PERHAPS it was the example of their new columnist, Michael Winner, who has directed a series of violent films about a vigilante, which inspired the Sunday Times to set up the 'Restaurant Watch' service it launched last weekend. Participants are encouraged to cut out a coupon from the paper and place it in a prominent position on their table when dining out. 'Attention, Restaurant Staff,' it says. 'Please ensure the customer displaying this coupon enjoys the best possible service and a fine meal.' If the restaurant fails to comply, customers are invited to write to the newspaper with their complaints.

This stunt reminded Tom Jaine, editor of the Good Food Guide, of a small ad he saw in Private Eye many years ago, which promised to invest anyone with the authority wielded by food guide inspectors. Tom duly sent off his three quid, and received an official-looking notebook with blank pages and 'Good Food Guide' written on the cover. The idea, apparently, was to intimidate restaurateurs into thinking that the bearer of this notebook was a a Very Important Person whose opinion counted: superior service would thus be forthcoming.

In the Gastropod's experience, it can be counter-productive to advertise yourself as a troublemaker as soon as you sit down in a restaurant, so it is this column's intention to establish an undercover restaurant police force, to be known as 'GastroPlod.' Our motto is 'Keep 'em peeled.'

To enlist in the GastroPlod scheme, all you have to do is clip out the logo from the top of this column and paste it on to a suitably sized scrap of card. Conceal the card about your person when next eating out, and if there is any problem, produce your accreditation at the critical moment with the words, 'Don't you know who I am?'. If that fails to produce satisfaction, write to the Sunday Times.

THE Gastropod is looking forward to spending an enthralling weekend in Oxford at the annual Symposium on Food and Cookery, where scientists gather to surprise, amuse and confound each other with peculiar titbits of food for stomach and mind. This year about 50 contributors will be presenting papers on the general theme of 'Look and Feel', incorporating 'shape, size, colour and texture, including ornamentation'.

After the traditional do-it-yourself lunch on Saturday, to which the Gastropod will be bringing a brace of barbecued coypu, the intellectual attractions include June di Schino on 'The Triumph of the Renaissance Sugar Sculptures in Italy', Charles Perry on '10th-Century Arab Food in Poetry' and Colin Spencer on 'The Landscape through Jelly: Exploring the Sub-text of Performance Food'.

READERS may recall the Gastropod's introduction to the pseudo-science of beefstrology a few months ago, whereby one's zodiac sign governs whether one prefers lamb chops to hamburgers. Now Sainsbury's has published The Astrological Cookbook by Lucy Ash ( pounds 1.95), which summarises the temperament and preferences of each sign in the kitchen and at the table, and offers appropriate recipes. Down-to-earth Taureans apparently like ample portions of plain cooking, while airy Geminis crave something more unusual; lusty Scorpios are adventurous cooks who love to experiment, and timid Virgos are meticulous and prefer to play safe.

Of course, astrological cookery is not a precise science and people may not be typical of their signs. And, as Ms Ash remarks in her introduction, food is a completely individual experience and freedom of choice is the defining characteristic of Western astrology. None the less, the Gastropod looks forward to an invitation from a genial Sagittarian to sample Jove's spicy meatballs.

WALK through the heart of London at any time of day and late into the night, and you will witness the coffee craze at first hand. Crowds spill on to the pavements, quaffing cupfuls of strong coffee. But how many of those cups actually contain genuine, Italian-style espresso is open to question, since all too few of the staff of the new coffee bars have been properly trained to operate and maintain an espresso machine.

This is likely to change with the opening of the Lavazza Training Centre in deepest Chiswick, where the importers of Italy's most popular coffee will instruct the ignorant English on such vital details as the correct consistency of the crema (the froth on top of an espresso, which should support sprinkled sugar for five seconds), the proper proportions of hot frothed milk to strong black coffee in a capuccino and what milk to use (semi- skimmed is best).

The centre is displaying a gleaming Faema E61, the classic espresso machine dating from 1961, sent over from the Lavazza head office in Turin. Next to it is a chamber of horrors, showing the result of poor maintenance, including a gigantic lump of limescale removed from a machine only 18 months old.

AFTER the Gastropod's comment two weeks ago about Sir Terence Conran's burgeoning restaurant empire, the great man has written to say that his complex of food shops and restaurants at Butlers Wharf is a gastrodrome, like an aerodrome - not a dome, like St Paul's or Coleridge's pleasuredome.

The Gastropod is happy to correct this error, and to pass on Sir Terence's PS: 'A computerised booking system has been designed (for Quaglino's) so no doubt nobody will be able to get a table when it is installed]'

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