Food & Drink: The irony is that sincerity's in

Eating Out: Coq au Riesling, choucroute and, of course, snails - the creators of Belgo are back, but this time the cuisine's from Alsace
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The Independent Culture
Snails aren't something that British people generally like to eat. Maybe it's a Magic Roundabout thing. But if anyone can sell us on the idea, it's the eccentric restaurant wizards Denis Blais and Andre Plisnier, who made a hit of the Belgian mussels-and-beer chain Belgo before selling it on in a multi-million pound deal last year.

On paper, their latest project, Schnecke, looks a lot less promising. Apart from the lurking snail presence (Schnecke is German for snail, and the restaurant serves them in denominations from six to the wildly optimistic four dozen), it's devoted to the cuisine bourgeoise of Alsace, prized in France, but relatively unknown here. The province's proximity to Germany and consequent changes of rule have resulted in a style of cooking which fuses French and German influences, and perfectly complements the famous dry wines of the region.

Schnecke is in Poland Street, a few doors down from another high-concept Soho feeding station, Yo! Sushi, and as you'd expect from people whose mussels were served by monks, it looks nothing like a traditional French restaurant. Pictures of Alsatian dogs adorn the plate-glass frontage, before which stands a doorman in a deconstructed trouser-skirt outfit that would turn a few heads in Strasbourg.

Refreshingly, his job isn't to keep people out, but to bounce them inside for an evening of hospitable treatment from Schnecke's cheery young staff. As soon as they've seated you in one of two cosy dining rooms with dark wood walls and jaunty chequered tablecloths, they bring you a slim glass of German Kolsch, and the crisp, yeasty beer keeps on coming until you say when.

It's poured from a set of taps mounted in a customised urinal, just one of the waggish design touches that give the place the feel of a hunting lodge customised by attention-seeking art students. The walls are decorated with plastic fish and antlers, rows of animal horns double as coat hooks, and a cross-sectioned cabbage takes pride of place. Schnecke's owners describe the style as `neo-gemutlichkeit'. The camp impression is reinforced by a soundtrack that mixes kitschy vintage Europop with Finley Quaye and mid-Seventies Rolling Stones.

Clare, the first of my guests to arrive, was thrown by the fact that despite the bierkeller-ish surroundings, the dishes on the menu have predominantly French names, with prices in both euros and sterling. "I feel like I'm in the heart of Euroland," she exclaimed. "Where's Katie Boyle?"

To decode the whole neo-gemutlichkeit package, we turned to our old Late Show colleague Matthew Collings. Matt got to work in characteristically gnomic fashion: "It's more mannerist than Belgo," he announced. "It's pop, but there are elements of trad. The menus look good; utilitarian, in groovy YBA colours. And I like the urinal beer-pump - they've seen the object has a Duchampsian amusement, but it also looks traditional."

It took Matt's girlfriend Emma to restore some sense to the gathering. Revealing herself to be something of an authority on the food and wines of the region, she ordered a bottle of Pierre Trimbach Riesling, and praised the decor as a neat twist on Alsace traditional with a touch of 1950s Good Housekeeping thrown in.

The food is designed for sharing or, as the menu puts it, it's a "Grande Bouffe concept". The best way to start is with a tarte flambee, or flammekeuche. The Alsace equivalent of pizza, it has an ultra-thin dough base made of matzo flour, spread with a mixture of fromage frais, creme fraiche, onions, chives and smoked bacon, to which you can add other toppings such as smoked duck, spinach and the region's famously stinky Munster cheese.

We chose a forestiere gratinee, with Emmenthal and wild mushrooms, served hot from the oven. Big and square as a tea-tray, it was cut into smaller slices at the table, to be eaten with the fingers. Much lighter and crisper than pizza, it proved the ideal finger food to accompany the dry kick of the Riesling, the creme fraiche-fromage frais mix providing a creamily neutral setting for the stronger flavours of high-quality bacon and meaty mushrooms.

Entering into the spirit, we then applied ourselves to the snails, though we restricted ourselves to 12 rather than the full four dozen. Schnecke prepares them in the traditional Alsatian way, the garlic butter flavoured with wine stock, but the result was surprisingly bland, with little garlicky kick to enliven the rubbery scraps of protein. Our rate of consumption soon dwindled to - well, a snail's pace.

Of the two main courses we shared, coq au Riesling was the brownest dish imaginable, though it tasted grand, creamier and stewier than Burgundian coq au vin. But the centrepiece of what was turning into a winning meal was a traditional Alsatian choucroute, a steaming heap of lightly pickled cabbage, sweet with juniper berries. Piled on top were boiled potatoes and meats, including thick, spiced pork sausage, slender frankfurter and hunks of meltingly soft jambonneau. Slithery and delicate, it was the kind of dish that has inspired generations of Parisians to queue at Alsatian brasseries such as Bofinger.

We ended the meal with a single portion of thin chocolate tart, made with white and dark chocolate, followed by several cups of excellent coffee. Our bill totalled pounds 100, including two bottles of wine.

Despite Schnecke's wittily punning approach, the food is very much the real thing, rather than some fashionable pan-Euro concoction. Which turns out to be brilliantly in tune with the zeitgeist, according to Matt.

"Sincerity is in," he informed us. "Irony's just an embellishment to sincerity now, it's no longer the centre of everything. At least in restaurants," he added. "It's still an open verdict on art."

Schnecke, 58-59 Poland Street, London W1, 0171-287 6666. 12 noon-midnight Mon-Sat; to 10.30pm Sun. Disabled access. All cards. No reservations.