Chauffeur service, caviar and espresso - come the revolution these things may prove more affordable to diners

I was looking for a romantic venue for a late Valentine's supper, and on paper, Firebird seemed to be just the place - discreet, original, and reassuringly expensive. A pre-Revolutionary Tsarist Russian restaurant, it opened in Mayfair just over a year ago, serving caviar and vodka alongside Frenchified reworkings of traditional Russian dishes.

I was looking for a romantic venue for a late Valentine's supper, and on paper, Firebird seemed to be just the place - discreet, original, and reassuringly expensive. A pre-Revolutionary Tsarist Russian restaurant, it opened in Mayfair just over a year ago, serving caviar and vodka alongside Frenchified reworkings of traditional Russian dishes.

But the really glamorous thing about Firebird is the chauffeur service it offers, ferrying diners to and from their dachas in a Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce. Now that's romantic. Sadly, when booking the table (I was tempted to use the pseudonym "Lenin", just to see how the Tsarists would handle it) I discovered that the limo service doesn't start until next month. And then only for customers who've booked one of the private dining rooms. And who happen to live within a mile of the restaurant. Which makes the thing utterly redundant - if you're lucky enough to live within a mile of Conduit Street, chances are you've already got your own chauffeur.

It's actually a surprisingly trendy strip of Mayfair; Moschino, Vivienne Westwood and Rigby and Peller are all within view. None of their window displays, though, contains anything as camp as the outfits worn by Firebird's doormen; military greatcoats splendidly adorned with badges and mock decorations.

On the evidence of our Saturday night visit, they needed those coats to keep warm, as they didn't have very much work to do. Of Firebird's two restaurant floors, (there are also two private dining floors), one was completely unoccupied, while the other contained just three tables of diners. Which made it all the more disheartening that instead of being ushered into a romantic nook, we were wedged next to a boisterous table of hard-faced young Russian women, all apparently in town to compete in the chain-smoking Olympics, and treating the waiters with the kind of imperiousness that gives emperors a bad name.

A pre-Revolutionary Russian restaurant promises ballrooms and chandeliers, marble, velvet and gold. The reality is much lower-key, and more domestic in scale; Firebird is modelled on a posh family townhouse, rather than a palace, and decorated with collectibles from the owner's own ancestral home in St Petersburg. The dark green walls of the interconnecting dining rooms are covered with old family photos, in which extremely long and pointy moustaches are a recurring theme. Caged cupboards contain objets d'art, locked away like the precious things of the shop. It all feels curiously unconvincing, as though the restaurant has been created by TV set designers; Frasier's "Le Cigare Volant" sprang to mind, though the fastidious Dr Crane would no doubt have noticed that some of the decor is already looking a little tired, including the large arrangement of wilting flowers that was shedding forlornly on to the sprigged carpet.

Waiting staff are dressed in loose, belted Cossack shirts, of the sort more usually to be seen balancing upside down over a Palomino at the Moscow State Circus. One of the waiters informed us, with authentically pre-Revolutionary deference, that partridge was unavailable. "And there's no peasant..." whispered Harry. I'd warned him in advance that we were operating on a budget, and that we weren't allowed to order any caviar. But it was hard for me to monitor that budget when I found I'd been given a special girlie menu, with no prices on. "Come the revolution..." I muttered, snatching Harry's menu from him.

Firebird's French chef, Alain Allard, was previously at Michelin-starred L'Oranger (you could say that he has exchanged a star for a Tsar) and there are still Michelin-oriented touches of pretension in Firebird's presentation, particularly in the way each of our dishes was arranged into a some kind of circular pattern. A smoked herring salad featured overlapping circlets of thinly-sliced sweet-cured fish, surrounding a fiercely vinegary beetroot and potato salad. More rewarding was a Kazakhstan lamb potato cake, a middle-eastern style patty of minced lamb and grated potato, served with yoghurt and rocket leaves.

Attempting to get round the caviar embargo, Harry picked sturgeon as his main course, in the hope that a few stragglers had been left on board. The fish was a strange lavender colour, but otherwise completely characterless. "It doesn't taste of anything!" he protested. "How can a fish which produces the world's tastiest substance be completely tasteless?" The accompanying tomato sauce contained a few beads of caviar, and Harry contented himself with chasing them fruitlessly round his plate, while giving me reproachful looks. Again, meat triumphed over fish, and my roast lamb was altogether better - slices of tender lamb fillet, served pink, on a bed of distinctly peasanty black-eyed beans and rice.

Normally I don't complain about quick service in a restaurant, but at this point we'd only been in Firebird an hour, and there was a real danger that our romantic evening would be over in time for Match of the Day. So in an act of deliberate sabotage, I ordered a pudding with a 15 minute wait - the curiously-described "Polish brioche-like "keks"'. I don't know what "keks" are (someone from Rigby and Peller could no doubt have helped), but the Firebird facsimile was excellent - a pastry tower filled with a warm cream of vanilla and spiced apple - if a little hearty for the kind of lady too dainty to be exposed to the prices on a menu.

Harry's pudding, though, something called cranberry and vodka kisel, was actively unpleasant, a bowl of sour and thin-tasting red soup surrounding a floating island of crÿme frâiche. "It's a liquid dessert..." our waiter had said when I'd forced Harry to order it, and we should have picked up on the warning note in his voice. "What was that soup in the Futurists' cookbook? Oh yes, a bowl of warm gin containing a single ginger hair," moaned Harry, balefully pushing it aside.

A complimentary glass of iced honey vodka, made on the premises, helped to cheer him up, and reinforced his prejudice that there's really no such thing as Russian cuisine, just things that happen to go well with vodka.

Our bill, including a £30 bottle of Gigondas, came to a flabbergasting £160. On closer examination, we realised we'd paid £11 a glass for house champagne, and a record-breaking £3.90 each for single espressos. Prices, in other words, that would make anyone see red. But until the Government appoints a Tsarist restaurant Tsar, who are we going to complain to?

Firebird, 23 Conduit Street, London W1 (020-7493 7000). Lunch Mon-Fri 12.15-2.45pm, dinner Mon-Sat 7-11.15pm. Two course lunch £15, three courses £18.95. Limited disabled access. All major cards

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