A tour of some of the coolest newcomers unearthed impressively low levels, though instances of quality did slip through. The scores accorded in following dispatches run from 1 to 10, 1 being disgraceful and therefore very cool, 10 being genuinely good and therefore square.
Time: Friday lunch. Place: a converted pub, Beach Blanket Babylon, with a restaurant that opened in December. It is just off the antiques market of Westbourne Grove in a lovely street; 5 points. Design: Disneyland meets Gaudi. Pirate-ship plankwork leads into a series of dining rooms. Seriously tricksy, 1.
Staff: a waitress, fit for a part in Gigi in a clinging black number, waits tables. She is efficient and pleasant; 7 points. Terms: there is a minimum charge of pounds 10 in the (almost empty) dining room, and an 'optional' service charge of 12.5 per cent is added to the bill, then credit card totals are left open. Tut, tut: 1.
Meal: as a starter, a bowl of haricot bean soup was hearty, scoring 5. Coolness ratings recover with main courses: spinach and plain tagliatelle, probably fresh but poor quality, are returning to floury sludge after cooking; 2 points. Another main course of paella comes with what appear to be partially thawed prawns. Really nasty: 1. As pudding, tiramisu was good enough to rate a 6.
Street cred recovered with 'chocolate cake', a blob of fatty-tasting mousse swamping a bit of soggy sponge. Probable cause: refrigerator fatigue; 1 point. Without drink, this dreadful meal cost almost pounds 45 for two. Overall score: 1.
Time: Friday night. Place: a cafe-restaurant, All Saints, one block off Portobello, known locally as 'the front line' for its role in various police clashes; 1 point.
Staff: a long-haired boy with a North American accent greets you. If you ask for wine by the glass, he murmurs alarmingly, checks with the bartender, then brings the wine in tiny tumblers. Bumbling is replaced by over-familiarity: 2. Ambience: you just have to go with the flow. One chap - maybe a customer, maybe staff, maybe a bouncer - wandered around the dining room, jut- chinned, face like thunder, as if he was about to murder his spouse. No one seemed to mind: 1.
Meal: All Saints had limitless cool possibilities when it originally employed an amateur home cook to produce 'soul food' and was sending out fruit tarts in suet pastry. Alas, it has sacrificed most of them by hiring a pair of talented female chefs, Sarah Williams and Skye Gore. They can really cook. There are mistakes, but trivial ones. Fried squid with a tart gremolata was excellent: 10. Topping it with a disgusting slice of half-baked bread spiced with caraway was
As a main course, braised lamb with lentils and kale was earthy and satisfying: 10 points; chicken with a tomato and olive sauce tasted pre- cooked: 2 points. Two desserts, a frozen chocolate pave and lemon tart, were again good: 10 each.
Worst of all, All Saints is affordable. A scandalously good three- course meal for two, with two glasses of house wine, cost pounds 35. Score 10. Staff seem to change frequently. Unreliability factor: 1 point.
Time: Saturday lunch. Place: Nice, formerly Portobello Dining Rooms, formerly the Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant raided periodically by the police. Scores 1 for horrible irony in the name: it is neither nice, nor Nicois. Design: hard-edged atomic playpen; 1 point for absurdly uncomfortable bar stools made from poles topped by bicycle seats. And 1 point for terrible acoustics, loud music and a table blocking the entrance occupied by one of the proprietors.
Staff: a waitress rushes between the odd populated table achieving not much and joking about her confusion. A young man arrives. She stops to snog heartily with him: 1.
Ambience: You must be ridiculously optimistic or desperate to be cool to come here: 1. Meal: From a brunch menu, a 'pink omelette' is served with greasy hash browns. The egg is pinkened, more or less, with beetroot juice. The outside is leathery and singed. The inside is spongey.
There is some sort of commercial, mozzarella-like cheese in the centre. This is so nasty it breaks the point barrier: -100. 'Eggs Florentine' should read Egg Florentine; served with more greasy hash it is worth 2. 'Chips' are not chips, but sliced and fried potatoes. They are edible, 2 points. Caesar salad is fine, but served in an unsuitable little bowl with greasy croutons: 1.
Time: Sunday lunch. Place: Market Bar on the Portobello Market. Design: Dracula's dressing room. This is the bar-restaurant that, when it opened four years ago, popularised a romantic blend of wrought iron and ornate carvings. In the upstairs dining room, the exotic decorations are truly handsome, but neither practical nor comfortable: scores 6.
Moreover, it was opened by an amateur and went bust 18 months ago. The new owner has some experience, but the weight of responsibility has fallen on a chef fresh out of large, ambitious hotel kitchens. We learnt after our meal that the day we ate he had taken his first day off since the new team arrived eight weeks ago. Sympathy: 10.
Ambience: loud music was inflicted on guests. Wine lists were not proffered: 1. Staff: a young man wearing a smirk proudly took orders without a pad, then returned for the orders he had forgotten. He did not tell us that the restaurant only serves bar food for Sunday lunch - not when we booked, nor when we sat down. The menu is snacky. You may starve; we did: 1 point. (NB: A new manager from L'Escargot arrives this week.)
Meal: chicken and bacon club sandwich with what tasted like Hellmans mayonnaise was OK: 5. Lettuce in salad was dirty and frost-bitten: 0. 'Scrambled free-range eggs with smoked salmon resting on a homemade muffin' were curdled and leathery, and the home where the muffin was made was probably a factory: 0. After I returned it, the cost was deducted: 1 point (they should not have served it). Another order of scrambled eggs was a leathery omelette. It was returned but not deducted: -10. The best thing in the meal was the bottle of Ballygowan mineral water. The cost was about pounds 15 per head and we needed another lunch.
Beach Blanket Babylon, 45 Ledbury Road, London W11 (071- 229 2907). Children welcome; special portions. Vegetarian meals. Weekday lunch service to resume in June. Restaurant open dinner Mon- Sat, lunch Sat-Sun. Visa, Mastercard, Access.
All Saints, 12-14 All Saints Road, W11 (071-243 2808). Children welcome; special portions. Vegetarian meals. Open 10am-12 midnight Tue-Sun, dinner only Mon. Access, Visa, Diner's.
Nice, 6-8 All Saints Road, W11 (071- 243 1448). Vegetarian meals; children welcome. Loud music. Open lunch Sat-Mon 12 noon-4pm, dinner nightly. Visa, Access.
Market Bar, 240a Portobello Road, W11 (071-229 6472). Vegetarian dish. Children welcome in daytime. Restaurant open lunch Tue-Sun, dinner Tue-Sat. Bar 11am-11pm Mon-Sat, pub hours Sun. Major credit cards.
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