Lots of eggs, but no chips

THE CAVIAR HOUSE; 161 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DF. Tel: 0171 409 0445. Open daily noon-3pm and 7-11pm. Set menu pounds 17.50 for two courses, pounds 21.50 for three. Aver age a la carte price, pounds 35 per person. All major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
Put a restaurant in a very unsuitable high-ceilinged showroom behind a caviare shop next door to the Ritz, and people are bound to ask a few questions. Is the caviare shop a front for the restaurant? Is the restaurant a front for the caviare shop? Are they both a front for something else? Grateful to be alerted by a reader to the existence of such a luxurious riddle, I was round there with a squeal of burning shoe leather in a matter of minutes, tongue hanging out.

The Caviar House is the West End branch of the international airport chain, and its premises on the corner of Piccadilly and St James's Street are designed to make the very rich feel very rich indeed and everyone else feel like dossers. The entrance to the restaurant is through the shop, which was still open at 10 o'clock at night, with vast tins of caviare and open cases of great wine in magnums. We walked through, trying to convey the impression that we would probably pick up a couple of gallons of Beluga on the way out.

There was a party of businessmen in their shirts, their jackets hanging New York-style on dark wood coathangers on brass hooks with white porcelain knobs, two older American ladies having dinner together and a younger American couple, perhaps on their honeymoon. There seemed to be a lot of white linen and glass; fans turned under the air-conditioning vents in the eau-de-nil ceiling. The floor was polished wood, and a huge boat carved from the same material in the middle of the room supported bottles of liqueurs. A curving brass-handled stairway led up to a floor above. Just as we arrived, the young American couple decided they'd like to change tables to have dinner on a table on a kind of landing at the top of the stairs, and that made the place seem even more unreal.

The biggest surprise about the Caviar House Brasserie is the menu. Caviare, it is true, figures - just under two ounces of beluga costs pounds 110, with blinis and Jersey potatoes thrown in - and there are various house specialities involving caviare at rather less expense, but most of the dishes are caviare- free international/French. There is also a more reasonable set menu with two courses for pounds l7.50, and a three-course one for pounds 21.50.

I volunteered to stick to the menu, which is changed every day and offers two starters and two main courses. To begin with there was an escalope of smoked salmon with a sauce ratatouille, but I preferred the idea of a salad of marinated duck breast with herb dressing. After that I thought about fillet of rabbit ravioli confit and wild mushrooms with rosemary cream, but decided instead on the panache of scallops, mullet and salmon with tomato and basil sauce. The starters on the main menu included a terrine of vegetables, lobster ravioli salad, a ballantine of foie gras, fig mousse and Sauternes jelly or half a dozen oysters. Feeling that one of us ought to have something with caviare, my wife ordered a tartare of seabass, scallops and Sevruga caviare with blinis for pounds 11.

For her main course she considered fillet of seabass with confit of leeks (also with Sevruga caviare), a grilled whole lobster with garlic and parsley butter, lamb fillet with aubergine gateau, ginger and shallot cream sauce or roast duck breast with green asparagus and langoustine, and eventually decided she'd like roast turbot with crispy celeriac and parsley puree. I also ordered half a bottle of Pouilly Fume at pounds 10.50. We then sat back to wait for a few moments and finding me more than usually boring, my wife leant over to a nearby table offering the day's newspapers and magazines and immersed herself in the current issue of Tatler. I grilled the waitress, who could have been French-speaking Swiss, asking her who owned the restaurant. She seemed slightly anxious, saying after some hesitation she thought the company might be Swedish. I asked her what went on upstairs, and she said "Meetings. It is for if you want a private party or something separate, otherwise we don't use it."

We were then brought an appetiser, two very thin and delicious slices of carpaccio of tuna, decorated with a zigzag pattern in melted cheese. My wife tore herself away from Tatler, said she could have done without them and wanted to know why did they have to have such enormous plates. My duck salad arrived, very nice and pink, with a rocket leaves laid out in artistic fashion all round it and various-coloured lettuces underneath, and her tartare of fish, topped with caviare and accompanied by two little baps, was similarly decorated. We both thought her raw fish a bit undistinguished, my own restaurant-reviewer's note on the back of an envelope being "cloudy".

The main course came in for a certain amount of flak. My wife decided turbot should be poached, not roasted, as it made it too dry, she couldn't understand why anyone should go to the trouble of making parsley puree, she suspected the mushrooms might be tinned. I was picking through my three kinds of fish, quite enjoying the varieties of texture and the pesto sauce, but after tasting a bit she wrote it off as "clumsy".

I persevered, ordering a pear Charlotte with coulis of cassis and pear sorbet and she was initially impressed by the sorbet being shaped to look like little pears. Then she tasted it, made a very loud "Eugh!" noise, and started laying into the quality of the sponge fingers that had been used to make the casing. Camomile and peppermint tea arrived in futuristic glass globe-shaped teapots containing miniature percolators.

There is talk of "refurbishing" The Caviar House at the end of August, but even in its current incarnation it's certainly worth a visit. I didn't think the bill of pounds 69.75 for two without the tip was too bad, all things considered. !

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