Eating out: Roboflop

Cynthia's Cyberbar; 4 Tooley Street, London Bridge, London SE1, 0171 403 6777. Lunch Mon-Sat 11am-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6-11pm. Sun 12-10pm. Three-course dinner around pounds 25 per person. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE SEEN the future, and it bleeps. It also whirrs, flashes, and mixes cocktails. What it cannot do is cook. But just remember to eat before you go, and you'll be fine.

Let's begin by comparing Cynthia's Cyberbar, a new theme-bar-cum-restaurant, with Zafferano, the newly Michelin-starred restaurant in Knightsbridge, recently voted the best Italian restaurant in the galaxy. Both serve food. Zafferano's is fantastic. Cynthia's is unspeakable. Both are very expensive. Zafferano reasonably so, Cynthia's, I think, unreasonably. And both have staff. The staff is the reason I would never go back to Zafferano. The staff is the only reason I would go back to Cynthia's.

It was in Zafferano that I met the most appalling man I have ever met. And I speak as someone who has been to Austria. At lunch with a potential employer, I was amazed, on ordering a main course for each of us (we were pressed for time) to hear the lugubrious Latin intone - somewhere between Jeeves and Mussolini - "you are aware that there is a minimum charge in this restaurant, sir?"

Minimum charges are for suburban curry houses to keep out groups of lads who want to order a poppadom between 12, and drown in lager. Besides, I was in for around pounds 70, with the wine and the two pounds 20 fish dishes. Pudding, coffee and "service" would have tipped me into triple figures. And anyway, in a place like that, one diner is clearly trying to impress the other, and hoping not to be upbraided for stinginess by a satanically hirsute Il Duce wannabe. Most importantly, if he suspected I was spending only pounds 100 because I was poor, then his rudeness was all the more obscene.

Every person I have ever met who has been to the dreaded Z has a similar story. I do not believe that anyone has ever had a good time there. In fact, I do not believe anyone has ever left without wishing he had smacked the waiter in the gob.

Not a feeling you will have on leaving Cynthia's Cyberbar. For the waiter is a robot. And so much more imbued with human charm than the Zafferano heavies, I can't tell you.

Passing beneath a Victorian railway arch you enter CCB through a forbidding, chrome portcullis. All is shining steel. The floors are that chevronned, non-slip stuff you see on fire escapes, buffed to a silvery glow. Three or four dungeon-like rooms burgeon cavernously from the bar. Red cat's- eyes blink around floor and walls. This is Belgo gone mad, Barbarella meets Battlestar Galactica and opens a bar. You are greeted by the bartender who looks like one of the Cybermen in Doctor Who. "Hello," she says, with the deep, rasping warble you might get if Kit from Knight Rider was speaking through a voice-scrambler. This is odd, because she is called Cynthia. In front of her is a keypad listing dozens of cocktails - all sweet, all vile, all intended to get teetotal secretaries drunk at an office Christmas party. No Manhattans or Martinis here, just "Quasars", "Quark Quarks" and "Quantum Fluctuations" - a lot of "Q"s in the future, I gather. But the robot does make them, and it is extraordinary.

You pop the button, and she swivels round, takes the optic measures, stirs the concoction and puts it in front of you. It is worth pounds 6.50 for a revolting jam and vodka concoction to see this. It is the only restaurant gimmick I have ever seen that is worth seeing. She cannot wipe a salt rim on to a martini glass for a margarita, of course. Nor does she wipe the bar methodically when things are quiet, so the bar is a bit sticky. I guess you just can't get the Robots these days. Incidentally, bar staff usually prioritise customers they fancy. Whom does a robot single out? The customer with the most fillings? The punter with the pacemaker?

As for the food, I went in the first week, so it may improve. It couldn't get worse. Seared tuna and pan-fried salmon both came grimly cooked through, despite pleas for them to be rare. Deep-fried mushroom stuffed with haggis is filled and deep-fried somewhere else and delivered, I suspect, frozen. The haggis is poor, the whole thing utterly revolting. And to serve deep- fried mushrooms with creme fraiche instead of tartare sauce does not make them instantly classier. Just more boring.

I then had the poorest fillet steak I will ever have. The menu said it was "flash fried", and I asked for it to be served very rare. What came was grilled, not fried, and charred grey-brown, so that only robot jaws could have chewed it. The awful pepper sauce was meant to contain "a touch of cream", but didn't. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was bottled. The manager said not. Finally, the chips had been delivered pre-cut and frozen. When you are paying pounds 16.95 for steak and chips, you expect a kitchen that takes delivery of potatoes.

Working here, Cynthia may soon do a Robocop, go AWOL, vault over her counter and start killing diners (for whom death would be blessed relief). A better suggestion would be to seek employ elsewhere. This food deserves duffer staff, and a certain Knightsbridge eatery serves food of which Cynthia's skills would be worthy. I wonder if she can do an Italian accent?


Richard Ehrlich's selection

If the idea of drinking an Alien Vomit or Trans-Nebula Slaughter holds no appeal, Cynthia can oblige with a short list of wines - not a bad selection. The quintet of Champagnes (including Bollinger NV, pounds 39.95) is reasonably marked up. I do wish they'd proof-read the list, which is chockablock (like so many) with typos

Chairman's New World Sauvignon Blanc 1998 pounds 22.45

This is a New Zealander, from Siefried in Nelson. 1998 was difficult for Sauvignon in New Zealand, but this should make a good partner for food

Maglieri Semillon 1997 pounds 20.70

This McLaren Vale producer is better known here for its reds, but their Semillon can be wonderfully fresh and fruity. Spelled wrong on the list

Yaldara Grenache 1998 pounds 21.05

Should be a solid glugging wine, like so much Barossa Grenache. Spelled wrong on the list