Five restaurants that need to get their act together

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The Independent Culture
there is an American expression for verbal contrition. It is to "eat crow". Well, look out crows. This professional eater has some to swallow. My reviews in the Friday and Saturday editions of this paper are very often written when a place is new, and news. Then, for better or worse, the restaurants evolve. Last week I returned to a place I had swooned over when it opened just over a year ago. And I hated it. Sure, I could have argued that the cooking had changed dramatically, that a restaurant is not a book or film, but an ever-changing enterprise. However, in effect, I had followed my own advice and felt gypped. Sure, personal taste is changeable and sometimes I am simply wrong. But other times, standards have slipped. Here follow some low growls at places that, no matter who was wrong first, I think could, and should, get their acts together.

FULHAM

We accepted a late table at Fulham Road, 257 Fulham Road, SW3 (0171-351 7823) - a very continental 9.45pm, admittedly preferable to the 7.30pm that must have been foisted on someone else. The food was prepared by an Irishman, Richard Corrigan, whose cooking I have admired in a series of restaurants, starting with Mulligan's of Mayfair and Bentley's in Piccadilly. I used to drop into Bentley's just for his herrings, which came lightly cured, firm and rich, with potato salad and an artistic little pile of pickled cucumber. What did we find at Fulham Road? Little smidgens of mealy herring and seabass, mushy from too long in the marinade, served with pretentious dribbles of mustard cream and a great big beetroot mousse in the middle. This was joke food, and being told that Senderens had liked it did not make it a fun joke.

Out of nine dishes sampled, only one was good. This was perfectly cooked monkfish, wrapped in ham and served with artichoke hearts and a light sauce flavoured with crab. Great food, Corrigan food. The rest was shoddy: even the bread was spongy and smelled of raw yeast. Sweetbreads and tongue were overcooked. The venison was so heavily spiced with star anise it tasted like liquorice (did the beast really deserve to die to become a sweetie?).

Enough carping at the chef. Now it's the owner's turn. Hey, Stephen Bull, debonair ex-ad man: beetroot is cheaper than herring and margins are margins, but at £55 a head, surely we deserve a whole rollmop! It must be you enforcing these margins. And the bus-station turnover combined with Michelin-league pricing is sleazy. If you can't do "lady-like" in a lady-like fashion, do something else.

SOUTH KENSINGTON

Six years' observation and many meals entitle me to say that if Max and Marc Renzland, the identical twins who run Le Petit Max, 97a High Street, Hampton Wick, Kingston (0181-977 0236) and Chez Max, 168 Ifield Road, SW10 (0171-835 0874) are not opening a new place and serving drool-making, well-nigh perfect bistro food, then they are usually screwing up big-time. Customers complaining about long waits and insolent jokes? A few. Most just slink away. A few write and ring me. More than a year after my own defection, Max himself rang, jabbering defensively. His news? They have split from the partner who they claim was insolent to customers at Ifield Road. They have, after dabbling with Thai-type stuff, returned to the salmon with sauce verte, the perfect roast chickens, the roast rabbit with braised lentils that critics have praised and customers craved. And they will be opening some whizz-bang place in the West End with an investor that understands them. I'm glad someone does.

BATTERSEA

The chef at the Stepping Stone, 123 Queenstown Road, London SW8 (0171- 622 0555) left after only three months, shortly after I had recommended his monkfish to all of south London. So I can no longer speak for the cooking. However, if you drop into this well-reviewed "local" now and ask for a table, you might be looked snootily up and down and told, "Not likely."

NATIONWIDE

There is no more respectable chain than Pizza Express, but its very decent pies, keen prices and chic brand of family cheer are no excuses for the worst salads outside of airport cafeterias. And, should they get around to ditching the iceberg lettuce with fridge fatigue, could the jukeboxes go in the same skip?

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