Beginner's Franglais

Marco Pierre White drawing inspiration from McDonald's was worrying. But pine cleaner was an ingredient too far
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was when I got to the words "Steak Hache à la McDonald's £9.50" that I felt the first tremor of things being wrong with Marco PW's new restaurant. To offer a halfway-decent dish "in the style of" a 69p burger may amuse the sophisticated foodie; but to charge £9.50 for it isn't quite so funny.

It was when I got to the words "Steak Hache à la McDonald's £9.50" that I felt the first tremor of things being wrong with Marco PW's new restaurant. To offer a halfway-decent dish "in the style of" a 69p burger may amuse the sophisticated foodie; but to charge £9.50 for it isn't quite so funny.

The Brasserie is the latest joint venture between Marco PW and the Granada corporation. His new place is attached to the Forte Post House in Belsize Park, a hotel so enslaved to mediocrity, it makes the Crossroads Motel look like the Gritti Palace. The Marco-Forte relationship is, I assume, meant to be symbiotic: Marco's name will bring a better class of customer to this functional brick garage with its geometrically patterned carpets; while Forte will be Marco's passport to a large new clientele with money but simple tastes. "This is a brasserie, sir," the maitre d' murmured to me, "and it isn't as ambitious as other restaurants."

No indeed. The menu seems unsure of the customers' linguistic capacity. Some entries are in fancy French, some in blokish English. For every "Escargots à la Bourguignonne", there's a "Salmon Fishcake". Sometimes they try to have it both ways, as in "Grilled Calves Liver à l'Anglaise". (A la Franglais, more like.) One minute they offer "chips", the next "pommes frites". One minute we're being posh, the next we've got our elbows on the table. When you get to "Roast Chicken 'Properly Garnished' ", you wonder whom all this demotic is hoping to impress.

Uncertainty is the keynote. The façade is flashy and full of fairy lights, set among the leaves of small bay trees. Inside, despite 17 lampshades and 28 recessed lights, it's rather gloomy. But then would you really want to see more clearly? The walls are lined with the kind of off-brown Mondrian effect you associate with Sixties furnishing on the QE2. The square tables are formica-topped and chrome-legged, and a long, red, shiny banquette runs all round the dining area. You look for a suitably paradoxical description and realise it's effortfully bland.

Marco, the maitre d' explained, likes to intersperse signature dishes of his own, suitably adapted, among more down-to-earth fare. Which dishes were Marco's? The rillettes of salmon with fennel and lemon vinaigrette, he said. Fine, I said, I'll have that. I'm sorry, he said, we've run out. He explained that in Marco's wonderful Oak Room, the vichyssoise with caviar had been a classic. Here in the Brasserie, they had a cheaper street variant. It was vichyssoise. I tried it. It was amazingly thin, as if someone had added skimmed milk to a carton of Covent Garden Leek 'n' Potato. My guest had the snails, which were hot, slimy and dizzy with garlic. "You don't expect snails to be tough," she said, "but -"

But that was when the waitress sprayed the table. No kidding. As the sweating diner in the tracksuit beside us departed, she cleared his table, extracted a bottle from her armpit, and sprayed the table-top while we were eating beside her. A fine cloud of perfumed chemicals danced in the air, bringing a heady whiff of pine to my tongue (but at least the soup now tasted of something).

Things got worse. Could she have new potatoes instead of chips with her steak? "We can't change the garnish, madame," they said. (God no - asking for potatoes instead of potatoes...) The steak was flat, tasteless, and cooked some way beyond medium. The green salad was, for some reason, salty. My confit of duck sat in lonely splendour on a clutch of haricots blancs, weirdly deprived of the liquid duck-fat that's really the point of a confit.

By 11 pm the place was deserted, apart from some Haverstock nighthawks lurking Edward Hopper-ishly in the crepuscular bar. The cheese was "French". How French? Brie, Camembert and an unknown goat. The passion fruit sorbet could have come straight from Asda, and probably did. Only the Montbazillac pudding wine lived up to expectations.

If this is Marco Pierre White's notion of democratising eating out in London, he needs someone to bang a spoon on his head and explain that a) serving up bog-standard dishes in Formica Hell and charging West End prices isn't how you do it, and b) cooking imaginative dishes, with love, for under a tenner, is. Wine apart, the bill still came to £70. Oh, and the table spray was called "R3" and is an industrial cleansing agent. Nice touch, Mr White.

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