Strong arm of the in-law

Stream, the funky seafood heaven opposite Smithfield meat market, will even charm an impatient mother-in-law
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50-52 Long Lane, Smithfield, London EC1. Tel: 020 7796 0070 Open Monday to Saturday for dinner and Monday to Friday for lunch

50-52 Long Lane, Smithfield, London EC1. Tel: 020 7796 0070 Open Monday to Saturday for dinner and Monday to Friday for lunch

You couldn't call my elegant, Lauren Bacallesque mother-in-law the least bit impatient (oh, all right, maybe you could), but we've been waiting ages for our promised finger bowls and bottle of mineral water. Not only that, but both starter and main course took so long to arrive that, after her share of a bottle of nose-tickling Stream own-label Champagne, she's definitely in danger of getting Ratty, or even Past It.

"Tell them," she snaps, interrupting her own lengthy tale of her grandparents' house in Adelaide. "Can't you get that girl?"

"They've said they're coming, you old bat," says her son.

"Oh well," she gives up and dabbles her elegant fingers in the tureen of melting ice that once supported their shared Large Lobster Platter. "So what was I saying? Yes, Bob was driving past the house years ago and he saw the original cast-iron nameplate there on the gate and, well, it simply came loose in his hands."

"What?" I say. "He nicked it?"

"And now this history professor owns the house and is restoring it, so, guess what, Bob let him have it."

"Hope he got a good price," remarks her son.

"No, for nothing. And the professor man took him out to dinner as a matter of fact, to thank him."

I hope they didn't take him to somewhere like Stream. No, actually, I rather hope they did. For this funkiest of eateries, nestling in the Victorian armpit of Smithfield, is perversely charming: steel and polished leather, yet with a relaxed ambience and calmly good food. Specialising in seafood, opposite London's meat market. And so what if there aren't enough waiters to go round? The two beleaguered women and one man who fly between the dozen or so tables, forgetting and dropping and mixing things up, are the most sweetly apologetic I've ever been served by.

Stream (aka Stream, Bubble and Shell) feels like that wine bar where you once felt so comfortable after work and wished you could stay all night. And, if we were sans mother-in-law, the waiting wouldn't matter: there are video screens tucked into the cornicing and a huge, metallic, open bar space in the middle of the room to watch people strut. Outside, the meat wagons draw up, ready to slide out their gangster-movie cargoes. In spite of itself, this is a place with a vibe.

The menu, which reads like seafood poetry, is promisingly small and bossily eclectic. I am torn between Crab Cakes With Aubergine Crisps And Mango Salsa and Cod On Colcannon Mash With Poached Egg. So we agree to share the crab cakes as a starter, while mother and son go for the Lobster Platter which looks like something out of a Caravaggio banquet.

Maybe it's the noticeable lack of sludgy sauces, but you feel this is proper food, snazzy and decently beautiful, with no frills or justification needed. And affordable. I pass on a proffered oyster - memories of a terrible night in Paris c1983 - but my mother-in-law, made reckless by that Champagne, downs her first in many years. "I won't drink any more," she assures the waiter who refills her glass with Argentinian Chardonnay.

And we never see our water. The fingers are long sucked by the time the bowls arrive, but "Plenty of water at home," she rightly reminds me. And, anyway, we are by now drowning in apologies. "We are so sooooorry - the food, it is taking too long, no?" soothes the satin-trousered Spanish manageress.

"Is all my fault," insists her appealing young amanuensis with the sticky-out bunches. "I am new, first day, I forget everything!"

Dessert is a choice between Pots Au Chocolat, Pear-Lemon Tart or Something Else Indecipherable. When mother-in-law orders a Chocolate Pot and is then told they're all gone, she pouts in disappointment - and is immediately offered a dessert wine "on the house". Which she coyly turns down.

"Next time you're offered anything on the house," sighs her son, "the answer is 'Yes', OK?"

"I think I've had enough to drink."

"I haven't."

Pudding or not, when we deliver her back to her riverside apartment, she seems quietly ecstatic. "What an evening," she enthuses. "And, do you know, I'm completely pissed!" And, with a film-star flutter of her hand, she totters off up the steps. *

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