restaurant; Big deal

Sir Terence Conran's latest offering is hard to swallow
Click to follow
Mezzo, the new Soho place from the ever-growing stable of restaurants owned by Sir Terence Conran, is big. Biggest in Europe, say the publicists who did such a nifty job hyping its opening. Seven hundred seats big - 50 of them in a streetside cafe; 300 in a ground-floor bar and 350 in a downstairs restaurant. Big place, big staff: 100 chefs, 151 waiters and bartenders, 40 kitchen porters and one sylph-like cigarette girl in a clingy red dress with Gaultier-style conical brassiere.

What else is big? Ah, the bills, more of which later. Biggest of all, it would seem, is Terence Conran's ego. More than any of his restaurants, Mezzo betrays delusions of grandeur. It amounts to a rapturous update on Hollywood's most ridiculous Depression-era glitz. All it needs is Ginger, Fred and a lot of customers with the party energy of a Brooklynite on a big night out.

Even at half past six on a Monday night, a crowd already spilled on to Wardour Street. By way of traffic control, there was an enormous bouncer directing customers to their choice of Mezzanine, a large ground-floor bar-restaurant, or Mezzo, the basement dining-room. Below, a personalised greeting is in store from the receptionist who escorts you to your table: "Hello, my name is Seline." Around and about, a small army of waiters in smart tunics stand at various attitudes of attention. Along one wall, made of glass, one sees double-decker kitchen works. Here, hundreds of chefs cook like mad, if not, necessarily, very well.

It could be that our waiter was a bit of a genius - I think so - but his friendly style is probably also a matter of policy, smart policy, that creates personal pockets in a huge space. "Will you be going on to the theatre tonight?" he asked, adding that, if we are, he will ensure we make the curtain rise. One senses he has the ability to turn up the personality for talkative tourists, lower it for self-absorbed locals. Quite how he manages to explain the various surcharges listed on the menu, I can only imagine: the built-in 12.5 per cent "discretionary" service charge is understandable, but "pounds 5 music cover charge from 10.30pm Thursday-Saturday" would stick in many an honourable throat.

The much-photographed ashtrays (pounds 4) are cheap little plastic numbers; ashtray thieves, don't bother. Bread, however, comes in remarkably handsome wooden bowls. The problem is the bread, crust-bound jaw-breakers. The trouble is not lack of freshness, but lack of skill: the bread is evidently made by Mezzo's own baker, a speciality of the house.

A pan-Asian bias to the cooking tips the chef, John Torode, as an antipodean. Dishes such as seared tuna with Thai basil, crisp fired quail with soy dressing, and spiced duck with coconut dressing are listed alongside brasserie classics, such as roast chicken and onion tarts. There is a lot that sounds good but is unlikely to benefit from big kitchen assembly lines, whereas some, such as salmon choucroute with juniper, simply sound weird.

Of savoury dishes sampled, the most conservative was the most successful: as a handsome starter, half a lobster was served with pleasantly bland mayonnaise. Another dish was half-good: a finger-sized piece of roast halibut (perfectly cooked) came with an artistic little pile of sweetly pickled ginger and coriander leaves. Next to it sat a leathery crepe, described on the menu as a "black bean omelette", but tasting of nothing so much as undiluted, rather cheap, soy sauce.

Main courses were mezzo-mezzo: a huge rib of beef, was served with big caps of steaky field mushrooms and a decent blob of Colman's. The gravy was fine, if not, as my companion pointed out, from the cooking juices of the meat it attended. The meat itself was perfectly cooked, served rare and properly rested. Still it didn't taste of much. Our second choice, confit of pork, lentils and braised onions, was an outright disaster. Grey-brown, dry meat came with withered roasted garlic (bitter, unseasonal and old, it did not take happily to the roasting). Pearl onions were better. Some sort of overcooked offal, a kidney perhaps, was strewn over the top. Its taste, and texture, was akin to dried mud. The lentils, a sort of meaty brown sludge, were the highlight.

Side dishes of mashed potatoes, chips and French beans cost pounds 1.95 each. The mash was glutinous, probably from a blender. The chips were very like those served at McDonalds, if slightly thicker and not quite as good. The French beans, of which there might have been 15, barely covered the bottom of the bowl. This brought their cost, at a guess, to 13 pence each. Though hardly a bargain, they were perfectly edible.

To the waiter's enormous credit, he immediately enquired as to why the pork went uneaten, agreed it looked a bit sad and deducted it from the bill.

Desserts were much better, if both rather too sweet. A pear and ginger pudding only went amiss by using its ginger- sugar bath as a sauce: too cloying, and oddly gritty. Cream was needed. An orange creme renversee was a sort of citrus-flavoured creme caramel, served upside down. Jolly good it was too. However, an accompanying "sugar biscuit" was more like a piece of tree bark blown in on a gust of wind.

The wine list does a nice trot through the French regions and New World, yet produces not enough of interest that is affordable and, up the scale, curiously unappealing wines. The cheapest beaujolais, for example, is pounds 17.50. These are hotel prices. A 1993 Saintsbury pinot noir was delicious and, compared to the rest of the list, a bargain at pounds 19.95. Pity it was served too warm. Our meal for two, with the pork deducted, still came to pounds 89.61. Had both main courses been edible, it would have been just over pounds 100.

As the meal progressed, the room gradually filled with first-wave types, sleek hair, smart clothes, out for a night rubbernecking. Upstairs, the crowds were more like TGI Friday rowdies. This mix begs the question, when Mezzo's novelty value fades, who will fill these 700 seats? All this tinsel sits strangely in Wardour Street. Indulging in a bygone notion of ritz made sense when reviving Quaglino's - the historic St James showboat where Barbara Cartland insists she once found a pearl in her oyster. However, by plunking Mezzo here in Soho, Conran has crudely gone against the kind of shaggy cool that provides the potent local glamour

Mezzo, 100 Wardour Street, London W1 (0171-314 4000). Mezzanine: lunch, Mon-Sat, 12 noon to 3pm, Sun to 4pm; dinner, Mon-Wed 6pm-12.30am, Thur- Sat to 2.30am; Sun to 11pm. Restaurant: lunch, Sun-Fri 12-3pm; dinner Mon-Wed 6-11.30pm; Thurs-Sat to 12.30am, Sun to 10.30pm. Cafe: Mon-Sat 8am to midnight, Sun 10am to 11pm