Le Cercle, London SW1

With a menu of 60 scaled-down 'starter-size' offerings and as many wines to match, eating at Le Cercle is a dizzying experience. And totally unsatisfying
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I have this really wild idea for a restaurant. First, you book a table when you want to eat. (Imagine!) Then you are greeted at the door, taken to your table, brought menus and offered drinks. You choose something light as a first course, something a little more satisfying as a main course, and a decent bottle of wine. After a cheese or a pudding, you pay the bill and go home happy.

I have this really wild idea for a restaurant. First, you book a table when you want to eat. (Imagine!) Then you are greeted at the door, taken to your table, brought menus and offered drinks. You choose something light as a first course, something a little more satisfying as a main course, and a decent bottle of wine. After a cheese or a pudding, you pay the bill and go home happy.

I know, I know. And it probably wouldn't work anyway. Judging by the current crop of restaurant trends, what we diners want is anything but that. We want reservations that start at 5pm and last 90 minutes. We want 12-course degustation menus made up of microscopic DNA samples, or a table covered with so many dim sum/tapas/mezedes/share plates it looks like Billy Bunter's last supper.

Which brings us to Le Cercle, the new basement baby from the same team that brought us les trois Gascons (that's Club, Cellar and Comptoir). They have really gone to town here, setting out to be as modern, different and highly detailed as humanly possible. Casual is not the word I am thinking of here. Nor is it formal. It's just very, very detailed. You wouldn't bring the kids, no matter how happily they may tuck into a platter of fruits de mer in Calais.

There are so many conversation points here I could talk all night and still not get to the food. Suffice to say there is a downstairs dining-room of almost old Hollywood glamour broken up with filmy, flowing curtains, columns and boothettes, strangely juxtaposed with tall high tables and stools. There is a peek-a-boo window into the temperature-controlled cheese cellar, and a wine cellar that acts as the backdrop. A shrouded bar is internally irrigated with a central canal of ice, and a snug nook is scattered with Eames chairs. French staff in medieval leather tabards deliver bon-bons of butter and beautiful warm loaves from a calico sack. Get the picture?

Then there is the little matter of the menu, a list of around 60 scaled-down "starter-size" offerings divided into vegetal (vegetables) marin (sea), fermier (farm), terroirs (traditional, earthy cooking), plaisirs (luxury dishes), fromagerie (cheese) and gourmandises (desserts). Accompanying each section are two or three wine options by the glass. It's all very confusing. Do you order one from each chapter, or try to match with selected wines by the glass? Do you share or order individually? I try a bit of everything, and end up still confused.

A vegetal offering of a single poached egg served with port caramel, a brush stroke of Parmesan crisp and a few curls of frisée (£4) resists sharing, and is gone long before the matching glass of fresh, fruity Trimbach Pinot Noir (£6.60). But if the kitchen holds off the next course until I finish my glass each time, I'll be rolling under the table singing Australian football songs before I've had a tablespoon of food. Who thought this was a good idea?

Similarly, there's an awful lot of a citrussy Picpoul de Pinet (£2.90) left by the time I've polished off the marin representative: two small cubes of jewel-like confit tuna teamed with two melting, upmarket nuggets of battered pork sat on a rather aggressive béarnaise (£5.50). So I give up on the idea of food and wine matching, and just eat and drink across the board.

Next, a short section of imported andouillette sausage (£4) - certified as the genuine article by the only club of which I would want to be a member, the Association Amicale d'Amateurs Authentiques d'Andouillette - is served with a smear of mustardy mash. It is utterly superb. The tightknit maze of pig's intestines tastes earthy and smells pissy as it should, and I would give my right arm for the rest of it.

Less life-enriching are a cold, firm disc of foie gras glazed with a layer of duck jelly at a hefty £9.50, an insubstantial salad of little furls of cured duck breast and toasted pine nuts (£4); and a miniature pot au feu of chicken oysters and vegetables (£4.50) which is just too pretty for its own good. It even tastes pretty, as if the various components have been assembled for looks. Soul cooking, this is not.

The ultimate in deconstruction is a "dessert" called Le Provençal which is itself divided into individual shot glasses of tomato confit, black-olive mousse and a liquid piquillo pepper sorbet. It's a discordant, inappropriate, unhappy, try-hard finale to a meal that has left me with too much to drink and not enough to eat.

Out of a cultural context, the small-serve concept is difficult to pull off. It works at Clapham's accomplished modern European restaurant Thyme, and (just) at Club Gascon, but here, it feels self-conscious and lacking in joy. The small dishes bear little relationship to each other and fail, over the course of an evening, to build into a coherent meal. Everyone involved in Le Cercle is very good at what they do, but some monster - perhaps a calculated Michelin ambition? - has corrupted their judgment.

In all the planning, the detailing and the hard work that has gone into this concept, I think they were so busy thinking about themselves, they forgot about us.

12 Le Cercle 1 Wilbraham Place, London SW1, tel: 020 7901 9999. Open Tuesday to Saturday, noon to midnight. No bookings after 8pm. Around £90 for dinner for two with wine and service

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

Second helpings: More basement food

Gamba 225A George Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 572 0899 This clean, contemporary basement restaurant is home to some of the most assured and reliable fish cooking in Glasgow. Head chef Derek Marshall and his team take impeccably fresh seafood and treat it with care and respect. Go down for: simple pan-fried sole with browned lemon butter, or roast cod with mussel and thyme stew.

Mirabelle 56 Curzon Street, London W1, tel: 020 7499 4636 This subterranean 1960s-style glamourpuss is still the glittering star of Marco Pierre White's culinary empire. From the shimmering mirrorball to the gorgeous crowd, it's all very come hither. Go down for: the born-again omelette Arnold Bennett, or a "tarte tatin" of endive and scallops.

Moody Goose 7A Kingsmead Square, Bath, tel: 01225 466 688 This discreet, comfortable eight-year-old basement dining-room is one of the real treasures of the Bath dining scene. Michelin star-winning chef/owner Stephen Shore combines the best of British produce with confident French technique. Go down for: smoked haddock ravioli with goats' cheese, or dark-chocolate soufflé with white-chocolate and tarragon sorbet.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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