Restaurants; Starry, starry night...
Vivienne Heller experiences mid-summer magic in Marylebone
Saturday 26 June 1999
This Marylebone haunt opened a private terrace last month. A sliver of al fresco alongside the second floor of The Conran Shop, it is not, at first glance, too prepossessing. A few tables are squeezed in amongst terracotta pots and other garden accoutrements, each bearing a price tag. But it is blatant and fun, and a world apart from the sleek restaurant on the first floor.
The sun was setting when we arrived, casting a bewitching hue on the terrace. We chose from the short but titillating bar menu, and considered the wine list. Five hundred bottles is a daunting range - one cabernet sauvignon was judged among the top 12 wines of the century by the Wine Spectator - but our sancerre was judged "a good choice, sir" by the charming sommelier.
Then came the food - a carousel of flavours and textures and colours; traditional fare with an exotic twist. My smoked salmon and caviar came with a featherlight blini, while Vince's modestly named soupe du jour was a revelation: cucumber, poured at the table over raw oysters. This terrific combination prepped his palate for the main course - pigeon. A pleasing contrast to his recent Syrian experience of pigeon - beak and all, with road-accident presentation - this was an elegant bird swathed in ravioli, in a rich madeira sauce. Intense and tender, it was almost too flavoursome for a main: it tipped Vince's tastebuds into overload, raring for another course.
Having skipped my way virtuously through the green finery of an artichoke and asparagus salad, I joined him in the dessert menu. Chef Chris Galvin's signature mille feuille of raspberries was sublime, every fruit a tart, fresh specimen. Vince smiled up shyly from his "superb, very French" creme brulee, and I knew he'd been won over.
At this moment, a power-cut interjected with perfect timing. The canopy drew back to reveal a starry sky, and diners' gentle laughter floated up from the restaurant below as unflustered staff plundered the shop for candles. Leaves rustled, a distant bell chimed, pigeons cooed: we listened in rapt awe to the night sounds from our shadowy treehouse.
Vince celebrated with a cigar, chosen from one of two humidors with the expert help of our wonderful waiter. His sensitive, attuned service was a triumph; the best I've ever encountered. Between him and the chef, some fine magic had been wrought: my rebellious companion had been transformed into a fat-cat Conran junkie. I sighed happily: "Now, about this furniture, darling..."
Orrery, 55-57 Marylebone High St, W1 (0171-616 8000). From around pounds 40 a head
AL FRESCO FARE
Belair House Gallery Rd, SE21 (0181-299 9788). Modern Brit fare on two terraces
The Red Pepper 8 Formosa St, W9 (0171-266 2708). Al fresco pizzas from wood-burning oven
307 Lillie Rd, SW6 (0171-385 1130) Substantial bar eats in honeysuckled garden with heaters
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