Just shovel in the concepts

EATING OUT
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The Independent Culture
EUPHORIUM

203 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1RT. Tel: 0171-704 6909 Open Monday to Saturday for dinner, 7-10.30; Tueday to Friday for lunch,12.30- 2.30. Average three-course meal, pounds 21. All cards except American Express and Diners

ONE of the staff in London's fashionable Granita restaurant - on London's fashionable Islington's fashionable Upper Street - once confided that they secretly despise people who ask to sit at the table where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made their historic decision for Gordon to let Tony be the boss. Goodness knows what the staff at Upper Street's fashionable Euphorium restaurant - opened a couple of blocks up from Granita in January - think of guests who ask to sit at their novelty table. This is the one where, if you look up through a section of glass stair-landing inscribed with the word "Euphorium" immediately above you, and catch a lady on the way up to the lavatories at just the right moment, you can see her pants. A few weeks before, a girlfriend who'd been and was trying to remember the name Euphorium could only think of Paranoia.

"They should have had the confidence to go just with the glass floor and the pants and not bothered with the rest," declared my companion, who is very up-to-the-minute about art and "hip" things, and had no truck at all with the enormous modern oil paintings, one showing an untidy Habitatesque lighting department and another a collection of brightly coloured people carrying toasters. "These restaurants which try to annex a groovy art gloss never get it right," he said. "No," I agreed emphatically. "What do you mean?"

"Too much indiscriminate art. Too congested with bits and pieces so it doesn't convey any attitude. I mean... that shovel."

You see, apparently Marcel Duchamp, who invented conceptual art, exhibited a shovel with "in advance of the broken arm" inscribed on it, but this one was, well, just a shovel.

"Chuh! And look at that absuuuurd photograph of a girl kissing a vegetable," I scoffed.

"It's a mango," corrected my friend's six-year-old daughter, Babette.

"Mmmm. Actually I think that's the best thing they've got," said her father.

Euphorium is not a very large restaurant, being about the size of one of those news-agents' shops with two ice-cream fridges and a small stand of cards down the middle. It has distressed metal tables, royal blue or mustard yellow padded chairs, and rough yellow walls (the new, ubiquitous fashionable-restaurant replacement for stark white walls: a sort of nod in the direction of the new colour, without drenching). It's hard to get a fair impression of restaurants at the moment, particularly at lunchtime, since when everyone is boiling hot, a sense of order and occasion can easily go by the board, and perhaps this accounted for the slight air of sloppiness - chairs more strewn than neatly arranged, the table less than spankingly clean, vagueness in the service- which didn't quite go with the prices.

The original chef, Jeremy Lee, formerly with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum, moved on a month ago, his place taken by Paul Tweedle from the Dorchester. The menu, though, was still as stylishly stuffed with caramelised savoury items and root vegetables as even the grooviest gourmet could wish for: here a pumpkin, there a beetroot, there a sweet potato, there a swede. You wouldn't be panicked by its extensiveness - just four choices each for starter, main and pudding, and on the wine list, seven reds, seven whites, one champagne. My friend had ordered a glass of house white (Chilean Sauvignon) and the waiter, in either a welcoming or absent-minded way, had poured it out and then left the bottle on the table, which meant that we carried on drinking it.

The food is really tasty, modern and beautifully put together - but some things were a let-down: my salad of sweet potatoes, crispy bacon and parsley, for example. Sweet potatoes have such a lovely flavour and texture when served in simple warm chunks. What was the point of serving them cold in thin, oily, soggy strips? I mean, as far as I was concerned they might as well have been bits of leftover aubergine. My friend's tomato and fish soup with tamarind, though, was great. "It's really good" he declared; seconds later he had to swap it with Babette's grilled squid and wild rocket which she liked but found "too spicy for me". He thought the squid was wonderful, perfectly cooked and "not so much spicy as slightly bitter".

Red snapper, roasted fennel and saffron sauce came with the fish arranged in such an exotic sculpture that it should have been hanging up next to the shovel. I liked it, and I loved the oily saffron sauce, but one of the arty fish pieces was much tougher than the other. Duck's breast, swede and red onions was judged very good - "nice and sweet".

The pudding choice didn't offer much alternative to a slice of pie unless you wanted cheese and strawberry jelly. Happily, orange and almond slice was thick, moist and gorgeous; blueberry tart and creme fraiche was a perfect mix of tastes with great pastry; and pear tarte Tatin was dark and slightly bitter and chewy in exactly the right way.

Our enjoyment, though, had been rather tempered by a mix-up over Babette's main course. Granted we asked for it after the initial order: she was still hungry after her father's tomato soup. But first our waitress promised beef, then changed it to a special ravioli dish, then a different waiter said he was going to bring vegetables instead, which is bewildering if you are six and waiting for your lunch. It did make us wonder why restaurants, even trendy ones, don't just keep fish fingers handy for the smaller guest. But then I suppose the risk would be of attracting a Happy Eater crowd and ending up with people requesting the table where John Major usually sits with Kenneth, which would never do in Islington.

Lunch for two and a half, with three glasses of wine and one coffee, came to pounds 77.60 with the 12 per cent optional service added. We thought that was a bit too much really, even if there was a conceptual shovel on the wall.

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