THE AGE OF THE MEGABITE

A new breed of restaurants is taking over British dining: gigantic, spacious and oozing in designer appeal, from the swish surroundings to the delectable dishes. We talk to the main man behind the revolution; Mr Peyton at 34 is evidently a man in a hurry, and those who meet him have no doubt that he will achieve world domination (in the restaurant section at least) by the end of the millennium

It's official - never has there been a more exciting time to eat out. So says the editor of The Good Food Guide, Jim Ainsworth, in the introduction to the 1997 edition published this month. Never. Ever.

Why should this be? Partly the generally high standard of restaurants, says Jim Ainsworth, and partly the wonderful mix of cooking styles. "Some represent a strict national or regional culinary heritage, others borrow ideas and ingredients from wherever the chef fancies, but together they provide unprecedented variety of food, of price, of ambience, location and lots more. It is all simply too good to miss."

Exciting? He can't mean the wave after wave of mega-restaurants which have been hitting the heart of the capital? Ah, yes, says Mr Ainsworth. Some of his readers have been finding this experience other than exciting. Perhaps nerve-racking, dramatic, tense, might be better descriptions.

The "excitement" may start when you try to make your booking on the computerised switchboard. Should you strike lucky, the drama then unfolds in the noise box of the restaurant, as you struggle for the attention of staff. Having waited too long, you may now be told to finish your meal at the bar in order to accommodate the next sitting. Finally, apoplexy threatens when you see your bill charges VAT on service, allowing further space for you to add more service on top of the VAT. Exciting, huh.

But exhilaration is where it's at. Those easily excited will thrill to Sir Terence Conran's Quaglino's, the first mega-restaurant, and his sequel, Mezzo, the 750-seater in Soho. Or the restaurants of Oliver Peyton who took up the theme to open the Atlantic Bar & Grill in the vast basement of the Regent Palace Hotel off Piccadilly Circus, which he followed last year with Coast, converting a Mayfair Volvo showroom into a 21st century restaurant space and then installing one of the smartest modern chefs in town, Stephen Terry.

Next month it will be Manchester's turn to get the treatment. The same Oliver Peyton will unveil his next mega-eating space, Mash and Air, a mill turned into a four-storey entertainment experience built around a micro-brewery imported from Canada. Eight state-of-the-art beers and lagers (including peach-flavoured beer) brewed on the premises, will be served alongside an exclusive list of 200 wines in the two ground-floor brasserie bars (food at pounds 5 to pounds 10 a head) or in the two upstairs restaurant floors (meals at around pounds 25 a head).

Mr Peyton at 34 is evidently a man in a hurry, and those who meet him have no doubt that he will achieve world domination (in the restaurant section at least) by the millennium with a Mash and Air, if not on every corner, certainly in place in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Dublin and, with American partners, eventually in New York.

It was in New York that he discovered restaurants. "Eating out is a social occasion," he says. "New Yorkers eat out all the time. It's not a dinner party culture. Most apartments don't have kitchens." The gulf between their attitudes and ours was then as wide as the Atlantic (the Atlantic Bar & Grill anyway).

Oliver Peyton is an animated Irishman of a certain style with a Tin Tin haircut and a designer jacket with all four buttons done up. To share his expertise on food and wine, he generously provided a 1989 Chateau Talbot (pounds 80) and an Eitelsbacher Marienholz Eiswein (also pounds 80) to go with our lunch at Coast.

Food and wine for him, he confesses, were a late discovery in life. He was brought up in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. "You can never accuse the Irish of having good food," he jokes. But his mother, owner of a knitwear factory, was fond of cooking, he says, and when he was at boarding school, she would bring a salad on Sundays and they'd go for a picnic.

As soon as he was 17, he was off. "I spent six or seven months in New York. I got jobs, first of all digging artesian wells (sometimes 100m down to get to the water table), then as a roofer with some very rough, tough guys. I'd get up at five to start at 6am, and these guys would immediately open a six- pack for breakfast."

Then, he worked as a waiter, which is when he decided everything about New York was great. Back home, he won a scholarship to Leicester Polytechnic to study textiles, but it wasn't fashion, but the club scene, he pursued.

He teamed up with a partner to open a club near Brighton called The Can and managed a band, Habit. Moving to London, and inspired by the New York club, Area, he opened his own stylish night-spot, Raw, in the basement of the YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, which became a great party venue and one of the first to play house music.

Not one to ignore a window of opportunity, he grabbed the agency for Sapporo, the Japanese beer in a stylishly designed can, when no one else wanted it. He put the beer on the map in the UK and then did the same for Absolut vodka, beating 70 other candidates with a marketing strategy to swing the Swedish owners. On his advice, they raised the alcoholic strength from 37.5 to 40 degrees, lifting it above their competitors, and they were off.

He celebrated the contract in Stockholm's Cafe Opera, which became the model for his first restaurant, the Atlantic. He turned his lack of experience of running a restaurant to his advantage, having no preconceived notions, other than subjective, on how it should be done. And, to be sure, he has made it his business to eat in most of the world's top restaurants.

He would choose chefs with French classical training, though he wouldn't want them to cook French food. And it's not just the cream in every sauce which he can do without. French restaurants, he believes, are caught in the Michelin trap. "Their food is innovative, it is refined, but it is moving in an ever-decreasing circle. Restaurants in Paris are below standard, nothing's happening. Here, we're more like the US, we're open to a lot of cultural influences, from Japan, Italy, Morocco. Some people go too far. If your cooks don't have a classical background you end up with an eclectic hotchpotch."

But isn't the Coast menu just a bit hotch if not, at times, positively potch? Chicken and coconut soup with crispy wontons and chilli oil. Soft tortilla of chard, fennel and goats' cheese. Risotto rice salad with maple syrup - The Good Food Guide inspectors also encountered beetroot and apple risottos.

Oliver Peyton says he hopes they are dishes you can enjoy every day; appetising, tasty, adventurous, healthy. He is himself a glutton for desserts (the hot chocolate "pizza" and Thai ice cream with tropical fruit are unique - see recipes) though his slimline figure would suggest he doesn't eat at all. He certainly doesn't sleep much. And most mornings he runs four miles round Hyde Park. That kind of healthy.

Oliver Peyton has the knack of attracting talented people to his side, starting with his own family; his elder sister, Siobhan, is finance director, and younger sister Katrina will manage Manchester's Mash. Then there is the art buyer Sadie Coles who is advising him on contemporary paintings, and the Australian architect Mark Newson, (one feature of Mash and Air is the banquettes which are sunk into the floor with tables set at ground level).

But Oliver Peyton's ultimate success will depend on his choice of chefs and, joke over, there's nothing hotchpotch about Stephen Terry's cooking at Coast. Stephen, who is 29, trained with Marco-Pierre White, then made a brilliant debut as chef at Michael Caine's Canteen (in London's Chelsea Harbour). Like his boss, he draws as much inspiration from California as from his French training, rejecting the classic intensely reduced sauces.

Stephen does admit to inspiration from working in Paris with Alan Passard, whose restaurant Arpege won its third Michelin star this year. "Alan did one dessert which was a whole tomato, hollowed out and stuffed with a confit of rind and peel. He also does a brilliant avocado souffle served in its shell."

Here, then, is a taste of Oliver Peyton's beloved Atlantic Bar & Grill and Coast dessert selection created by pastry chef Theo Ndeh. Peyton's sous-chef, Jason Atherton, will have them on the Mash and Air menu.

PANNA COTTA WITH SWEET CONFIT TOMATOES

Serves 4

1 pint cream

200g/8oz sugar

2 vanilla pods

3 gelatine leaves

For the confit:

4 tomatoes

For the stock syrup:

1 pint water

450g/18oz sugar

Bring the cream with the sugar and vanilla pods to the boil then take off heat and pass through a sieve and add gelatine leaves (which have been pre-soaked in cold water until soft). Mix together and pass through a sieve again, then leave it to cool.

For the stock syrup: boil the water and sugar together until it comes to the boil. Then take it off the heat and pass through a sieve. Allow to cool.

For the confit: take four tomatoes (one for each serving), boil them in water for no more than one minute then place in cold water with ice (to stop the cooking process). Peel your tomatoes and cut them in half. Remove all the seeds. Cook the tomatoes for five minutes in the stock syrup, setting to one side when finished.

Finally, line four small mould tins with the tomatoes and carefully put your panna cotta mix on top. Place in the fridge and set for approximately 90 minutes. When ready to serve, turn out of the moulds. Pour a little of the reserved syrup over each and serve.

CHOCOLATE PIZZA

Serves 4

For the malted ice cream: 12 pint milk

1 pint double cream

120g/4oz castor sugar

7 egg yolks

45g/2oz milk chocolate, chopped

20g/34oz Horlicks

For the souffle: 1 egg

14g/12oz castor sugar

20g/34oz butter, melted

20g/34oz dark chocolate, melted

12 teaspoon vanilla essence

12 teaspoon cocoa powder

1 teaspoon flour

1 dessertspoon milk

1 tablespoon double cream

1 packet puff pastry

roasted pistachio nuts and white chocolate shavings to garnish

For the malted ice cream: boil the milk and cream for about seven to 10 minutes, then add your sugar and egg yolks and cook slowly for approximately six to 10 minutes, until the mixture starts to thicken. Take off the heat and quickly add your chopped milk chocolate and the Horlicks. Mix well and then pass through a sieve. Allow to cool and, when cold, place the mixture in your ice-cream machine and turn till firm. Put in a container and freeze until needed.

For the souffle: place your egg in a bowl with the sugar and whisk for eight to nine minutes. Next fold in the melted butter, melted chocolate and the vanilla essence. Mix together until smooth. Sieve the cocoa powder and flour and then fold into the mixture. Finally, add the cream and milk. Mix all the ingredients together and place in the fridge, leaving for 10 to 15 minutes.

Roll out a thin puff pastry base and cook until golden brown in a hot oven (400F/ 200C/Gas 6). Put to one side and allow to cool. (Buy the puff pastry - in the short term this will make your life a lot easier) Then, on top of your base add the chocolate souffle mix. Place back in the oven for about eight to 10 minutes.

Constructing the dish: place a ball of the chocolate malted ice cream, pistachio nuts and white chocolate shavings on top of the cooked pizza. Dust lightly with icing sugar and cocoa powder.

THAI ICE CREAM

Serves 4

12 pint milk

2 lime leaves, chopped

20g/34oz fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

12 stem lemon grass

14 red chilli, chopped and deseeded

120g/412oz castor sugar

1 pint double cream

7 egg yolks

For the coconut tuile: 100g/4oz desiccated coconut

50g/2oz butter

100g/4oz sugar

1 egg

fresh tropical fruit slices to garnish

For the ice cream: boil the milk with the chopped lime leaves, ginger, chilli, lemon grass and sugar for approximately 20 minutes. Then add the cream. Boil for another two minutes, take off the heat and then pass the mixture through a sieve.

Pour half of this mixture onto the egg yolks then pour the yolk mix back into the pan with the rest of your boiled milk and cream. Cook slowly for about six to 10 minutes, stirring continuously, until it starts to thicken, then remove from the heat.

While the mix is still hot, pass through a sieve and place a disc of silicon paper to cover the mix and avoid a skin forming. Allow to cool and, when cold, place in your ice cream machine and turn till firm. Then, place in a container and store in the freezer until it's ready to use.

For the coconut tuile: mix all the ingredients together and roll out into discs about 4ins in diameter. Bake until light golden brown.

To construct the dish: place a coconut disc on a plate, add a few slices of fruit and then your ice cream, repeat until you have three layers. Make four such dishes and serve immediately. !

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