A recent arrival, the Duna Bistro & Bar, defies a quick description, cuisine-wise. What is interesting is the way it falls between the old and new Clerkenwells.
In the new Clerkenwell there are photographic studios, architectural practices and publishers. By contrast, old Clerkenwell is scraggy but complicated. Amid the handsome 19th-century warehouses are some good Fifties buildings, and the ancient gate and lyrically beautiful gardens of the 16th-century Priory of St John of Jerusalem are a gem.
On the downside there is heavy traffic, choking smog, hammering roadworks, shocking amounts of grime covering empty office space, depressed council estates and high local unemployment.
I suspect Duna's owners may have misread both Clerkenwells. Rather like Granita in Islington, it has been pressed in the Nineties from the mould of mid-Eighties restaurants. Its windows are plate glass, the floors tiled, the tables blond wood, the chairs sleek plywood Jacobsen reproductions. A cleverly wrought lighting system resembles a twisted metal train set.
The look is just as daring, and just as dated, as a 1968 miniskirt worn in 1972. The acoustics may be too hard for a restaurant, but if this was the upmarket (and licensed) sandwich bar one could easily mistake it for, it might be a runaway success.
Rather, it is a restaurant and the cooking reflects an Eighties enthusiasm for eclecticism, taking in oriental, French, Italian and English dishes. Our meal certainly involved too many cuisines and not enough basic skill. Fettuccini with ricotta was dry, flavourless and unpalatable. The seasoning of cinnamon mentioned in the menu was indiscernible. Bresaola, though dressed with good oil, tasted like the tough, shop-bought variety. Salmon fishcakes with lime mayonnaise were fine.
The cooking in the main courses faltered just as badly. What the waitress described as braised lamb was more like meatballs. The meat seemed nothing like lamb, and tasted as if it had been seared in a pan with a vinegar deglazing, so the crust was sour. That old classic dish of braised chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, however, was much better.
A brochette of prawns was good but came with stodgy white rice, topped with a red pepper garnish and served with a relatively flavourless ``yellow pepper sauce''.
Puddings were far better, particularly the sticky toffee pudding, whose ``balsamic toffee sauce'' was surprisingly good. The fruit in an apricot tart was superb, though the pastry looked and tasted tired. Pear Belle Helene needed better fruit and chocolate.
The waiting staff could not have been nicer or more eager to please. I prefer to think the anxious refilling of our wine glasses before we had finished them was over-solicitousness rather than attempted salesmanship of another bottle.
They are right to push the wines, however. Our Parrina Riserva 1990, a Tuscan wine oaked up to suit tannin-sensitive palates educated on Australian wines, was very good. And the list as a whole does manage to leap skilfully from Australia to Italy to France and so on.
Our meal cost pounds 30 per head, including tip.
Duna Bistro & Bar, 73 Clerkenwell Road, EC1 (071-831 7595). Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri. Major credit cards except Diners.
Recommended in and about Clerkenwell:
The Alba, 107 Whitecross Street, EC1 (071-588 1798). Expensive Piedmontese place with variable cooking, but excellent risottos, green salads and rare barbarescos and dolcettos ( pounds 25-pounds 30). Cheaper wine bar downstairs does decent lunchtime spags ( pounds 15).
Carnevale, 135 Whitecross Street, EC1 (071-250 3452). Tiny but immaculate vegetarian outfit serving great olives, good salads, sandwiches and Neal's Yard cheeses from a street-front deli counter and meals in a dining room to the rear. Licensed. (Takeaway meals approx pounds 3, restaurant pounds 12-pounds 15).
The Eagle, 159 Farringdon Road, EC1 (071-837 1353). Raucous artsy pub with open-plan kitchen serving good steak sandwiches and classy food. Good wines, beers ( pounds 10-pounds 15).
The Quality Chop House, 94 Farringdon Road, London EC1 (071-837 5093). Tiny Victorian caff converted into a bistro of unique charm. Soft light, burnished wood, perfect duck confit, lovely staff, reasonable bills ( pounds 15-pounds 20).
Stephen Bull's Bar and Bistro, 71 St John Street, EC1 (071-490 1750). The waiters may wear T-shirts, the seating may be tight and acoustics hard, but this is a swanky little place serving the likes of perfectly cooked trout in red wine sauce. Exemplary wine list ( pounds 30-pounds 35).
St John, 26 St John Street, EC1 (071-251 0848). Spare, handsome refectory serving old English classics such as roast pork belly and dark gingerbread. Classic French wines. Light meals in bar. (Bar pounds 10, restaurant pounds 20-pounds 30).
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