It's amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to the role of restaurant critic: how the amateur lip-smacking becomes the professional palate-quizzing, how an unmuslined lemon becomes significant and, even more importantly, how the "one up from house red" becomes "what about something distinguished from the mid-Noughties?"
For my debut, I fell into the welcoming embrace of an old hand – Terence Conran, enjoying a renaissance as a restaurateur. First came Boundary and Albion, in east London; now, with partner Peter Prescott, Conran has opened Lutyens, named after the legendary architect of the building (an elegant 1930s sugar cube) in which this bar, restaurant and private dining-rooms reside.
Lutyens is on London's Fleet Street, where once journalists roamed freely and expenses were racked up, not written about. Now there are no newspapers based there, just anonymous offices. It's either extremely canny to open a crisp, formal restaurant in this area in the teeth of a recession – the nearby City boys will need somewhere to flock to when the bear market becomes bull again – or it's sheer folly.
On the Friday evening Mr M and I visit, Krug-swilling traders are conspicuously absent. The main room, which seats 130, has half-a-dozen tables in use, but 1930s-esque blonde wood-veneered panels and mint banquettes break up the expanse and give it an air of genteel opulence. The service is seamless; waiters, in aprons that start as waistcoats then reach the ankle, bring good, chewy bread of the Poilâne ilk and happily keep the tap water topped up.
They also, mercifully, know the menu top to bottom. Others have opined on the disastrous effects of waiting staff who neither know nor care what they are dishing up. I'm sure Sir Terence would not countenance such feckless behaviour. The waiter does such a good selling job on crubeens (no, me neither) that I order them, despite an involuntary shudder at the words "pig's trotters". They're the piggy version of fish cakes, and one of Irish chef David Burke's interjections into a mainly Anglo/French classics menu.
But before the crubeens trot along, there is the rarity of a childless Friday night to be relished with a bottle of wonderful 2007 Fleurie from Jean- Marc Després (the predominantly Old World wine list has a fair few gems under £30). The sommelier pours, watches our faces, then suggests taking it a notch or two down from room temperature. It is exactly the right thing to do.
Mr M is steered away from fish and chips (too, well, anonymous) but refuses to stray far from brasserie classics. He has coquille Saint Jacques Parisienne (£9.50) followed by veal Cordon Bleu (£16.50) and crème brûlée (£5). The starter of three plump scallops sitting quite regally on their mashed potato and creamy sauce throne disappoints only in that the traditional shell has been replaced by a pressed stainless-steel dish. There is scant time to notice, though, as a tremulous crêpe parmentier with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and caviar (£14.50) waits to be demolished. The potato pancake is the lightest I've had (but if I must find fault, there is that unmuslined lemon – with visible pips, too).
The crubeens (£12.50) promise much, but are the dud in this otherwise delicious meal. At first taste, the deeply savoury pork and crisp breadcrumb case work beautifully, but as I chew, the flavour drifts away, leaving just texture. I abandon them to dunk slithers of Mr M's veal into a dainty little jug of intense jus. It is millionaire's croque monsieur, the ham and cheese filling melting within two tender slices of veal.
Chips are suitably chippy and tomatoes in the salad are peeled, which is almost impossibly posh – rather like the wafer-thin tarte fine (£6.50), with a deeply moreish scoop of caramel ice-cream at the centre.
Alas, the baby-sitting deadline prevents me having a waiter open the tantalising glass-fronted cheese store, where blocks sit on mini straw bales. No doubt the City boys will have no qualms about wading into a fourth course with brandies all round, but I'm going to have to work on my stomach capacity if I want to make a go of this reviewing lark.
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
Lutyens, 85 Fleet Street, London EC4, tel: 020 7583 8385. Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday. Three courses for two people, £120 including wine
Second helpings: Architectural wonders
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