Sounds romantic, doesn't it, Amaranto? Somewhere between amorous and Esperanto, which is pretty apt for a low-lit, high-gloss new restaurant in an international hotel chain. But despite a setting as red and plumptiously padded as a Valentine's card, we didn't find much romance in the air in this swishy Italian newcomer on Park Lane, part of the lavishly refurbished (to the tune of £125m) Four Seasons Hotel.
Oceans of money have been poured into this many-roomed vision of kitsch opulence. Lushly Oriental, its marbled black surfaces, silver equestrian statuary and spotlit Chinoiserie evoke the glories of Biba as half-remembered by David Gest. We could be in Hong Kong, the Bahamas, or, most plausibly, Las Vegas. "I thought this was meant to be an Italian restaurant," blinked Harry as we were piloted to our table by a series of attentive beauties.
I guess this kind of cultural confusion – eating modern Italian food in a Chinese restaurant in central London – is something the business traveller takes in his stride: if it's Wednesday, this must be... oh, who cares, let's order. But we found it plain weird. And it didn't help that we were exiled from the central dining area to a peripheral conservatory, and seated between two groups of businessmen. So much for the early Valentine's night supper we had been looking forward to. Although, on the plus side, we now know a lot more than we did about equity control.
The Four Seasons group is famed for the excellence of its service. Here, the waiting staff have apparently taken inspiration from the hummingbird, using a relentlessly sustained series of tiny flutterings and darting movements to achieve near-constant presence.
Nevertheless, after 15 minutes, there was still no sign of the glass of champagne I'd ordered when we sat down. Eventually we realised that only the sommelier was empowered to take our drinks order, and he was conducting a tasting session at a nearby table. By the time he eventually uncorked himself and came over to talk through the options, we were on to our second basket of (excellent) bread.
The menu is strong on pasta dishes, and both we tried were good: paccheri (fat, slippery tubes) with scorpion fish and purple sprouting broccoli in a fresh, chilli-spiked tomato sauce, and a lamb ragout folded through chestnut pappardelle with Testun cheese. Head chef Davide Degiovanni has worked in Ristorante Semplice and Locanda Locatelli, two of London's best Italian restaurants, and his food here often achieves similar heights. Both mains showed an openness to non-canonical ingredients: slow-cooked leg of rabbit cacciatora came in the traditional mushroom sauce, but was deboned, and stuffed with spinach, feta and black olive, while ashed monkfish, pan-roasted in Lardo di Colonnato, came with a Jerusalem artichoke and anchovy purée and a salad of roasted and raw Jerusalem artichokes.
And yet, despite the generally high standard, there were glitches which were, as the football commentators say, unacceptable at this level. Our meal began with a self-inflicted wound of an amuse bouche, a cold, thumbnail-sized queen scallop, stuck to the plate with a coagulating tarragon pesto that flooded the mouth with an unpleasant backwash of aniseed. Equally nasty were side dishes of waterlogged spinach and soggy new potatoes, browned but not, as billed, roasted. Not huge disasters when there are revolutions going on around the world, but you'd expect the Four Seasons to get everything right, and it didn't.
Desserts, including a toasty little coconut cake with marinated pineapple and a blameless tiramisu in its own dark chocolate boat, were as deft as everything that had gone before. Wines, mainly Italian, are steeply priced, with little choice under £40 a bottle, though the entire list is available by the glass for a minimum of two glasses. After a slow start, the pace of service picked up to an alarming extent, with each course following hard on the heels of the last, so that we started to feel rushed. We had to force ourselves to linger over coffee, in case our babysitter thought we'd had a row and come home early.
Maybe we would have enjoyed it more if we'd been in a cosier part of the room. As it was, with bankers and blondes around us and a view of the fortifications separating the hotel terrace from Park Lane, the effect was of eating in a gated community.
It was unfortunate timing that Amaranto should have opened on the same day as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a restaurant in an international hotel chain which is thrillingly confident in its Britishness and doesn't leave you feeling that you've accidentally gatecrashed Fred the Shred's leaving do. The Four Seasons chain is effectively critic-proof, and the target audience will come to Amaranto regardless, so I don't have any qualms about saying that, while enjoying much of what I ate, I hated the place.
Amaranto, Four Seasons Hotel, Park Lane London W1 (020-7499 0888)
Around £90 a head including wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 15per cent, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Forza Italia
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