Eating out: Vulgarity-on-Thames

COUNTY HALL RESTAURANT: County Hall, London SE1, tel: 0171 902 8000. Open daily for breakfast 6.30-10am, for lunch 12-5pm, for pre-theatre dinner 5.30-7pm and for dinner 7-11pm. Set lunch and early dinner menu, pounds 16.50 for 2 courses. Average a la carte lunch, pounds 40 per head. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THIS WAS always going to be sad. Let's not pretend that the Greater London Council was ever any good as it slid from ineffectual Tory fiddling to the self-destructive gesture politics of Citizen Ken, but at least it had potential. Now that we've come back round to the idea that a world- class city ought to be run properly, it seems such a shame that the people's palace constructed for that very purpose should have fallen into the hands of Japanese businessmen with a taste for the crass.

The aquarium they built in the basement of this huge building that overlooks the Thames and the Houses of Parliament is a rainy-day rip-off, that parts fools from their hard-earned cash with a skill that is only bettered by the amusement arcade next door. There is, of course, a branch of McDonald's, but at least it's tucked away so as not to spoil the vast curved frontage that makes County Hall one of the most imposing buildings in London. You don't have to be a student of architecture to appreciate this monumental white elephant - which is frankly just as well, because the building is the best reason for eating there.

There can't be many restaurants in London with a grander entrance. You pass under a vaulted tunnel into a hidden courtyard, whose centrepiece is a six-tiered fountain covered in immaculate grass. Granite plinths flank bronze doors, opened by commissionaires in braided uniforms who point the way down a long, oak-lined corridor to what used to be the Chairman's Reception Room.

That's when you notice the clash between old-fashioned elegance and corporate culture. Tourists huddle around an electronic touch-screen set bang in the middle of beautiful panelling, and a modern check-in desk sits opposite an 18th-century fireplace. County Hall is now the London Marriott Hotel, with 200 beds and a health club. It is a Travel Inn, part of a chain which began by offering cheap beds by the roadside - and despite the marble columns, the designers have not quite managed to exorcise the spirit of their own past.

County Hall Restaurant works hard to present itself as a prestigious dining emporium for the knowing and the chic, rather than a pretentious canteen tacked onto a mediocre hotel. There can't be much passing trade, though: my lunch date spent half an hour trying to find the entrance, which gave me plenty of time to look around.

The main room was large and light, thanks to spotlights in the white plaster ceiling that made the pale oak walls shine, but there was a large abstract painting where a picture window should have been. Although every chair was positioned to face the Thames, only the tables underneath the two windows get a really good view. The rest of us had to crane our necks and stare past the suits to watch sightseeing boats cruising on the listless grey water. It might have been better to sit in the second room, which curved along the balcony.

All the little details had been copied from the Modern Guide To Serving Posh Nosh: maitre d' in black, wooden floor, white china and linen, plain glass and an orchid on every table. The waiters were eager and charming (out of gratitude, I suppose, since the place was half empty) and looked the part in powder- blue shirts and white aprons. They certainly had more personality than their workplace, which resembled a boardroom rearranged for a wedding.

The menu offered premature thanks to the head chef David Ali, who used to cook in the Canteen at Chelsea Harbour, and the restaurant's adviser Richard Corrigan, for their "flair and passion". It also promised innovation, which was far from the truth, unless you consider onion tart, Caesar salad or roast lamb to be revolutionary. This is the same safe food you can find in business restaurants all over Britain. The overheads must be high, because the mark-up is huge: pounds 7.50 for a tiny square of rabbit with prunes and hazelnuts in jelly was so exorbitant as to make the taste irrelevant. Not that the rabbit had much.

The last refuge of the over-charging scoundrel is the fancy French name. If you want to charge too much for a small portion of soup made from sweetcorn, egg yolks, butter and cream, then call it "Veloute of Corn" and wait for some sucker who is trying to impress his companion. The generous chef threw in a single piece of ravioli stuffed with crab and ginger and a couple of trendy rustic rolls. My veloute had a refreshing vanilla aroma and a light, frothy taste, but serv-ing it in a mug with a handle just invited comparison with Cup-a-Soup.

Baulking at pounds 19 for a piece of Dover sole, my friend ordered the less expensive Confit of Duck Leg served with cardamom rice, black beans and spring onions. "Oriental," was his verdict, unsurprisingly.

At first sight there seemed hardly anything to my fillet of beef, carefully arranged in the middle of a plate without visible accompaniment. Hidden underneath the meat was a splendidly stodgy little flan filled with peas and potatoes. On top was a horseradish remoulade, with only the slightest hint of horseradish in the mayonnaise binding some shredded celeriac. I had asked for the beef to be medium rare and that's exactly what it was, with a moist pink centre. Splendid, honest meat.

The wine list was divided into helpful categories like "fuller-bodied and sometimes spicy" for those of us who tend to point and hope. Let's not talk about the price of our bottle of red, Rosemount GSM McLaren Vale 1995, because by the time the last drop of its warm, wintery magic had run down our throats we were past guilt or worry. For a few moments, as we shared meat and wine, County Hall seemed more than an ordinary room with ideas above its station. But those moments passed.

Desserts were a fiver each, which was just about OK for a thin slice of chocolate tart served with bourbon ice-cream. The Wonton with Lemon Curd and Papaya sat on a suspiciously neon red sauce. By coffee we were the last diners left. In the melancholy light of mid-afternoon we started feeling sentimental about the GLC, a sign that it was time to go home. My own policy suggestion for those who want to explore County Hall and enjoy the river view at a fraction of the price is to walk straight past the restaurant to the end of the corridor, and take afternoon tea in the Library Lounge.

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