Curiously, for an area so famous and congested as the West End, Alfred's end of Shaftesbury Avenue is a bit of a backwater. The restaurant sits on what amounts to a large traffic island, where Covent Garden and Bloomsbury converge. Unusually, it has two fronts: one facing south toward Covent Garden, the other looking north over New Oxford Street. The door that actually opens is on the south side, where there is a big triangle of pavement overhung by mature, leafy trees.
It has been open for two weeks but, despite its two fronts, still looks closed from a distance. It must be the 'for rent' sign hanging above it. The owner is Fred Taylor, a 30-year-old Londoner who was more or less born into the restaurant business. His mother, Pagan Taylor, was a partner in a west London restaurant called Didier's in the Seventies; he later worked at the Zanzibar club, the Soho Brasserie, Langan's, the Roof Garden and the Groucho Club before, in the autumn of 1987, opening Fred's, the Soho drinking club.
These are (or, in some cases, were) groovy places, with Fred's arguably the grooviest of the lot. Members were media people, on the cutting edge of self-
regard. Opened in 1987, it was among the first bars to have weirdly packaged Japanese lager and spiced Eastern European vodkas. Maybe it got too groovy for Mr Taylor. Whatever the reason, he recently sold his share to set up Alfred.
Perhaps to signal a new, democratic spirit, he and his designer, Quentin Reynolds, have kept Alfred's dining- room dead simple. Tables and chairs are standard issue: they could have come from a works canteen. Fashionably half-
panelled walls are painted with gloss in a particularly old-fashioned shade of sky- blue. Objects of art are restricted to the odd pot of flowers, zinnias perhaps, more likely good fakes, bright and bold enough to stare back at the sun.
According to Mr Taylor, the look of the place was 'influenced by the traditional working-man's caff'. The workers attracted by Alfred will probably be students from the nearby Central St Martins school of art. Alfred may be simple, but it is also aimed at the aesthete, and its bubble and squeak costs pounds 9. The bubble and squeak is, however, first-class.
The chef, Bobby Gutteridge, flirts elsewhere with traditional British dishes such as liver and bacon (perfectly cooked liver, excellent bacon and a nifty little potato cake), toad-in-the-hole and sticky toffee pudding. This presents him with a balancing act: how to cook hearty English food and still manage to attract weight-conscious modern eaters convinced that anything other than roast capsicums with olive oil will give them heart attacks.
His solution appears to be to ignore the theme half the time and offer, say, delicate and delicious crab salads. Most of what we ate, whatever the theme, was good: mussels in a salty saffron and dill liquor, spicy crab soup, the aforementioned liver and bacon, lemon tart.
But some dishes still need thought, and tweaking: a carbohydrate-rich pie of artichoke, cheese, potato and leek was served with new potatoes. Too much starch. The batter on the very good sausage in the toad-in-the-hole was too heavy, too much like wallpaper-paste. A pleasing slice of lemon tart was served with an unlikely and unwelcome clump of clotted cream. Too much fat.
The old-fashioned leanings and modern style meet most comfortably - and cleverly - in a beer list taking in 13 ales and lagers, which are served in quarter- pints, halves and pints, from 50p to pounds 2.30 a glass. Very civilised. Carrying over the preoccupation with Englishness to the wine list strikes me as eccentric. Roughly a third of the white wines and bubblies are home-grown. I wonder, for example, who is ready to pay pounds 19.40 for a bottle of Thames Valley champagne- method wine? Ciders and Somerset eaux de vie from pounds 1.70 to pounds 2.20 a glass seem safer introductions to British bottles.
I am unfamiliar with the specific producers of the small band of French wines sold at Alfred, but the choice of regions made sense, spanning the classic styles of rich white burgundy, through clean white chablis, spicy red rhones, to steely clarets and lighter red burgundies and beaujolais.
Alfred was all but empty when we ate lunch last Saturday afternoon. This should change, not least because its staff are welcoming and its opening hours (11am-11.45pm Mon-Sat) are exceptionally public-spirited.
Alfred, 245 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2 (071-240 2566). Meals pounds 10- pounds 25. Vegetarian meals. Seating outside. Access, Visa.
IRISH UPDATE: Several weeks ago, we recommended the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, giving the London shop Books for Cooks as a source. It is now out of stock there, but the publishers will welcome direct orders from the public. Send cheques for pounds 13.99 ( pounds 11.99 book, pounds 2 postage) to: Estragon Press, Durris, Co Cork, or ring 010 353 27 61186.Reuse content