FOOD & DRINK: Biggest? Maybe. Best? We doubt it

Sugar Reef, the new, US-themed mega-eaterie, claims to be the largest in town. Fine - but what about the food? By Ben Rogers
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It was clever of me to choose an anthropologist as my dinning companion. Having recently returned from fieldwork in Fiji, Cloe had developed a keen feeling for social meaning, a fine eye for the significance of small signs and a knack for listening in to the conversation of others.

Our object of study was Sugar Reef, "London's Biggest Ever Restaurant and Bar", located on Great Windmill Street and snuggled between the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue and strip joints of Soho, between, as it were, Cats and pussies. Neither of us had known what to expect, but I found my friend eagerly sniffing the air in the foyer, intently absorbing the atmosphere.

She had already picked up one interesting exchange, overhearing one diner say to another: "Mmm, it smells of Angel in here." This apparently strange incantation was not a way of warding off bad spirits or paying homage to the gods of the hearth, but a reference to a perfume which we surmised was pumped down from the ceiling, much as temples and churches everywhere are perfumed with incense.

I had never thought that a strong sense of smell was especially important to anthropologists, but having related her first discovery, Cloe was sniffing the air again. "Can you smell the fresh paint?" she whispered. "This place must be new." Sugar Reef had, I was pleased to be able to confirm, been open for no more than a week.

I can't help feeling that the owners of Sugar Reef - Mark Fuller, the proprietor of Little Havana and Boardwalk, and Jimmy Lahoud, co-owner of such reputable venues as Quo Vadis and L'Escargot - were exaggerating in their boast about Sugar Reef's size. It is not as big as all that. Spread over two floors of what used to be an amusement arcade, the ground floor is devoted to a brasserie and restaurant, the basement to a bar, lounge and small discotheque. With its white walls, bluish light, potted palms and cane chairs, the place vaguely evoked the Caribbean, as was only fitting; Sugar Reef is conceived on a "pan-American theme".

Fuller and Lahoud were exaggerating when they promised "a large central waterfall which plunges into a Thirties-style miniature swimming pool". Water tinkled feebly from the ceiling of the top floor, down an atrium, into a shallow puddle below, the whole creation tucked out of sight of most diners.

Sugar Reef plays rather loud music, consisting of what the locals know as "light rock" and "jazz-funk". Cloe was quick to point out that most of the diners were men, including several large parties of said sex. She did not mind, she explained; in the village where she had been living, she was, on account of her Western status, counted an honorary man. She was used to it.

As you might expect, American-themed dishes predominate - deep-fried soft-shell crab, prawn cocktail with Florida sauce, chicken Maryland - although salade nicoise and fettucine primavera had somehow snuck their way in. I quickly gave it as my view that this was one of those places where you are best off sticking to simple things. Cloe, however, countered this with the observation that it was not one of those places where you wanted to depend too much on fresh ingredients.

We found ourselves between a rock and a hard place. I went for the shrimp tempura. Cloe, at my urging, ordered a Caesar salad.

This salad was larded with a thick, gluey, blue-cheese dressing, unpleasant to taste. Despite the promise of "fresh fish purchased that day", my shrimps (in fact jumbo prawns) seemed to have been frozen and the batter was horribly soggy. The bean sprout salad that came with them was positively repellent. Our second courses fared a little better. The grilled lobster was completely tasteless and the chips accompanying it looked as if theywere made from reconstituted potato. But neither of these was inedible. The grilled calf's liver with pureed sweet potato was nicely cooked, even if the brown sauce that came with it was a little syrupy.

Cloe, with her years abroad, is of hardier stuff than me and gallantly tried to cheer things up. She was delighted with her taxi driver who, on dropping her off, had taken one look at Sugar Reef and offered this little apercu: "Everyone is peddling ambience these days." Wasn't it true, she said, whatever the character of the food, the place had a certain ambience? In a way she was right. It was moodily lit, a glitter-ball circling above the "swimming pool". Most importantly, the waiters, in black shirts and turquoise ties, were attentive and friendly.

We might have stayed for dessert, but the prospect was so unappealing we didn't even ask to see the menu. Instead, we resorted to a local pub, where we both ordered several calvados - to cut through the persistent, fatty film lacing our mouths. On walking back past the restaurant on our way home, my friend observed that she did not understand much about this strange land in which she found herself, but she had a hunch the Sugar Reef would flourish. I fear she is right. There will be a red rope outside its front door by New Year.

Sugar Reef Bar and Grill, 41-44 Great Windmill Street, London W1 (0171- 851-0800). Open for lunch and dinner daily. pounds 35 per head with wine. Disabled access