Food & Drink: Eating Out - I'll take the high life

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The Independent Culture
With Glasgow celebrating its tenure as 1999's UK City of Art and Design, the streets are currently awash with roaming architects and style journalists, agonising about which of the city's many ultra-trendy new bars and restaurants to patronise.

There could hardly be a better time to launch The ArtHouse, a new designer hotel aimed at the kind of aesthetically-sensitive traveller who'd rather find a Le Corbusier chair in their bedroom than a Corby trouser press.

The ArtHouse, which also contains two ambitious restaurants, is the brainchild of Kenny Skey, the Glasgow-based entrepreneur behind two of the city's hottest nightspots, Spy Bar and Club Alaska. He has invested some pounds 3.5m converting the Edwardian headquarters of the Glasgow School Board into a stylish and idiosyncratic city-centre destination, which preserves the building's listed original features while incorporating the ideas of various modish Glasgow design teams.

Original tiling, wood-panelling and stained glass have been artfully incorporated in the refit, and surrounded by bold contemporary fabrics and furnishings, loud purple carpeting and a changing display of paintings on loan from the nearby School of Art.

Sheryl Crow chugs from the sound system in the lobby, and the cosmopolitan staff are young, comely and designer-clad. Glasgow may be the home of the deep-fried Mars bar, but the relaxed rock'n'roll glamour of the ArtHouse places it firmly at the Marianne Faithfull end of the confectionery-using spectrum.

I'd originally planned to eat at the more formal of the hotel's restaurants, the Arc, which offers "fine dining" with an emphasis on local fish and seafood. But the hotel had only been open a few weeks when we visited, and it looked like my friend Tony and I were destined to be the sole representatives of our species in the Arc that night. So instead of fine-dining in an empty restaurant, we opted to eat downstairs in the cheaper, funkier and rather more populous ArtHouse Grill.

This sleek subterranean room has been designed to within an inch of its life in a futuristically retro style - Manhattan cocktail bar meets Seventies space lounge, in shades of taupe and brown. There's a drinking area, with long chrome bar and designer stools resembling suede Rolos on legs, while diners can choose between wooden booth seating or individual tables, in a shadowy theme-park of a room which also finds space for a teppanyaki counter and an oyster bar. Neither of these attractions was yet up and running at the time of our visit, but the presence of several strangely- clad Japanese girls and a man sporting leggings and an eye-patch indicated that the ArtHouse Grill has already been colonised by Glasgow's fashionable fringe.

The decor may be cutting-edge, but much of the menu reads as plain nostalgic. A chunky little ring-bound book offers prawn cocktail with melba toast, pea and ham soup, shepherd's pie and wiener schnitzel. All very Marguerite Patten, all very 1999. But sushi and sashimi are available too - chef John Quigley has retained the services of an in-house fishmonger, as well as a Japanese chef formerly with Nobu in California. Quigley's own background includes stints as personal chef to Bryan Adams and Tina Turner, and his experience in anticipating rock-star caprice has obviously been helpful in creating a menu flexible enough to include Sevruga Caviar at pounds 35 for 50g, and a hamburger at pounds 6.95.

I started with the sushi plate, which would have been enough to feed both Tony and myself, had I not guarded it with a viciously deployed pair of chopsticks. For pounds 14.50, the selection featured six tuna rolls, and a variety of nigiri, including salmon, halibut and fresh anchovy, prettily served on a black lacquered square, and accompanied by a bowl of excellent miso soup. While not up to Nobu standards, the sushi was obviously freshly prepared, and would have survived comparison with the offerings of many a more expensive Japanese restaurant.

Tony's bang bang chicken had a lot to live up to; his love-affair with The Ivy's version has been long and passionate, and he was unappreciative of the refinements introduced by the ArtHouse. "It's much too busy - there should be less greenery and more sesame seeds, and the chicken isn't peanutty enough," he peeved. Not only was it under- peanutted, but the chicken was distinctly over-salted, a condition which also afflicted the sun-dried tomatoes which accompanied my main course of char-grilled John Dory. The fish itself was fresh and well-crisped, if slightly anonymous - "more John Doe than John Dory," as Tony commented - but a gazpacho-style sauce added character.

Tony's fishcakes featured a good ratio of salmon to potato, and he didn't object to the fact that they were served with chips, in something of a potato double-bill. Perversely, though, given the hitherto generous approach to salting, the fries were under-seasoned and unappealingly limp and pallid. What price a kitchen which can get sushi right, yet can't produce a decent bowl of chips?

Still, despite these quibbles, we both felt very happy to be spending the evening in the ArtHouse - the buzzy atmosphere compensates for any minor disappointments with the food, and the service is friendly and largely efficient, though it was startling, in Scotland, to encounter a waitress who thought that Stolichnaya was a malt whisky. I could have done without the soundtrack of Seventies jazz-funk, but that was partly due to the fact that the tape seemed to be on a loop, and George Benson's "Breezin'" does lose its kitsch appeal on the third hearing.

Tony was able to indulge in another of his passions when it came to desserts - the list includes ice-creams produced by Nardini of Largs, family firm of Daniella Nardini, the actress who played Anna in This Life, for whom Tony has long nursed a fierce, if inevitably one-sided, passion. "I've always wanted to run my lips over Nardini," he sighed, as he applied himself lovingly to a ball of her family's chocolatey finest, which came sprinkled with icing sugar, possibly in powdery tribute to Anna's recreational drug of choice.

Coffees and a pounds 12 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the limited wine list brought our bill to around pounds 65, which seemed very reasonable, particularly in view of the pounds 3.5m the ArtHouse's owners are looking to recoup. I was staying with friends, so didn't overnight at the hotel, but a short tour revealed the bedrooms to be splendid, with high ceilings, leaded windows, Arts and Craft-style oak panelling and lots of original artwork. I may not know much about hotels, but I know what I like, and when next I go back to Glasgow, it will be to stay at the ArtHouse.

The ArtHouse Grill, ArtHouse Hotel, 129, Bath Street, Glasgow (0141- 221 6789). Open 7am-10.30pm. All cards. Disabled access

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