Second helpings...

All my life, the tie has been a noose. Lucky, then, that I have usually had the sort of job that requires me to slouch around in expensive casual clothes that look rubbish, with only a couple of good suits on the side for those occasions when I have needed either to bury someone or marry someone.

So I hate the idea of dining at Gary Rhodes's new Rhodes 24, in the heart of Tieland. It even feels more boardroom than restaurant, albeit done in the modern style, with subtle curves, sensible carpet and clean lines. It's the low ceilings that get to you most, however, making it impossible to forget you are in an office tower.

The men all look like junior account executives with their Windsor knots and their serious faces. The girls all wear tailored shirts and sensible shoes. And that's just the serving staff. Or is it? One female diner seems to be wearing the same lilac shirt as the waitress. I bet she gets asked for three coffees and a brandy on her way to the loo.

My wedding/funeral Hugo Boss is holding up well, but I feel a bit dizzy. After all, I've just been through security, emptied my pockets for the X-ray thingummy, found my way around an anonymous corporate building and am currently 342ft above the ground with a Gherkin in my face.

I haven't been this high up in a building since I was an advertising creative director earning more in a day than I now see in a month. It's making me feel a fraud, especially when the unsmiling - in fact, sniffy - greeter takes me to one of the few dress-circle booths.

Ah, but the body betrays me, sliding into the banquette and ordering an aperitif as if I were still an over-paid idiot who thinks what he is doing is important.

I check the agenda. In true Gary Rhodes style, there is no short- age of old-fashioned suet, cheese, gravy and potatoes to push the buttons of today's corporate working classes. Prices have risen since grandma's day, however, with £9.80 for starters of oxtail cottage pie and fried pork and gammon crubeens, and £17.50 for steamed mutton suet pudding.

Depending on your salary package, you could start with glazed Cheddar cheese and lobster omelette at £16, and go on to the Dover sole at £31. Instead, I opt for a little pot of mackerel pâté topped with a pretty pink gooseberry jelly and a single square of crisped warm mackerel on a potato salad (£10). Rhodes trains his chefs in his own likeness, as meticulous kitchen craftsmen, but this is all a bit joyless. The pâté is creamy and bland, the potato salad a little too firm. Nothing jumps at you.

The same goes for a wrinkly little boudin of partridge served with batons of thyme-roasted parsnips (£11.50). Again, the sausage is lifeless, lacking crispness or sizzle. A nicely sharp Bramley apple sauce and an intense dark jus turn it into a wannabe main course but don't get the juices going.

If Rhodes 24 is supposed to be all about British classics and favourites, zen 'ow come zee staff are mostly French? C'mon Gaz, forget the silent pre-requisites of a Michelin star and buy British instead.

Nevertheless, my (French) sommelier is rather sweet, making a big fuss about getting the perfect match for my order. A Domaine La Soumade Rasteau 2001 (£29) stretched its charms quite happily across a steamed mutton suet pudding and a dish of red mullet with a tart of caramelised onion, anchovy and black olive (£18.90).

It's rare enough to see mutton and suet on a menu, and irresistible when they come together in an individual up-turned sandcastle of pudding. The mutton stew is rich and long-flavoured, and the three accompanying sauces - caper, gravy and soubise - generous. It's all great fun and very lardy-dah, if masochistically filling.

The red mullet is also generous, the fish teaming nicely with the Provençal pissaladiere style of the crisp little tart. But the sauce is a mistake: a) it's cream-based, which seems nostalgically inappropriate; and, b) it's quite feral with rosemary, which works directly against the cream.

For dessert, a jam roly-poly for two (£12.50) has been made with a heavy hand. Unrolled from its paper wrap with full ceremony at the table and cut into thick slices, it is pure unadulterated stodge. This dish needs either modernising and lifting, or forgetting. But you could live on the custard alone - thick, rich, golden, smooth and gorgeous.

The food at Rhodes 24 has substance and craft, but lacks sincerity. None of these dishes, custard excepted, has been able to transcend its own technical expertise. Technique is not an end in itself, after all, but must be yoked to the ploughs of goodness and flavour, or it's just for show.

It's the same with the floor staff. They may know how to set the table wearing little gloves so as not to leave smudges, but if everyone is corporately bland, then no smudges of character, personality or connection are left anywhere at all.

13 Rhodes 24 Tower 42, Old Broad Street, London EC2, tel: 020 7877 7703. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner. Around £125 for dinner 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

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