EATING OUT: Starry, starry nights
TEATRO: 93-107 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1V 7AE. Tel: 0171 494 3040. Open daily 12-3pm and 6-11.30pm. Pre-theatre menu, pounds 15 for two cour ses and pounds 18 for three. Average a la carte price, pounds 35 per person. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 22 March 1998
Mind you, as a contender for a starry firmament, it's in a downright peculiar setting. The entrance is hidden between the Palace Theatre and the Curzon cinema, in the corner of a totally nondescript office block. I found the business of locating the restaurant inside the block (it is actually right at the back, overlooking Old Compton Street) deeply intimidating. Once past the doors there is absolutely nothing, and no one, to indicate that you are in the right place. Was I meant to go up that anonymous white staircase, or might there have been a door just around the corner at the bottom that I'd missed, leading the select few to the right room. It may be old fashioned, but I do like to be met by the warmth of a human being as I step into the premises of a restaurant. White walls, sheet glass and steps to no-man's-land do not make for a good start. Eventually, you come to a desk and two congenial faces who reassure that you are not halfway to Ward Nine. There are still two more long corridors to negotiate, but at least the doubt has been eliminated.
The interior is very blocky. The dining area is angular and square, though the bar is a little softer with in-built curves. Overall, it comes as little surprise to learn that this was once a car-park. United Designers, who were responsible for Vong and Bonu, not to mention one of my favourite hotels, the Clarence in Dublin, were not landed with the easiest of jobs.
The serving staff are extremely well-trained and skilled. Smooth and friendly, efficient of course. One would hardly expect anything less. What really impresses, though, is their knowledge of the menu. Ask what goes into the delicious little pot of fresh salmon spread that arrives with the bread, and without hesitation, the ingre- dients are listed (shallots, chives and, naturally, salmon, among other things). Ask them what kind of apple they use for the baked apple and the response is immediate: a Cox. We tried out a few more nosy customer queries, and never once did they have to repair to the kitchen.
The meal itself was not quite so perfectly tuned, but when it hit the high mark the cooking was superlative. I couldn't resist the foie gras du jour, served hot and molten inside, with caramelised scented persimmon. The jelly-like consistency of persimmon hot from the pan was a revelation, the whole tempered by a shot of aromatic sherry vinegar. My husband's "crispy" pigs' trotter (I hate the word crispy; what's wrong with crisp?) was less successful. Boned and primped and sliced into little medallion coated in fine breadcrumbs, the rich gelatinous texture of the trotter was completely lost. In fact one would have been very hard put to detect the origins of the meat, which may have been the point. A rather pointless point, to be sure, since anyone who orders pigs' trotter is likely to be more keen on the texture in the first place.
Most sumptuous dish of the meal was the veal sweetbread. Plump, tender and pert, it nestled beneath a cap of paper thin slices of lemon confit, sweet yet hinting at sharpness. The sweetbread island basked in a shallow sea of salty reduced jus which balanced the smooth texture of the offal and the sweetness of the caramelisation. William's offering came surprisingly unadorned. A bowl of lobster risotto with peas and trompettes de mort and nothing else. Not even a sprinkling of parsley or other greenery to distract from the murky colour gifted to it by the black mushrooms. The taste was tremendous, with the woody scent of the trompettes holding the sweetness of shellfish and peas. The rice, though, let the side down. The grains were just too chalky and undercooked for comfort.
The treacle tart was very French. In other words, it tasted fine, but it was not a proper British treacle tart. Too thin, for a start. And not enough breadcrumbs, and those that there were, were too fine and granular. And we thought that there was probably some egg in the mixture to make up for the lack of crumbs. We both adore a good British tart, so failed to appreciate the subtleties of Teatro's over-refined version. The fromage frais sorbet that it came with, on the other hand, was magnificently lemony and silky, I thought the prune tart over-refined, too, the prune having disappeared into the cream of the filling, depriving it of any body. Too subtle by half. Next time I go, and there will definitely be a next time, I shall probably skip pudding altogether. Savoury dishes are clearly where chef Stuart Gillies performs best.
Mercifully free of showbiz hype, Teatro seems determined not to try to pull in passing custom on a promise of famous names. In the long term, ironically, that may well mean that it will become a prime place for spotting genuine stars, tucked well away from the nosy curiosity of Shaftesbury Avenue strollers. In the meantime, the food itself is original and sexy enough to drag in the serious punters all on its own.
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