Don't look back in hunger

Sherry trifle, piña coladas, battered saveloy and corned-beef fritters. The fad for all things Seventies has somehow found its way on to the menu at the Langley, in London's Covent Garden, and it's proving very hard to swallow
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Irony can be delicious. But that doesn't mean you're supposed to eat it. Does it? Does the Langley really expect us to take its food seriously? This cavernous basement bar has taken the ironic Seventies retro theme currently sweeping through our homes and wardrobes to such an extreme that they've devised a menu to match. They've even assigned an area where up to 100 people can sit at Formica tables and have prawn cocktail, steak with green peppercorns and sherry trifle. So they must be expecting quite a few takers.

Irony can be delicious. But that doesn't mean you're supposed to eat it. Does it? Does the Langley really expect us to take its food seriously? This cavernous basement bar has taken the ironic Seventies retro theme currently sweeping through our homes and wardrobes to such an extreme that they've devised a menu to match. They've even assigned an area where up to 100 people can sit at Formica tables and have prawn cocktail, steak with green peppercorns and sherry trifle. So they must be expecting quite a few takers.

If, as tends to happen, too many pina coladas prove inimicable to a three-course meal, there's bar food, such as toasted cheese-and-pickle sandwich, cod, chips and mushy peas and, to add anti-gravitational force to the room-spin you get after a skinful, battered saveloy and chips with curry sauce.

As with any bar this size, the Langley is first and foremost dedicated to drink. And are not, anyway - discuss - bartenders the new chefs? But it seems to be setting store by the food and, as there's been less evidence than anecdote about the retro food revival, here at last is proof of its existence; a crash course in nostalgic gastronomy.

Thus the menu is a classic collection of after-school tea favourites (toad-in-the-hole, corned-beef fritter), dazed post-pub takeaway and fridge-raid standbys (fish-finger sandwich, the battered saveloy), supposedly comforting institutional mush (macaroni cheese), and dated dishes that our mums and dads served at dinner parties (coq au vin, for example). Some could trigger happy memories, some deserve rehabilitating and returning to restaurant tables, the rest should certainly have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Through a doorway in a Covent Garden side street, sandwiched between Café Pacifico and the Pineapple dancewear shop, two businesses which show the Seventies and Eighties are still with us, the Langley offers edited highlights of both decades. The furniture, the music (Duran Duran, Heaven 17), the drinks (Snowballs and Babycham alongside the Seabreezes and Cosmopolitans) recreate an imaginary recent adult past for those with no memory of it. They're the ones chorusing the catchphrases of The Clangers, and feeling the effects of the contents of their parents' drinks cabinets.

There are groups of them in alcoves furnished with leather sofas and coffee tables, others standing against giant barcode-like pastel striped panels, sprawling in square-jawed butterscotch sofas, swivelling in black-and-tangerine vinyl pod chairs, coralled behind a wall of cut-out concrete patio blocks.

It is a fabulous space and a great place for a drink, as we discovered on our tour of the labyrinth before we found the almost-empty restaurant at the far end behind a bar wall.

Nobody noticed us wander in and sit down, then someone came along and asked how we got there. Some time later we were offered a drink. Well into a mint julep and a screwdriver, neither shining examples of past or present cocktails, we were asked if we'd like to eat. We'd dismissed the bar snacks as irredeemably nasty - there's nothing you can do to salvage a saveloy - but there should be no reason why whitebait doesn't deserve another chance.

We gave it one, and were not disappointed; crunchy little fishes were spiced up with a peppery mayo. We also had a corned-beef fritter. Is there any point in paying homage to what was always horrible? After all, even Heinz considered discontinuing its salad cream for a while. But familiarity, curiosity, the relief of not having to translate a menu can exercise an unconscious pull. I ordered it.

"I used to love corned beef," I reminisced. "I still do," my friend said, though she wasn't prepared to go halves on the fritter - a thick finger of warm, greasy meat in crisp batter. Gooseberry compote (how Eighties, how anachronistic) may have been a rather absurd accompaniment, but at least its sharpness cut through the fat, not to mention the fact that it sported a smart, flat parsley leaf of a type you didn't get 20 years ago.

So far, we could just about give them the benefit of our doubts. You would think you couldn't go wrong with smoked haddock with cheese and mustard sauce, on a base of mashed potato. "Glutinous" was how my friend described it, and I wouldn't describe her as a particularly fussy diner. If they couldn't make decent mash, why hadn't they gone the whole way and used Smash?

But in the end, it was the coq au vin that showed the kitchen's ignorance, or determination to make even a classic unpleasantly kitsch. The chicken must have been the only animal in the room that was not thoroughly steeped in alcohol. At the next table, the bride-to-be and her following of raucous handmaidens were tossing back another round of tequila slammers. At ours, we were wrestling with overcooked fowl in what seemed to be Bisto sauce.

In The Prawn Cocktail Years Simon Hopkinson says: "It would have to be a complete moron who managed to cock up a coq au vin." Meet the chef from the Langley.

Black Forest gateau, which, if made lovingly, can also rise above its naff reputation and reveal its true, delicious colours, was equally nasty. Real cream, tinned cherries, dry brown sponge and shavings of industrial quality chocolate on top. They'd blown it. Ironic bad taste is all very well until you have to eat it. Even then, it doesn't have to be quite as unsubtle as this.

More fool us for putting our money where their theme is. At £30 a head for a cocktail, a glass of wine, and two and a half courses each, we didn't think this little joke at our expense was clever or funny.

The Langley, 5 Langley Street, London WC2 (020-7836 5005) Mon-Sat noon-1am, Sun noon-10.30pm, daily lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No disabled access

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