be so embarrassed. And I want my fur coat back now. I want these people to know I've got one. And buy me a Rolex, and start talking very loudly about how much you earn. Only lie."

She had a point. You walk into , and you say to yourself "Hellooooo 1986." You remember the chap in the car advert who says, "Not my style, know what I mean," and then shouts, "Taxi!". Well, the taxi was taking him here.

On the long, gently curving bar there stood large pewter buckets, each containing two bottles and a magnum of Champagne. There was a list of Champagne cocktails and lots of fruit schnapps. Furry, who has travelled a bit, said it reminded her of New York 15 years ago and Beirut now.

The "fine dining" area bubbles off one end of the bar and your meal begins with an amuse bouche, which is a good sign, I suppose, when dining fine. It was raw salmon wrapped around a herby cream cheese. Not bad, but served so cold that it betrayed its recent removal from the fridge, banishing any pretence of bespoke creation - and that set the tone for a meal rather incongruously lacking in confidence.

Thus the three scallops served with duck confit were not as fat and squeaky as scallops can be when really fresh and barely cooked, and the confit was cold, which is not a disaster, but probably done only because it is easier than serving it hot. Later on, an excellent grilled sea-bass was let down by being served on tepid pappardelle (a shame, because the artichoke and sage cream sauce was perfect). Again, if you keep dressed pasta in a big bowl and then warm it up when the fish is ready you will have no timing disasters. But you will have nothing special. In a confident kitchen there is no need for such pre-cooking. And it has no place in "fine dining" at pounds 60 a head.

Though over-cautious, the food was by no means terrible. The roast turbot was as good as the bass and its sauce of bacon and clams was nice and rich. A leek and truffle tarte fine wasn't blinding - it tasted of a bland white sauce and rather disappeared under oceans of melted cheese. But it was nice melted cheese. Again, it's only a lack of confidence. The food will come right round about the time that the waiters get the hang of serving the bread with a fork and spoon (a poncey little grace note that is worth doing only if you actually can - watching a nervous young foreigner batting a bread roll around a basket with the back of a spoon is embarrassing for all concerned).

Puddings were not bad at all, though both an almondy creme brulee and a small crumble with a towering lattice of apple climbing out of it benefitted from being dishes that are pre-prepared.

All in all, is running in a few areas, and still trying to master the walking thing in others. The place looks good, and is one of the very first to give us an Eighties theme deliberately. It reminds us how we once were, in ways both charming and not so charming. But if the Eighties were about anything, they were about big, ballsy, don't-give-a-damn confidence. It is time for to stop whispering, and - as Tears for Fears would have said - shout.


Richard Ehrlich's selection

Cutesy, punning names like `Smokin' Honey Martini' (with honey vodka) and `Pimmadonna' (with melon schnapps and fraise) crowd into the cocktail list. These cocktails might be less disgusting than they sound. On the wine list, vintages and producers are optional. There are some good bottles, but you don't always get a lot for your money. Stick with cheapies like this threesome.

Torres Gran Vina Sol 1998, pounds 17.50

This Parellada/Chardonnay blend is one of Torres' most successful entry-level wines, and a good partner for fish and light chicken dishes.

Caliterra Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 12.50

Vintage unidentified for this sound Chilean. The 1997 will be much better than the 98, but at this price you can afford to take a chance.

Trivento Malbec 1998, pounds 15

An invigorating mouthful from a good Argentinean producer, marked up with the accountants in mind.