Food and Drink: Toast: just a little too cool for comfort

EATING OUT: Local boy Frank Skinner felt at home in this swanky north London playboys' den. So why were his friends rather less enthusiastic?
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The Independent Culture
Toast is a great name for a restaurant. It promises something simple yet self- indulgent - the ultimate extension of the British comfort food resurgence that has seen roast cod and mashed potato displace polenta and lemongrass from fashionable menus. Expectations that Toast might be a cosy, traditional kind of place are also raised by its location directly above Hampstead tube station, a red-tiled Edwardian treasure in the heart of what local residents still like to think of as "the village". You can almost hear the designers going to work: "I'm thinking Brief Encounter, I'm thinking Celia Johnson, I'm thinking ladies in tea-frocks eating Banbury cakes... "

The reality of Toast, though, is very far from Brief Encounter; in fact, it's a model of late-Nineties sophistication, from the walkie-talkied greeters who relay your arrival to the staff upstairs, through the designer staircase, all dappled pools of lights and recessed orchids, to the dining room itself, a synthesis of modern cliches, with its dark wood veneer walls and tables, brown leather sofas and sleek, endless cocktail bar.

A single, wedge-shaped room serves as both members bar and restaurant. One side is dominated by the bar, while dining tables are arranged beneath the only original feature in evidence - semi-circular windows which look out across Hampstead High Street and into the Oral Implant Centre opposite. Mirrors on the ceiling and across one wall contribute to a slightly hard- edged, porn-set atmosphere, as though one had penetrated Hugh Hefner's private rumpus room in the Playboy mansion. It's a place in which to see and be seen, a place designed to look good in photographs rather than to be relaxed in.

The bar serves an extensive list of original cocktails, with names like Time Chill and Scooby Snack. Two of the four of us were non-drinkers, so we enquired about non-alcoholic cocktails, only to be greeted with total incomprehension by the barman, whose English was patchy, and who seemed to find the concept of a Virgin Pina Colada a baffling novelty. "I felt like I'd asked him if they served beef without any meat in it," Frank Skinner marvelled, after settling in defeat for a glass of mineral water.

Toast describes its menu as "exciting, original and trans-European", and operates a set-price policy of pounds 27 for three courses. Choices, though, are fairly limited - at the time of our visit, a month after opening, the menu consisted of three starters and six main courses, of which three were fish and three meat. "It's like one of those designer shops with two pairs of trousers in them, where all the staff stand around and watch you while you pretend to browse," as Frank's friend Amy commented.

We began with a round of unadvertised pre-starters, espresso cups of tomato consomme which the majority of us thought tasted like garlicky cooking water, but which Frank found delicious. "I could drink a big mug of this," he said, draining Amy's cup. Despite his enthusiasm, I couldn't help thinking that the kitchen would be better off not serving amuse-gueules, unless they can make them a little more amusing.

As a vegetarian, Amy was confined to one option per course, and was underwhelmed by her vegetable tartare, a mound of small-diced and aggressively vinegary veg on a bed of dull salad leaves. Frank and I were better served with a leek and lobster terrine, prettily presented and clean tasting, the lobster hinting at some exposure to oriental spicing. The winner, though, was Evan, with a guinea fowl and cep ravioli: a single purse of pasta, as big as a fried egg, containing a delicate, almost mousse-like filling.

Main courses followed the same pattern. While we meat-eaters enjoyed substantial portions, carefully presented on enormous plates, Amy's vegetarian option, a mushroom risotto, was half-sized and pitifully unimaginative. "I could have done this at home," she said mournfully. Evan's saddle of rabbit, stuffed with foie gras and summer truffle, was firm and flavoursome, though points were lost for an overcooked and redundant knot of green tagliatelle. I enjoyed my pan-fried duck in an aromatic cinnamon sauce but happiest of all was Frank, whose lamb and mint sausages with carrot mash and onion gravy came closest to the kind of evolved home-cooking Toast's name might imply.

In fact, of the four of us, Frank retained the most enthusiasm for the place, pronouncing it a good local alternative to the West End. But he couldn't forgive the exaggerated pantomime of coolness which was unfolding at the bar, feeling that bartenders who didn't know how to make a non- alcoholic cocktail should not be at liberty to wear wraparound shades and exchange exuberant high fives with arriving customers. "Something has gone wrong with British society," he sighed. "There's too much cool. It reminds me of that expression used by American shoeshine men - there's too much pop and not enough shine."

Service was well-intentioned but patchy - in their customised cargo pants and Virgin Clothing footwear, the staff appear to have been picked more for their looks than their expertise. Toast's owners are Hampstead veterans, having already succeeded, in an area which is a notorious Bermuda Triangle for ambitious restaurants, in making the more casual House on Rosslyn Hill a magnet for the beautiful youth of NW3. But if they're aiming to attract a metropolitan, Met Bar-friendly crowd to Toast, they're missing the mark on the evidence of our visit. Our fellow diners were divided equally between super-smooth foreign gents and expensively dressed but gloomy north London families, headed by the kind of men who don't pull their BMWs over to let you pass on a narrow road.

Over puddings, the best of which was a lemon and mascarpone tart with berry sauce, we entertained ourselves with a rendition of Paul Young's toast-themed hit from the Seventies, with its unforgettable chorus, "Toast, a little bit of... toast!". It's very much a Paul Young kind of restaurant, we agreed, a place where resting pop stars of the Seventies and Eighties would feel at home. Has-beens on Toast, you might say. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Gary Numan in here - serving", as Frank added cruelly.

Our bill came to pounds 188, including aperitifs and pounds 23 on wine, a total which would have seemed hefty even if we'd eaten the same meal in the West End. Certainly, there's the advantage of being able to alight directly from the restaurant into the tube station downstairs, or in local boy Frank's case, walk home. But as he so aptly concluded, at those kind of prices, "I can't help thinking they've got ideas above their station".

Toast, 50 Hampstead High Street, London NW3 (0171-431 2244). Open 10am - 10.30pm. No disabled access. All major cards except Diners Club and AmEx