Arté, Central London

London's West End may need a theatre with its own tapas bar, but an evening at Arté will leave you craving the final curtain
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There's a certain sort of family-run restaurant, usually Spanish or Greek or Italian, where you expect a cluster of bleached, grinning Polaroids behind the counter. Nestling greasily between the dusty Chiantis and the Metaxa, they're reassuring proof of a reliable, well-satisfied clientele.

There's a certain sort of family-run restaurant, usually Spanish or Greek or Italian, where you expect a cluster of bleached, grinning Polaroids behind the counter. Nestling greasily between the dusty Chiantis and the Metaxa, they're reassuring proof of a reliable, well-satisfied clientele.

And, OK, even long-established restaurants were once pristine, and Polaroid-free. But you do at least hope that on a Friday night at a new tapas restaurant in the heart of Covent Garden, it won't just be you and an all-female threesome of haggard after-work execs. You long to tell them to generate some grease, some fug ­ the single Blu-Tacked snap on the wall behind the bar isn't going to be enough to convince you this is where it's at.

It's many years since the Arts Theatre has really known what it was for. Hard to imagine that it once hosted the premières of Godot and The Birthday Party ­ now it's children's theatre by day and, by night, a farrago of minor hits which wouldn't survive long in the brutal glare of the real West End. But that doesn't mean that the basement shouldn't be a stonking spot for a restaurant, hovering as it does between the charmless Chinese of Gerard Street and the microwave fakery of St Martin's Lane. We'll call it... Arté. And, I know, why not make it a tapas-bar-cum-restaurant? That way theatre-goers can choose between a quick bite before the show or a full Iberian blow-out after.

And, let's face it, tapas is an all-or-nothing kind of food. If it doesn't immediately smooch your taste-buds, then it's barely two notches up from dry-roast peanuts. The joy of tapas is to over-order, surround yourself with an excess of different little bits and pieces and then bounce between them. Unfortunately, Arté manages to stew even interesting things in a thoroughly uninteresting way. First platter to land in front of us was the chorizo al vino ­ peppery little sausages, red wine sauce, resembling nothing so much as a row of shrivelled gnomes' penises. They passed muster ­ phallic food is somehow utterly forkable. But the polpo al Gallega ­ Galician squid ­ was as tasteless as rubber bands. And patatas bravas ­ school dinner-style potatoes in tomatoish sauce... I won't go on.

OK, so it wasn't turning out to be a gastronomic Xanadu; at least we could sit back, enjoy the unhurried Spanish ambience, and drink good wine. But the wine list is short and features mostly the fruity, not quite medium, wines allegedly favoured by the female after-work exec. The chairs look imposing, but who ever said sitting on a cast iron and plywood throne was comfortable? And the atmosphere? Well, we waited ­ but the only new cluster of patrons seemed to be the barman's buddies swilling cans of Red Stripe.

The main course arrived. Jonathan had ordered paella pescado. "It's what Spaniards do best. They can't go wrong with that." Now he knows they can ­ that moisture is everything. Dry it out, and you end up with clods of rice which the Met would confiscate as offensive weapons and cod chunks that Captain Birdseye would reject. I tried one of his shrimps but it was all pink and whiskery ­ almost pubic, I told him with a shudder.

"They're always whiskery," he said.

"The lack of liquid makes you concentrate too much on the whiskers," I suggested, wondering why everything at this meal reminded me of genitals. My chicken in avocado sauce was just that: grilled chicken with avocado gunk poured over it and, no, it did not make me think of reproductive parts. The vegetables had suffered death by olive oil.

The choice of two puddings presented no dilemma: we wanted out. Purely from habit, Jonathan ordered coffee. "It won't be nice," I told him and I was so right. The froth was too suspiciously white and yet thin as well; the chocolate dust uneasily black and nasty.

Final proof that we'd wasted our evening was the fact that, as we left, we found ourselves wistfully cataloguing the contents of our fridge. "We could have had that posh pasta sauce," we told each other glumly. "Or eggs on toast. Or a just a nice bowl of Frosties and cream in bed."

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