Food & Drink: Gastropod

THE GASTROPOD may be the last sentient being left in London who has actually yet to eat at Quaglino's, or Quags, as Sir Terence Conran's palatial West End eaterie has rapidly become known by the cognoscenti, but that does not stop one from talking about the place. Over the past couple of months, practically the only topic of conversation has been Quaglino's bewildering telephone system ('you are held in a queue'), the 'no birthday cake' policy ('cakes encourage singing') and an alleged brawl in the bar ('no comment').

Then came the news that the interior decorator responsible for fitting out Quags so splendidly has gone bust, claiming that Conran did not fully pay up. No business wrangle is ever so straightforward, however. Conran argues that the firm, Howard & Constable, incurred a default clause in the contract and is making a claim against its liquidators.

What is certain is that the firm, which also worked on the interior of Conran's last great restaurant, Le Pont de la Tour, will not be involved with the next one, a 228-seat traditional British chop house, scheduled to open in October.

Speculation is already mounting that even the mighty Conran organisation will not be able to attract another couple of hundred customers each mealtime to the south bank site of the Gastrodome complex, which already includes three perfectly good restaurants. Wander down there now, though, and you would not bet against it. With almost nowhere else to eat with a view of the river, the Butler's Wharf restaurants overflow with pleasure seekers, despite access being restricted by the closure of Tower Bridge.

While the bridge is closed, the Gastrodome has requisitioned a former police launch which operates at mealtimes, ferrying folk across the river from St Katharine's Pier for pounds 1 each way.

AS SECOND horn with the London Philharmonic, Gareth Mollison travels all over the world and often finds himself trying to order meals in a foreign language, which can be tricky when you are a fussy eater.

'I was in Tokyo,' Mr Mollison told the Gastropod, 'where, in the windows of restaurants, they frequently display plastic replicas of what's on the menu. When the dish is coated in batter, however, you often can't tell if it's supposed to be chicken or pork or fish. I had to keep leading Japanese waiters into the street to point at the window and play interminable games of charades.'

It was after one such meal, preceded by marathon gesticulation, that he had a brainwave. What he and non-linguists everywhere needed was a language- free menu decoder. So was born the Menu Master, a series of pictures of more than 100 ingredients, from eggs to oysters, plus methods of cooking and means of paying, that one can point to when trying to communicate with waiters.

An idea so simple that one wonders why no one thought of it before, Menu Master is marketed by Go Travel and costs pounds 2.95.

ANOTHER simple idea is My Cook Book, a collection of recipes, each of which is clearly explained with step-by-step instructions and illustrated with line drawings. It is published by the British Institute of Learning Disabilities at pounds 14.99. Although it is aimed at adults with learning difficulties, My Cook Book would also be of use to children and, indeed, anyone who has problems with the written word.

THOSE who have no problem with the written word and 'are keen on all that relates to the offices of the mouth' will be excited by the opening of a shop devoted entirely to books about food and drink. Visitors to Food For Thought in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road in London, can peruse such arcane volumes as An Account of the Culture and Use of the Mangel Wurzell, published in 1788. Those who cannot call at the shop in person can telephone the proprietor, Simon Gough (071-379 1993) and ask for a copy of his catalogue.

INDEPENDENCE Day is celebrated tomorrow in selected pubs around the country, including the Canterbury Arms in Canterbury, Kent, the Mason's Arms on Caldbeck Fell in Cumbria and the Vane Arms in Sodborough, Northamptonshire, with foaming pints of Anchor Liberty Ale.

San Francisco's Anchor brewery has established itself as the 'biggest micro brewery in America' and is best known over here for its steam beer, so-called after the secondary fermentation process that gives the beer its head, or after the steamy atmosphere of the old brewery, or after an old brewer called Pete Steam. Liberty Ale is darker and hoppier, with a huge bouquet. Look out for it on draught in pubs this weekend and on the shelves of Waitrose supermarkets.