Restaurants: Making restaurants happen

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The Independent Culture

19-21 Great Portland Street, London W1M 5DB. Tel: 0171 637 5555. Restaurant open Mon-Sat 12-3pm and 6.30-11pm and Sun 11.30am-6pm and 7-10pm. Bar open Mon-Sat 8am-1am and Sun 10am-10.30pm. Average price for dinner, pounds 25 per person. Credit cards accepted

IT IS A TRIVIAL pursuit of mine to imagine what certain famous people would say if asked by someone who had no idea that they were famous what they did for a living. Would the Queen, for example, say, "I'm the Queen of England" or would she perhaps prefer "I rule a small island off the coast of France"? Would Mick Jagger say, "I am a Rolling Stone" - which would seem cryptic indeed to the uninitiated - or "I sing in a band that your parents used to like"? And what about Bill Gates? Would he proffer the information that he runs a computer software company? Or would he say, "I rule a small planet on the edge of the solar system," and add, perhaps after a well-timed pause, "but I'm hoping to expand".

As I watched Oliver Peyton, the man behind (and indeed in front of) two of London's most determinedly trendy restaurants, the Atlantic Bar and Grill, and Coast, doing the rounds at his latest, Mash, on Great Portland Street, I wondered how he would fare with this little game. I probably should have asked him, but as it happens I didn't, so I can still speculate idly and trivially about what he might have said if I had. I suspect he would not care to echo my own description of him and admit to being "the man behind two [or three] of London's most determinedly trendy restaurants", but nor can I imagine him settling for "I am a restaurateur." My hunch is he would find some modern and minimalist phrase. Maybe he just says, "I do restaurants." Or perhaps, more expansively, "I make restaurants." I'm sure he's not nearly naff enough to say, "I make restaurants happen", although strangely enough that seems to me a pretty accurate description of his professional milieu.

Peyton's approach to the restaurant business is very much school of New York, where restaurants are known not by their chefs but by the men and women who package, produce and promote them. They talk about "my restaurants" in the way that film directors talk about "my movies" and their fans eagerly await their latest offering. They may not actually own the place (though they are likely to have a hefty stake) but they are in there a lot - and when they are in there they sure as hell look as though they own the place. This is pretty much a new phenomenon in London. Sir Terence Conran was already famous before he did restaurants so doesn't really count. Antony Worrall Thompson can cook even though he doesn't fry a lot of onions these days - so neither does he. Which means Oliver Peyton is really the first of a new breed of British restaurateur. He may not be as famous in London as Keith McNally (Balthazar, Odeon, Indochine) is in New York. But Peyton is probably more famous in New York than McNally is in London.

One place that Peyton is clearly quite famous is inside the walls of Mash. As with Coast and the Atlantic, the place is already humming with a young, sharply dressed crowd of undeniably good-looking punters, many of whom on kiss-kiss, hand-shake or quick-chat terms with the boss. To give the man his due, he seems pretty democratic in his table visits, introducing himself to punters he does not know, and doing the "how's it going" thing in a sincere and affable manner.

Peyton's product, however one defines it, undoubtedly has a pretty enthusiastic and loyal following. He seems to have attracted, captured even, that new band of restaurant-goers who need a vibe to feed on as well as a menu. Trouble is, I'm not quite sure if I belong to the band.

It may not quiver at everybody's favoured frequency, but vibe abounds at Mash. It is a pretty stunning visual and conceptual coup to have your own brewery actually running inside your restaurant, especially since so-called micro-breweries are the latest thing - in New York. And it's a smart trick to offer punters a "tasting rack" of the four house beers - all of which are excellent.

Like all hip new restaurants, Mash also has a Toilet Statement, and it's quite a bold one: "hey, who cares about ladies and gents, let's go unisex". These are also techno-toilets - the "basin" is a hole in the wall, into which you thrust your hands, thereby breaking (I imagine) a light sensitive beam which turns on a sprinkler, so your hands get wet, and you can wash them on a lump of rope-suspended soup also hanging inside the hole in the wall. Great, except that it doesn't work properly, so that a member of staff is now permanently employed to take your (unwashed) hands in hers and direct them in front of the beam. This was all good fun, and created a bit of party atmosphere in the loo, but no doubt it will soon be "put right".

It would probably be an appropriate post-modern irony to complete this review without even mentioning food. I'm afraid I'm going to bottle that option. I'm just not post modern or ironic enough - and what's more it deserves a mention. My Mediterranean fish broth was excellent - thin, as I would expect a broth to be, and very nicely flavoured: freshly and densely fishy, with tomatoes and garlic up-front. Charlie, who know and loves his fish preferred my soup to his tuna and sesame tartare which was "nice and fresh but a bit bland". It was also too coarsely chopped, and so "looked a bit cat-foody".

But he liked his wood-roasted suckling pig, and adored the "spring canelli beans" which were creamy and olive oily, and had little bits of spring onion, tomato and parsley knocking about in them. My pizza, from the wood-fired oven, had a perfectly crispy thin crust (of the kind one feels is authentic though you never seem to get it in Italy) and came in two halves. One, a well thought out combination of pureed aubergine and slivers of fennel, both with a nice chargrilled tang to them, and Parmesan, was outstanding. The other, of honey cured salmon and cucumber tagliatelle, I confess to ordering out of pessimistic curiosity. And I'm afraid it was too curious for me.

We had a good time at Mash, tempered by the uneasy feeling that it might not have been quite the good time that Oliver Peyton wanted us to have. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't felt over-cajoled to attend to the restaurant's high concept. But it's kind of hard to avoid.