Pushing the boat out

SILVER STURGEON; Tower Pier, Tower Hill Tube Station, London EC3. Tel: 0171 878 2002. Sets sail on Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat at 8.30pm (arrive 7.30-8.15pm). Available for private hire Tues, Thurs and Sun. Set dinner/dance pounds 49. Major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
I like to think I am a bit of a romantic. And I try not to be shifted from that conviction by the fact that most of my romantic notions are pretty well-worn cliches: giving flowers, holding hands in the cinema, candle-lit dinners for two. I'm inclined to tell myself that it is only the romantically insecure who feel the need for more grandiose gestures - taking their lovers up in hot-air balloons to propose marriage as they drift over the woods where they first made out, and that sort of thing.

Paris is a famously romantic city - and the odd weekend there has often proved an effective way to stoke the fading flames of passion in past relationships. But Marie, who is French and has lived in Paris for half her life, finds the city a bit of a bore. It just so happens that she thinks London is a whole lot more romantic - which isn't such a bad thing, because that is where we live.

We both agree that running water - courtesy of nature rather than the tap - is a good catalyst for romance, and holidays and weekends away are often planned to be near river or stream. And if anything unfortunate should happen to disrupt the easy flow and ripple of our shared leisure time, I can always go fishing while Marie paints moody watercolours by the river's edge.

In London of course we have the Thames - without doubt an under-used resource for metropolitan romantics. We all get a chance to admire the river from one of its bridges from time to time. But how many Londoners actually take to the water each year? A small single- figure percentage, I would guess. There is a new venture which, if it succeeds, should ensure that a few thousand more get to see the city from the river, rather than the other way around. She's called the Silver Sturgeon, and she sails from Tower Pier every evening (except Sundays) at 8.30. She claims to offer the most pampering and luxurious dinner cruise on the Thames - ie pretty much the perfect date for a pair of London-loving gourmand aquaphiles.

Diners/cruisers are asked to arrive after 7.30 but before 8.15. Pre-booking (and pre-paying by credit card) is essential, and the boat won't wait for tardy sailors. We arrived, over-cautiously, at 7.40, giving us plenty of time to enjoy our complimentary Kir Royales on the upper deck.

The dining-room itself is on the lower deck, and is fully enclosed. Understandable for a venture which aims to operate all year round, but the lack of chairs or tables on the (exposed) upper deck is a bit unfortunate: it would have been nice on such a balmy August evening to sit outside with drinks before, and coffee after dinner. Nevertheless, even in the dining-room a good view of the passing bankside scenery is assured by large windows which curve over the seated diners so that they can look up as well as out. Facing banquettes, with fixed tables between them fashioned in varying designs of polished granite, run down each side of the vessel, so that just about everyone dining a deux has a window seat (there are a few tables for larger parties at the front of the boat). It all makes for a pleasing sense of intimacy, both with the river and your fellow diner. The fixtures and fittings are impressively opulent, if not exactly in the best possible taste. But we agreed that, in the best tradition of luxury cruisers, to be a little over the top was not only forgivable but desirable.

Any hopes that the food on board would be similarly flamboyant were pretty much dashed on first reading the menu. A choice of prosaic and ubiquitous starters, from the catalogue of Safe But Uninspired Dishes of the Nineteen- Eighties, set the scene: goats' cheese salad, chicken and leek terrine, or marinaded salmon. Main courses were even less inspiring: cod, chicken, pork, or a vegetarian pasty. The descriptions on the menu were more elaborate, of course, but that's what they boiled down to. We ordered as best we could, in the expectation that food was unlikely to be the best thing about the evening.

My marinaded salmon was actually not too bad: a variation on the gravadlax theme - milder and less salty, but pleasant enough, and served with a peppy horseradish cream. Marie's goats' cheese, which came rolled in nuts with a few dressed leaves to garnish only got an "Okay, but a bit boring."

The starters were simple assembly jobs; only the hot main courses were in any sense a challenge to the on-board kitchen. In the event they turned out to have been cooked with a surprising degree of competence, though I wouldn't say flair. In other words, the cod was not over-cooked, but about right, and came with (on top of, in fact) a decent pile of mashed potato. Similarly the pork, an easy meat to render dull and dry, was tender, moist and pretty tasty. Accompanying sauces were so-so: the tomato, with the cod, was a pleasing consistency - rich, well-reduced, and not at all watery - but mar-red by over-seasoning with random handfuls of dried herbs. The madeira sauce for the pork tasted of cream and alcohol, but lacked the underlying support of a decent meat stock. But it wasn't too bad.

All the puddings looked like buy-ins. My lemon and strawberry cream pot was far too sweet and not lemony enough. Marie's rhubarb tartlet was just a mass-produced sweet pastry case filled with indifferent stewed rhubarb, though it did come with a delicious ginger ice-cream - Loseley's Acacia Honey and Ginger, to be precise (I'd recognise it anywhere).

We had a lovely evening on board the Silver Sturgeon: drank a little bit too much (of a decent Chablis) and went back up on deck after our dinner to cool our heads and enjoy the gently passing cityscape. It was romantic, and the slightly dull food wasn't dull enough to break the spell. Proof of that was the couple opposite us who, as soon as they finished their dinner, began voraciously devouring each other.

We weren't quite up to that level of romantic display. A little more poetry on our plates, and I suppose we might have been.

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