Robust food, says Fred : EATING OUT

ALFRED 245 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8EH. Tel: 071-240 2566. Open Mon to Sat for lunch and dinner. Two-course set lunch £11.95, three-course dinner, including wine, £20-£25. All major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE telltale signs at Alfred - at the east end of London's Shaftesbury Avenue where it peters out in a maze of streets beyond Seven Dials - of inherent Irishness. Colcan-non potatoes (boiled, then mashed with cabbage or greens) appear on the menu, one of the puddings is called "Trinity College burnt cream" and the rib-eye of beef, bone marrow and greens is offered "with Guinness and onion gravy''.

There are also quaint echoes of Dublin in the basement, which has a bar and a drinking room under low, tiled vaults. The Irish atmosphere may have something to do with the metal casks of beer stacked behind the spiral staircase (different varieties of beer occupy an entire page of the drinks list). It may be the muffled roar of voices, the odd assortment of black, white and yellow tiles - or the wall lights in the gents, which seem to be fashioned out of bits of scrap metal with loose wiring and bulbs glimpsed through unglazed holes.

Upstairs, the restaurant is very modern: the walls are bright blue, the table-tops yellow, the wall lamps lantern-shaped and faintly Japanese, but there are still some very charming Irish touches about the service. As we sat down, provided only with a knife and a fork each and a paper napkin, the waiter brought a basket of bread and some wrapped packets of butter, extending the basket with one hand and keeping the other theatrically behind his back. A few minutes later, when my stepdaughter was pudging butter into the soft bread directly on the table-top, he returned to ask if we would like side plates.

In fact, according to the proprietor, Fred Taylor, formerly of the Zanzibar, the Groucho and Fred's Club, the intention - and this may cause some confusion among Irish nationalists - is not to be Irish, but British. He himself was discreetly in charge the night we were there (or as discreetly as is possible in a turquoise suit half a shade darker than the walls), and stopped at our table to explain.

His restaurant specialises in beers, he said. There are various kinds on draught, 13 bottled varieties and three more available "under the counter" to regulars. Fred's aim is to make this a place where people can drop in for one course of "robust food", a glass of beer and a cup of coffee and be on their way. Some of the first courses are, therefore, expensive: the salad of wood pigeon with mushrooms, bacon and potatoes is £6.95, as is the crab salad (with a main course version at £8). There are also Glamorgan Patties, Wales's contribution, described by the waiter as "vegetarian sausages"; toad-in-the-hole; steamed mussels with Stilton cream; and smoked haddock with poached egg and mustard and cress salad.

My wife, exhausted by two days of planting roses, said she would have whatever I was having, which was parsnip soup with parsnip crisps. My scenery-painting stepdaughter wanted the crab salad. The talk then lurched off on well-worn paths, one of them being a rumoured new film of a Henry James novel. Would there, we wondered, be any acting role for a portly old party with an overhanging upper lip, or work for a highly gifted scenery painter? My wife began - rather unwisely, I thought, given he r exhaustion and our joint attention span - to summarise the plot.

My stepdaughter was thinking about Australia, and my own thoughts were largely distracted by a hyperactive young woman with inch-thick prescription dark glasses, black tights, a scarlet jacket and a crushed top hat, who was allowing herself to be drawn into animated conversation with two old gents at the next table, one in a maroon-lined waistcoat.

Other fashionable figures fluttered in and out, including a short girl in a man's double-breasted suit with her bejeaned lady partner, and a creative figure with a fuzz of beard and an earring. The joint appeared to be jumping.

Our food arrived, brought by a well-built waitress with a tangle of long hair piled on top of her head, and I could have sworn, whatever Fred claimed, that we were in Dublin. "The crab salad?" she asked, putting down a plate of parsnip soup. "The crab salad?'' she asked again, putting down another plate of soup. The crab salad arrived later, unannounced.

From the bit I was given to taste, it was delicious - a little tower of crab served with a few fragile leaves of salad. I thought the parsnip soup was a bit on the sweet side, but my wife assured me this was what parsnips tasted like, and that it was home-made and very good. Given a little salt and pepper, I agreed it was.

For our main course my wife said she would have whatever Cecily was having: this took time. My stepdaughter brooded over braised knuckle of bacon, pickled cabbage and pease pudding; rabbit in beer and sage sauce; roast saddle of venison; and wild boar sausages. The dish she finally chose was roast baby guinea fowl, chestnut, bacon, mushrooms, baby onions and bread sauce. I had roast chump of lamb, greens and rosemary gravy. We also ordered a bottle of house claret, which cost £10.

When the waiter asked us: "Is everything all right?" I answered, truthfully for a change, that it was. The guinea fowl were of a good size, and perfectly cooked; my lamb was pink, and the "greens" turned out to be a mixture of spinach and mange-tout. My stepdaughter said the bread sauce had been whizzed, but I think she was wrong.

The puddings included more British things like gingerbread with lavender custard: we had one bread and butter pudding, a Trinity College burnt cream and three spoons. The burnt cream was a slightly lumpy and un-British creme brulee, the bread and butter pudding contained candied peel, and neither was really up to the main courses. Nonetheless, Alfred's is a big benefit in that hitherto twilight zone on the borders of Bloomsbury, and well worth a visit. There were three of us, but the bill for two - withpeppermint and camomile tea - would have come to £53.95 plus the tip.