I do so love a good wet/dry split. That's the ratio between sales of drink and food, according to those old romantics in the hospitality industry. At the new east London incarnation of Notting Hill's 18-year-old bar-restaurant Beach Blanket Babylon, the split is apparently 50/50, but I don't think anyone has told the punters, most of whom seem to think eating is cheating.
Two girls sit up at the bar sharing a plate of chips and a bottle of wine (90/10?), and six City boys at the long, bare wooden table next to me order steaks to go with the cocktails, wines and beers that surround them (70/30?).
I start with the princess of cocktails, an expertly tended Porn Star Martini (£7.50), a legendary mix of Cariel vanilla vodka, vanilla sugar, Passoá passion-fruit liqueur and passion-fruit pulp, first created by mixologist Douglas Ankrah, founder of the London Academy of Bartending. The punchy, zingy contents of the oversize Martini glass are Paris Hilton blonde while the vanilla gives it a touch of girl-next-door Kylie Minogue. It also comes with a shot glass of champagne that lifts it right up to Grace Kelly status. It is a gorgeous thing.
But then, isn't everyone? The lively City banker, post-office crowd is shown to its advantage in the seductively dark warehouse space with its boho/bordello lounge vibe. A 100-seat split-level dining-room wraps itself around a solid marble bar, with a darker, clubbier, cocktail lounge below. Upstairs, an art gallery, members' lounge, roof terrace and outdoor cinema are planned for those who didn't cut it for membership of the nearby Shoreditch House.
The menu reads like a corner pub that has won the Lottery, with fancy food such as foie gras and truffle oil squeezed in among the safe, club-friendly goat's cheese tart, calves' liver with bacon, roast chicken, grilled sea bass and Argentinean fillet steak with red-wine gravy.
A starter of onion soup with Welsh rarebit (£5.50) is just plain weird. A pale purée of onion soubise, it is cloyingly, tooth-achingly, puddingly sweet, topped with a couple of thin grilled, cheese-smeared croutons.
The "wild" mushrooms served with a poached egg (£8.50) seem more cultivated oriental than wild forest, but the flavours are acceptable, until more sweetness, in the form of brioche, overwhelms them.
At this point, about halfway through our first courses, a waiter approaches with the mains. He even attempts to put them on the table, but I won't let him. We have an impasse: the kitchen won't take them back, and I won't accept them. They are put under warming lights, until I strongly suggest they cook them again. But when my sirloin beef burger (£17.50) reappears 10 minutes later, it is cold. "That's really annoying," says my waitress, glaring at the kitchen. It wouldn't be any better hot, however. The dense, pappy meat tastes unseasoned, the chips are thick and oily, and the bun is a cheap fluff-puff. A little plug of foie gras on top is a good attempt at premiumisation, but is not enough to save the day.
Calves' liver with crispy bacon, mash and red onion (£16.50) is toyed with. The liver is mushy enough to be confused with the mash, the onion is dank, and the "crispy bacon" lurks in the very sticky, dark jus like nail clippings.
I seek refuge in blessed alcohol with a fruity, fresh 2005 Domaine Girault Sancerre Rouge, which puts my personal wet/dry consumption for the night at around 80/20. At the last moment, a wedge of cheesecake (£6) gives actual food value by being freshly made, well-balanced, and seasonally adjusted with tangy cumquats.
With such a strong drinking culture in place, the kitchen feels like a poor second to the bar. Which doesn't make this a great place to eat. It does, however, make it a good place to drink.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Beach Blanket Babylon, 19-23 Bethnal Green Road, London E1, tel: 020 7749 3540. Lunch and dinner Wednesday to Sunday. Around £100 for two, including wine and service
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