Perfect for a power lunch

For the past 15 years, London's Docklands has seen a steady influx of residents drawn by river views and capacious warehouse apartments. And at long last these wasteland pioneers have been rewarded - with a decent restaurant
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Wapping Project sounds like a Cockney heist movie, destined to go straight to video. In fact it's an arts centre and performance space, newly opened in a converted hydraulic power station in London's Docklands. Even better news is that there's a really good restaurant at the heart of the enterprise, in an area where Babe Ruth's, the American hamburger chain, has represented the apex of gastronomic aspiration.

The Wapping Project sounds like a Cockney heist movie, destined to go straight to video. In fact it's an arts centre and performance space, newly opened in a converted hydraulic power station in London's Docklands. Even better news is that there's a really good restaurant at the heart of the enterprise, in an area where Babe Ruth's, the American hamburger chain, has represented the apex of gastronomic aspiration.

Wapping Hydraulic Power Station opened in the 1890s, and closed in 1977. As well as supplying the energy for the local tube station, in its heyday it powered the West End's theatre curtains, and the organ of the Odeon, Leicester Square, so this transformation into an artistic hub isn't a complete change of direction.

Given that it's a power station, Wapping Project isn't as easy to find as you might think. In a warren of cobbled streets lined with warehouses and warehouse-style developments, it's tucked away opposite the Prospect of Whitby pub, the area's most famous landmark.

The cobbled yard holds a large outbuilding, parcelled up Christo-style in silk, and hinting at wonders to come. Inside the power station, the Turbine House - the main body of the building - has been gutted to create one huge space, large enough to contain any number of Conran enormodomes. The old generating equipment has been left in place, and the restaurant's seating extends amongst it, so that diners are dwarfed between rusty turbines and gargantuan swinging chains and pulleys.

On the walls, municipal tiling gives way to decades-old peeling paintwork, an effect it would take teams of specialist decorators months to simulate. The ceiling is cathedral-high, and suspended surreally from it are various designer chairs, part of an exhibition of modern furniture.

It's a dramatic environment, and one which takes some living up to.

Seated at a bare, white table, in our moulded plastic Ron Arad chairs, Harry and I felt like a couple of miscast extras in a Peter Greenaway film. Any minute, we feared, the director might swoop down on a crane-seat and instruct us to try and look natural. Harry was reminded by our surroundings of a recent visit to Sydney, where they tend to have a similarly adventurous approach to using post-industrial buildings. This impression was reinforced by the all-Australian wine list, and the largely Australian staff, the latter distinguished more by charm than by speed of delivery. Maybe they'd been lured by an ad in TNT seeking staff for a "fashionable new restaurant in Central London" and were still reeling after finding themselves in Wapping.

The shortish menu, which changes twice daily, displays an Antipodean ease with global ingredients and techniques. Several dishes do double service as both starters and mains, and fish, as befits the riverside setting, is a speciality. Non-fish starters included calf's liver with a black-pudding and bacon salad, and for vegetarians, the Turkish aubergine dish imam bayeldi, (endearingly listed as "Iman" bayeldi, perhaps taking the food-as-fashion concept a little too far).

Harry's Jerusalem artichoke and rosemary soup was a complex taste sensation, swirled with truffle oil, and containing what seemed to be caramelised rosemary needles. "This is fantastic," he breathed. My colourful salad, of Middle Eastern derivation, featured nubbly lumps of tangy marinated feta and strips of flatbread in a tower of cucumber and salad leaves, jazzed up with lashings of fresh mint.

We both chose fishy main courses. The John Dory was of a rare quality - pan-fried to a crisp golden finish, and served on a hunk of grilled polenta topped with peperonata - stewed red and yellow peppers. My only quibble was that it had all been drizzled with pesto, an overpowering ingredient which often seems to creep its way unannounced and unnecessarily into dishes aiming for instant Mediterranean effect.

Harry's seared loin of tuna was served very rare - so much so that it was barely warm in the middle. But the presence of less-than-hot new potatoes in the accompanying rocket salad convinced him that this was intended to be a salade tiÿde, and he was able to start loving it again. Side orders of sweet potato chips, and stir-fried bok choi in a garlicky soy dressing, were superb.

The quality of the food was all the more surprising considering the manifestly small kitchen, which is separated from the dining room only by a stainless steel screen and functions as part of the entertainment. This contributes to the improvised, un-slick atmosphere of the place, with music coming from a boombox tucked behind one of the turbines, and featuring what seems to be an employee's personal CD collection.

Despite the restaurant's proximity to the Square Mile, the evening crowd contains few City types, tending more towards the Bohemian - all black polo-necks and beatnik beards. But then, the Ozymandian industrial wreckage would probably inhibit business talk; after all, a century ago, other men were probably sitting around dining tables, planning what would become a state-of-the-art power station.

We paid around £40 a head. This included coffee, service and simple but well-delivered puddings - honey-roasted plums, and a dinky chocolate mousse served in an espresso cup. Our £15 bottle of house red, Rycroft Flametree, was so delicious that we weren't tempted to sample any further.

Before paying, we were free to wander around the turbines, which had been recently dusted, Harry noted approvingly. Pushing open an unmarked door at the end of the room, we stepped into a dark, cavernous space, bisected from ground to ceiling by countless rods of thin, phosphorescent-green light, reflected to seemingly infinite length in the water which flooded the room. "It's like being in The Matrix!" gasped Harry, who seemed to be getting in touch with his inner child. "This is the most fantastic restaurant in the world!"

The watery installation by Jane Prophet can be visited during the day and evening, and goes some way towards compensating for the fact that despite its proximity to the Thames, the restaurant has no river view. But the tall windows are dramatically filled with a winking panorama of apartment blocks and yuppie loft developments, whose owners must be giving thanks that they've stuck it out in Wapping long enough to get a decent restaurant. And for non-residents, there is more fun and wonder - not to mention better food on offer - in one short visit to the (non-lottery funded) Wapping Project than are anywhere to be found at a certain other project a few miles downriver at Greenwich.

Wapping Food, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, London E1 (020 7680 2080). Mon-Fri 12-3pm, 6.30-10.30pm; Sat 10am-4pm, 6.30-11pm, Sun 10am-4pm. All cards. Disabled access

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