Fish out of water

The latest addition to Terence Conran's food empire scores high in delivering the best fruits of the sea, but the atmosphere is cold
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Fishmarket The Great Eastern Hotel 40 Liverpool St London EC2M 7QN tel: 020 7618 7200

Fishmarket The Great Eastern Hotel 40 Liverpool St London EC2M 7QN tel: 020 7618 7200

It was a question of dinner at a new fish restaurant and who to take. In the end I asked my sister because a) she's a doctor and works too hard and b) she likes fish. Although, more importantly, ER wasn't on that night. We parked, were walking and talking and walked straight by. It was the bouncer who threw us. We had assumed it was a pub. Then my sister spotted the shiny chrome letters above his head. Fishmarket. The bouncer didn't move aside nor open the door so I reached for the handle. He wasn't happy. "Restaurant?" he barked. I think he came from Russia. "Yes," I said. With a grunt, he let us in.

The problem with new restaurants is that everybody tries too hard. There aren't many customers. The staff don't have enough to do so they try to do too much. And all in the wrong order. We were shown to our table in a windowless room with a very high ceiling. We sat down. Next thing we knew, our waitress was fumbling in our laps as she unfolded our napkins. Weren't we supposed to see a menu? Isn't it meant to be a discreet, flick-of-the-wrist sort of affair? This was more like being tucked in by nanny and there's nothing like being treated like a five-year-old to make you revert to being five. It was a struggle not to laugh. "Super, ladies," she said. "I'll be back with the bread."

Fishmarket is part of the Great Eastern Hotel and is only four weeks old. Next door is George, a glorified pub, and a new Japanese restaurant, Miyabi, had opened the day we were there. Fishmarket is also, we discovered when a bottle of Conran Water arrived, part-owned by Conran. It is a curious hybrid of traditional, wet-bar-and-white-table-clothed oyster bar and sleek modern British. There are gilt chandeliers and great columns of marble. Meanwhile, fluted grey lights have been screwed into the mirrors and the salt and pepper pots are trademark Heal's. You get the feeling that the restaurant doesn't know quite what it wants to be.

A basket had appeared and we tucked into tasty slices of raisin bread. Our glasses of Sancerre, though, were measly. An inch of wine at the bottom of a tall glass is no way to make friends. But our waitress, who, my sister pointed out, bore an uncanny resemblance to Dawn French, could not have been friendlier. Catch of the day was off, she said, but everything else was on.

The room was roughly half full. There were two American women at the neighbouring table talking desserts. "Top two," one was saying to her friend. There were a couple of tables of suited women, PR types, a lone man drinking Guinness in the corner and a group of men wearing cuff links and cracking lobsters with serious faces. But it was strangely devoid of atmosphere and decidedly unsexy. Not the place for an oyster-fuelled brief encounter despite being bang next to Liverpool Street station. Although the sweeping staircase from the restaurant does apparently lead up to the rooms.

So, starters. My sister had a sliver of red mullet with coriander cream. Heaven, she said. I had Thai fishcakes, not the best ever but amply spiked with ginger and served on crispy noodles. We ate everything. Our waitress was impressed. "Super ladies," she said. It was at this point that my sister said that the man guarding the oysters could in fact be Denzel Washington. Meanwhile, I had spotted Nurse Hathaway, the mother of George Clooney's twins in ER, eating langoustine nearby. It was fast becoming one of those lookalike nights. An attempt to distract from the bright lights and struggling ambience, perhaps.

But the food was delicious. The dishes on the menu are exclusively fish. For main courses you can choose between bream, cod, Dover sole, salmon or tuna - or go for the plat de la mer. Sister had grilled bream with velvety mashed potato and vegetables provençale. She stopped talking while she ate. I had the cod wrapped in pancetta with parsley and olives which had a smoky flavour and lots of olive oil. More than enough, yet we had to try a pudding. We turned down the lime chiffon pie and the almond crÿme brûlée and opted for a scoop of pistachio and vanilla ice cream and a cherry sorbet. All mouthwatering with real chunks of this and that.

Then we paid, less than £100 but expensive, and left for the Ladies. In the basement were old strips of carpet, fake panelling and a lamp with a Sellotaped cord. The hotel had been refurbished in such a hurry that a corner had been missed. On returning upstairs, we expected to find that the restaurant had disappeared - rather like a film set. But there it still was. We exited through the bar which is where, we realised too late, is the better place to be. There you've got bar life and a view of the street as people run to and from trains. Next time. Maybe.