Christmas is coming. Yes, I know, I don't want to think about it either, but we must. And anyone who lives in the south-east of England will find it difficult to resist the siren call of Westfield, Britain's latest shining beacon of retailing.
Westfield opened its doors a year ago last Friday, and since then, more than 20 million people have visited the £1.7bn shopping centre, which houses everything from Phones4U to Prada. How many have actually bought anything is more difficult to ascertain. But it remains, for now, probably the best place to do Christmas shopping, as you can park free for two hours, stay dry, and – crucially – eat decent food.
It is one of Westfield's biggest selling points – a whole array of eateries (hate that word, but it seems apposite) for everything from a brisk morning cappuccino before hitting the shops to a snacky lunch break mid-spend, and more leisurely places for a restorative glass of wine and three courses.
So, to put Westfield's 30-plus restaurants, bars and cafés to the test, on behalf of those bracing themselves for the seasonal onslaught of wish lists and advertising-enhanced pester power, I am off to spend a lunchtime there. I'm joined by a friend who needs no encouragement to waste a few hours mooching round "The Village", the centre's prestige enclave, where Prada is joined by Louis Vuitton, Burberry and (coming soon) Jimmy Choo.
After a few hours "itemising", we head to the Southern Terrace, a long stretch of restaurants facing outward from the centre, with outside seating and plenty of choice.
Well, that's what it looks like. In fact, on a Saturday lunchtime a full two months before Christmas, they are all heaving, with lengthy waits for a table at the places I've earmarked – upmarket chains The Real Greek, Wahaca and Gourmet Burger Kitchen. The only place we can get in right away is Fire & Stone, a pizzeria that's bustling but not packed. Pizza is the perfect pit-stop food, with a quick delivery and substantial carb hit.
We sit down at a table adjacent to the copper-clad, giant wood-fired oven and study the menu with a glass each of Chilean Chardonnay Alianza at £5. If it sounds like I'm putting off getting down to the actual eating, I am. I'd rather not recall it at all, if you don't mind. Oh, all right, if I must.
Fire & Stone, you see, is one of those creative pizza places, where the classic Italian model of thin base, tomato and, possibly, cheese has been distorted out of all recognition. We consider the ill-advisedness of putting mango chutney on a pizza, or black pudding, or salmon and caviar. All five continents are represented – the latter offering is, apparently, New Foundland (sic) but there's a reason why Africa and Asia don't "do" pizza – they have their own street food, thank you very much.
Now, I take my job of restaurant reviewing seriously, so I think it only fair to try Fire & Stone's concept at its wildest. I order the Bombay (£9.45), with tandoori chicken, plus chutney and yoghurt. My companion, shuddering, can only bring herself to have San Francisco (£6.95), bewilderingly the closest to a "normal" pizza of tomato, mozzarella and basil.
We start with a Mediterranean antipasti plate (£7.45) – perky cornichons and olives, three types of ham, plus generous dollops of hummus and taramasalata and a pick-up-sticks arrangement of breadsticks on top. But why is everything, including the tara, coated in a gloopy balsamic reduction? I took the taste away, or tried to, with crisp, fried, breaded calamari (£5.95). Yes they were crisp, and fried, but as to taste, there was none. Most perplexing.
The plain-ish pizza was OK, the Bombay just grisly. It could have worked: I imagined something like my favourite Indian takeway atop a naan bread... but for the fatal error of including mozzarella. Making great pizza, we muse, is like styling a great outfit: when you're done, take off one item. After two bites of cheesy chicken, I couldn't continue.
If you find yourself weighed down with bags and with pounding feet, and everywhere else is full, you could be brave and eat here. Just ask the waiter to leave off the most bizarre bit of the dish.
Oh, and the mini Florentine biscuits are quite nice.
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
Fire & Stone, 107A Southern Terrace, Westfield, Shepherds Bush, London W12, tel: 0844 371 2550. Lunch and dinner daily. £55 for two, including wine and service
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