Celebration? It was a scream

The re-opened Belvedere may be suitably posh and prettily located, but it left two eminent birthday boys unmoved
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Indy Lifestyle Online

How unfortunate for the new owner of the Belvedere that its reopening coincided with the wettest April on record. The restaurant's idyllic location in the middle of Holland Park, one of London's loveliest and best-kept green places, makes it an ideal spot for an illicit sylvan tryst. But some of the charm inevitably evaporates when would-be trysters are obliged to sprint the short distance between car park and reception in torrential rain.

How unfortunate for the new owner of the Belvedere that its reopening coincided with the wettest April on record. The restaurant's idyllic location in the middle of Holland Park, one of London's loveliest and best-kept green places, makes it an ideal spot for an illicit sylvan tryst. But some of the charm inevitably evaporates when would-be trysters are obliged to sprint the short distance between car park and reception in torrential rain.

Still, even on a gloomy day, the Belvedere's dining room, all windows and mirrors, seems to be filled with light. The refurbishment, by designer David Collins, has introduced glamorous, decadent touches such as floor-to-ceiling suede curtains and a silvered wall to what used to be a bland, rather greenhouse-like interior. Enormous vases of lilies fill the room with their distinctive, old-lady smell. Trees straight from central casting bow and rustle against the room-high windows. And there among the trees are the bewildered figures of two rain-sodden men in flashers' macs - my lunch guests - as they stumble around the building, vainly trying to locate the entrance.

I'd chosen Belvedere as an appropriately special setting for a special occasion lunch; both my companions - Anthony Quinn, the film critic for The Independent, and the novelist Sebastian Faulks - were celebrating their birthdays, and as the place was good enough for Marco Pierre White's wedding reception, I figured it would be good enough for them. But neither of them seemed to be in particularly celebratory mood, possibly because they'd just emerged from a morning screening of Scream 3, and were still a little jumpy.

As they steadied their nerves with a reviving glass of champagne, I tried to get them into a more festive frame of mind. "Lovely isn't it? It's got 'civilised' written all over it," I enthused. "It's also got 'empty' written all over it," replied Sebastian gloomily, surveying the rows of unoccupied tables around us. I suppose I shouldn't have expected too much enthusiasm from someone who gave up restaurant reviewing after three weeks because he'd run out of synonyms for "quite nice".

Jeremy Hollingsworth, the chef, was previously at Quo Vadis, and the menu he's devised for Belvedere comes from the same gene pool - modern European, but with a distinctly French accent. Making few concessions to the non-gastronome, the lengthy list bristles with Larousse-worthy descriptions - here a fricassée of mousseron, there a sauce remoulade - that would have kept the French maître d' at our table for a good half-hour had we asked him to decode them all for us.

Prices are only marginally less fancy, at around £15 for a main course, but there's also a daily-changing set lunch menu, good value at £17.95 for three courses, (£14.95 on Sundays). The wine list is staggering, both in length and the size of the mark-ups - Tony was outraged to see listed at £61.50 a Californian Chardonnay that he'd recently bought at Majestic for £19. "Still, I expect they'll open it for you," offered Sebastian, by way of consolation.

The best of our starters was Tony's garlicky calamari risotto, abundantly topped with tender slices of caramelised squid. Sebastian's tarte tatin of endives with pan-fried foie gras was as bulky and soggy as a nursery pudding, and did little to dispel his gloom. My white bean soup, from the set menu, was flavoured with truffle oil and sprinkled with shavings of fresh black truffle, but perhaps because I was suffering from a summer cold, I couldn't really taste it. "Still, it's nice and creamy," I chirped, prompting an involuntary wince from Sebastian, whose aversion to the words "creamy" and "eggy" was apparently another factor in his decision to give up restaurant reviewing.

Early visitors to Belvedere have criticised the slackness of the service, but we found the staff eager and attentive - to the point of annoyance when it came to the persistent refilling of our wine glasses, obviously intended to encourage us in the direction of a second bottle (and at those prices, no wonder).

When our main courses emerged from the kitchen, the entire waiting staff gathered in consultation around the tray, like excitable ER orderlies around a gurney. Tony's seabass was placed before him with a flourish by the maitre d', who announced "Le Bass!" in a dramatic stage whisper. Sadly, he didn't make a similar announcement for my skate wing with winkles; the introduction of "Les Winkles!" might just have raised a smile from the birthday boys.

As it was, they approached their main courses with stoicism rather than genuine enjoyment. Tony's bass was tricked up with beignets of aubergine caviar, rolled in sage leaves and deep fried, which prompted an extended round of Guess the Ingredient. "It's nice, but it's not rocking my world," was Tony's lugubrious verdict.

Sebastian's roast rack of pork was grudgingly accepted as "like mum's, only without the crackling," but the accompanying sculpted mini-vegetables and tower of cut-out potato slices struck him as old-fashioned and unnecessarily fancy. He also disapproved of the decision to pair my wing of skate with winkles rather than the more traditional capers. And true enough, the winkles - little buds of gristle, with no taste and a rather unpleasant texture - didn't add much to what was a rather dry piece of fish.

Puddings spanned both ends of the presentational spectrum - crÿme brûlée came elaborately stockaded within slices of dried pineapple, while caramelised apple tart had an unpleasantly rough-hewn, extruded appearance and tasted burnt. "In American Pie, the guy had sex with a pastry," mused film critic Tony, "but you wouldn't wanna do it with that."

Under the circumstances, it was probably best that I hadn't phoned ahead to request the surprise appearance of a birthday cake with candles - it might have tipped both of them over the edge. Still, I hoped they'd found something to enjoy in their birthday lunch; despite the combined efforts of my guests and the weather to dampen the festivities, I was still rather charmed by Belvedere. "It really does feel like it's been a special occasion," Tony eventually volunteered. "Mainly because we know that neither of us will ever be coming back here."

Belvedere, off Abbotsbury Road, Holland Park, London W8 (020-7602 1238) Mon-Sat 12-2.30pm, 6-11pm, Sun 12-3.30pm, 6-10.30pm. All cards. Limited disabled access

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