Food for fashion victims
Saturday 15 June 1996
To join that company may take persistence. By some fluke I managed to get a table for lunch the same day, but the woman juggling phones at the reception desk was telling a caller that an evening booking was out of the question.
The uninitiated won't even realise the restaurant is there. No windows on to the street give the glitzy game away, and there's only a runic symbol over the doorway. A long, glass walkway bordered with silver pebbles leads to an impressively long bar. Here there is space to circulate and tables to sit at under the overhang of the mezzanine restaurant.
If you thought black was still the sartorial standby, the colour scheme here suggests otherwise. Walls are bare brick or pewter-tiled, suedey seats are buff, iron girders are painted mole brown, floors and pillars are dark wood, senior staff wear taupe trouser suits, others white linen judo outfits. So many shades of tasteful neutral make the occasional Bloody Mary or glass of rose positively glow. Other customers seemed to know the colour code. Uniformly blonde women from the same school of well-heeled international grooming all wearing beige and barely-there lipstick. Was this some sort of conspiracy?
Then it dawned on us that this wasn't so much the world of Eurobond as James Bond. Had we penetrated the villain's lair? Were those cigar-smoking men hatching some fiendish plot? Would the glass walkway open up and drop interlopers like us into a barracuda tank, and would the staff start high- kicking and karate-chopping if we paid with a Co-op card?
A black belt brought us the menu, which had obviously been drawn up on an atoll hideaway in the Pacific. We had come to the focus of fashionable food in London, where Pacific Rim meets Mediterranean in tongue-twisters such as seared tuna sashimi with soy, mooli and shiitake.
The mushrooms, a shibboleth of modish cuisine, were chopped up into a crunchy, soy-soaked salad of mooli accompanying the tuna. Three exquisite slices of fish, darkening in colour towards the star-anise-dusted edge, looked like a cross-section of a precious stone. A thumbnail-size speck of wasabi, the green Japanese mustard, a skewer of pickled ginger slices, discs of crisp won ton and a lime segment, a pinch of unidentified dried red herb and a tiny tip of purplish leaf completed a picture of oriental miniaturism which, incidentally, tasted rather good.
Crab sandwiched between waffle-like squares of won ton, surrounded by sprouted beans, chick peas, azuki and coral-coloured lentils, was another pretty and pleasing confection.
Perhaps we should have carried on skimming the Pacific and ordered sesame- encrusted tuna steak with Chinese greens; crispy duck, noodles and plum sauce; buckwheat noodle soup with sea bass, lemon grass and lime leaves; or bream with coriander, chilli and cumin and couscous salad. Some dishes of this persuasion consisted of heaps of shaved ingredients, like secret documents destroyed by a shredder.
Shortcomings were more apparent in our comparatively familiar main-course choices than in the experimental starters. Chicken breast with "slow roasted" vegetables - fennel, peppers, carrots and courgettes - was handicapped by tough veg (having to pick strands of fennel from the teeth does not improve poise) and not enhanced by a tabouleh accessory that tasted of nothing much. Roast cod with Swiss chard and a rosti of sweet potato and balsamic vinegar suffered only from under-seasoning.
A separate menu of desserts abandoned the oriental theme, and wasn't especially enticing. "Just in case," said the tai chi instructor as she handed us the list, on which drinks featured more heavily than food. Panna cotta, with a rather jammy coulis and florentine biscuits, did, however, satisfy my gauche craving for a pudding.
In spite of its up-to-the-minute ingredients, the cooking didn't stop me in my tracks. The pounds 25 a head our booze-free lunch cost me wouldn't buy a pair of shoes round here - but in any case I'm not sure I'm ready to renounce black for beige
The Collection, 264 Brompton Road, SW3 (0171-225 1212). Wheelchair access. Open daily, lunch and dinner. pounds 25-pounds 30. Access, AmEx, Diners, Switch, Visa
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