Restaurant: A working class act

THE QUALITY FISH HOUSE: 92 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Tel: 0171 837 5093 Open for lunch 12-3pm Mon-Fri, and 12-4pm on Sunday. Open for dinner 6.30-11.30pm Mon-Sat and 7-11.30pm Sunday. Average price per head, pounds 25-30. Credit cards except American Express and Diners accepted
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The Independent Culture
ANAGLYPTA. A WORD I've been dying to use all my life and now I can, because it perfectly describes the off-white, heavily embossed wallpaper in this week's restaurant, the Quality Fish House. Together with the wooden panelling, sturdy benches, high-backed seating booths and precarious ceiling fans (a bit scary if, like me, you're convinced they're going to spin off their mounts and chop you in pieces), it makes you feel as though you are trapped inside a Stephen Conroy painting. Or perhaps a Progressive Working Class Caterer's (which is what it once was; it says so on the original frosted-glass windows).

If I dwell on the decor, it's only because the last person to review the establishment for this newspaper (when it was the Quality Chop House) made such a big thing of it. It was the basis for an impassioned tirade to the effect that it is quite disgusting to play on your restaurant's proletarian heritage when you're now serving poncy food that only vile toffs can afford. I don't find this a problem. In fact, I find the ambience wonderfully comforting. God knows it makes a change from the frigid minimalism of most trendy restaurants in London.

I first came here about a year ago for a nigh-on perfect Sunday brunch of Eggs Benedict and Bloody Mary: it's a great place to chill out, read the papers and recover from hangovers. I can't do that sort of thing any more because my new baby Ivo - aka The Kraken - won't let me lie in of a weekend. Nor will he allow me to go out for dinner. So I decided to make my return visit with Ivo, his mother, and his godmother Huel, on a Friday lunchtime.

This was the first time I'd ever been to a smart-ish restaurant with a young child and I was a bit worried that we might not be allowed in. But the waiter at the door wasn't remotely fazed: nor was the clientele - mostly media types, I'd guess, among them Faber's Robert McCrum. Some even made friendly clucking noises. So I felt instantly relaxed - again, a rarity in a trendy London restaurant.

I was quite impressed by our waiter, too. He knew which of the fish dishes were particularly good - the brill, he said, was fresh in that morning - and when we tried ordering extra salads and vegetables, he told us not to bother, our main courses should be quite sufficient. Which is the sort of advice waiters should give, but too often don't.

Before I go on I'd better clear up a confusing point: is it the Quality Fish House or the Quality Chop House? Actually, it's both. The owners have bought the premises next door, kitted it out with a fish display counter and the same Anaglypta, etc, joined it to the old restaurant and added lots more fish dishes to the menu. Perhaps this is because fish is the new rock'n'roll (there are seafood restaurants opening up everywhere at the moment, including a chain with the ingenious name Fish); or perhaps it's just a cunning ploy to get an old restaurant written up as if it were new. If so, it has worked.

There are plenty of dishes on the menu besides fish - among them honest, traditional British things like steak and kidney pies, eggs, bacon and chips, rump steak and lamb chops - but I think that even if I hadn't been writing a fish-flavoured review I'd still have ordered seafood, because I invariably do - partly because I find fish a bit smelly and difficult to cook at home (there's too much precision-timing involved; also I can't do chips), partly because it's probably the best way of gauging a chef's talents.

Judged on the basis of the Grilled Brill with Bearnaise Sauce alone, the chef at the Quality Fish House is a genius. Served unfussily with new potatoes and green beans, it came in a chunky tranche with crisp, golden skin and snowy white, melt-in-the-mouth flesh which tasted as fresh as fresh can be. Lucky Huel.

X's Smoked Haddock and Lentil Salad (hot, thank heaven) was pretty damned good too. The fish was creamy and pungently smoky; the lentils - which can be evil if you get them wrong - provided just the right balance, earthy but neither worthy nor dull.

On first sight, though, my Scallop, Clam and Potato Stew looked easily the best of the main courses. It came in a huge bowl, was a glorious mix of gold, cream and honey brown, and contained a generous serving of clams and plump scallops (five, I think), resting on a huge mound of thinly sliced potatoes, swimming in a russet fish stock. Yes, I know I've gone overboard on the poetry but it really did look pretty special.

And up to a point, it tasted special too. The clams were delicious (and I don't like them, normally - they're fishy and they feed on disgusting things like raw sewage); so were the scallops (which I eat at every opportunity). But I'm afraid that as a whole I found the dish vaguely unsatisfying.

For one thing, it came in a stock remarkably similar to the one I'd just eaten in my fish soup starter (which was nice but pretty ordinary. It didn't even match up to the fish soup I tried in Langan's Coq d'Or, the place I was so rude about the other week. And very annoyingly, the rouille, croutons and cheese weren't provided in separate bowls. They came ready- prepared on a plate, which spoiled all the fun). And for another, it was oddly tasteless. I tried adding salt, which helped a bit, but it was still missing something. Flavour, maybe.

The only other dish I could fault was Huel's Waldorf Salad starter. The leaves were crunchy and fresh but the Parmesan sprinkled on top was grated so finely that the uncharitable might have mistaken it for that horrible, pre-ground sawdust you buy in cardboard tubes. And it came in a stingily small bowl. Let's face it, the constituents of Waldorf salad are not prohibitively expensive. And even if you're not going to eat all of it, a salad looks so much jollier and more appetising if it's presented in generous quantities.

My main grumble, though, concerns the service: it was way, way too slow. We only had two courses and we ate pretty quickly, yet lunch still took a couple of hours - which would have been a real pain, I imagine, if we'd been having a business lunch and had to get back to work. I don't think this was the fault of the hard-pressed staff but of the kitchens. Perhaps the chefs still think they're only cooking for the old restaurant and have forgotten that it has now doubled in size.

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