Restaurant: A fishy tale

Livebait is a Last Resort for Tracey MacLeod. Brightly dressed and leery-looking, Jonathan and his cohort stood out from the otherwise sombre clientele like two bookies in a ballet school

When I called Jonathan Ross to invite him to lunch, I was going to suggest we meet at the Capweece, figuring that if Pizza Hut can build an advertising campaign around his inability to pronounce his "r's", I may be able to milk it for a review. I even toyed with suggesting The Orrery. In the end, though, we opted for the new Livebait in London's Covent Garden, easily pronounceable and conveniently close to the studio where Jonathan was in pre-production for the one-off revival of The Last Resort.

Livebait occupies a large corner site in the same block as the Lyceum Theatre, currently home to Jesus Christ Superstar. It's a spin-off from the original Livebait in Waterloo, a dream of a neighbourhood restaurant in a converted butcher shop, which has won a devoted following by serving fancy fish dishes in a no-frills setting.

The new branch is roomier, but the decor is similarly utilitarian. Formica tables, tiled walls and booth seating give it the air of a pie-and mash shop in downtown Manhattan, and you enter via an attractive bar specialising in British beer and seafood. Jonathan arrived with his Last Resort cohort Dr Martin Scrote, aka Roland Rivron. Brightly dressed and slightly leery- looking, they stood out from the otherwise sombre clientele like two bookies in a ballet school.

We were seated next to a crustacea bar that resembled the mortuary of a particularly adventurous aquarium. "I don't want to scare you, but I think I've just seen a human head," said Roland as he studied the display. Then, pointing at the scallops, he added "Look! They've put all the ashtrays down one end!"

Despite the themey feel of the decor, Livebait's menu is challenging and idiosyncratic, offering a daily changing menu of fish dishes. There's also a tariff of simple seafood, including cockles, whelks and winkles, in a pleasing throwback to the old market days of Covent Garden.

Jonathan was delighted to discover "cock crabs" on the menu, and, each time a new member of the waiting staff came to our table, he amused himself by asking if they'd ever had them. Unaware of the double entendre that was being perpetrated on her, a helpful waitress brought one over to our table and showed us the shiny flap covering its undercarriage, which lifted like the cover of James Bond's phone to reveal whatever it is that separates the cocks from the hens in the crab kingdom.

The Atlantic prawns that came as an unsolicited palate-teaser were so flavoursome we ordered another half-pint to start, plus a bowl of winkles, which Jonathan said he wanted to try because "being a pearly king-in-waiting, I should really have sampled them once". Both came in huge portions - the prawns jammed head-first into a glass in an elegant nosedive formation. The winkles came with a corkful of pins to dig them out of their tiny shells. Happily for any future pearly subjects, Jonathan liked the winkles, enthusing, "You get a lot of taste in a little package - like Ernie Wise." But Roland was soon bored with the amount of work required to free each pungent spiral. "It's like trying to eat a pomegranate with a pin," he moaned. "They should be shown to us, then taken away and de-shelled by a team of Filipino winklers."

The main courses were more complicated. Each dish seemed to contain at least one element that put you off ordering - here a soft-boiled egg, there some sesame-seeded swede or a mussel and prawn sauerkraut. The only meat on the menu was kangaroo tenderloin, which came paired with roast fillet of brill, like a lunatic's notion of surf 'n' turf.

I opted for one of the marginally simpler starters as a main course - pan-fried fillet of turbot served with truffle potatoes, anchovy escabeche and a son-in-law egg. Apparently an Australian speciality, this turned out to be an egg dipped in flour and deep-fried, which, as Jonathan said, "sounds like something Elvis would eat". The turbot was fantastic, plump and fresh, with a piquant counterpoint of fat silver anchovies, but the knobbly purple potatoes tasted much less interesting than they looked.

Jonathan ordered his main course despite the fact that he thought it sounded like a whole day's packed lunch if you were putting out to sea. It comprised - and I'm quoting from the menu here - baked fillet of cod rolled into couscous with fisherman's soup, palourde clams, potatoes, roast carrots and parsnips, a soft-boiled egg and mayonnaise. These ingredients arrived stacked like a tall tower. A jug of fishy broth was provided to pour over the pile. Jonathan dutifully did so, but he wasn't happy. "No wonder the menu changes every day," he said. "The chef must choose the ingredients by tombola."

Inevitably, Roland opted for the kangaroo/brill combo, saying hopefully "maybe they'll put the fish in the kangaroo's pouch to present it?" When it came, we identified two squares of brill, but the kangaroo appeared to be absent. We summoned our waiter, who peered at the plate and said "I think it's in..." "...in with the emperor's new clothes!" shouted Roland delightedly. A contrite chef emerged to explain that she'd forgotten it, and took away Roland's plate to add four slices of rare kangaroo. "Mmm, the kangaroo is brill," Roland murmured, then found himself at a loss to describe the brill.

By now we were feeling a little ambivalent about Livebait. There was no doubting the inventiveness of the cooking, but it seemed to be trying too hard. We couldn't imagine what out-of-town audiences straying in from Jesus Christ Superstar next door would make of the food, though, given their fondness for embellishments, the kitchen would easily get 120 covers out of two fishes and five loaves of bread.

Our puddings went some way towards restoring our enthusiasm. My black cherry and pear sorbet was intensely fragrant and suffused with cinnamon, and Roland addressed himself to a first-class plate of cheese, served with a yellow liquid that I confidently identified as pomegranate coulis. "Er, it's piccalilli, actually," corrected the waitress in the nick of time.

But though Jonathan powered his way through a mixed-nut pie, he had lost faith in Livebait, and continued to complain about what he perceived as the unnecessary eclecticism of the cooking. "We're laughing now, but in two years, there'll probably be a Livebait cookbook, then a TV show," he raged. "Personally, I think the way ahead is for celebrity chefs to eat each other. Marco Pierre White should cook Ainsley Harriot, and I'd like to see Nancy Lam served barbecued on a platter with a yam in her mouth." I managed to hustle him out, past the long-suffering waiting team, weary but still cheerful though it was now gone 4.30pm and getting dark.

Our lunch came to pounds 114.75, and because that also included three bottles of Pinot Grigio, I didn't notice until later that we'd been charged for two dishes we hadn't ordered. A pre-opening promotional offer meant that we got a 20 per cent discount on our bill, though as Jonathan said, "they should have taken 20 per cent off the food as well - I could have done without that egg for a start"

Livebait Restaurant & Bar, 21 Wellington Street, London WC2 (0171-836 7161). Lunch 7 days, 12pm-3pm; Dinner Mon-Sat 5.30pm-11.30pm. Pre-theatre set menu 5.30pm-7.30pm, pounds 14.50. Vegetarian meals available if requested in advance. Wheelchair access. All major credit cards

The world is their oyster

The Cow, 89 Westbourne Park Road, London W11. Being one of the few pubs in London where you can down a pint of Guinness and a dozen oysters, The Cow, is understandably packed most evenings. Choose from either seafood platters, pints of prawns or less fishy alternatives such as Toulouse sausages and mash with onion gravy or smoked salmon, creme fraiche and potato cake. There is an area at the back of the bar reserved exclusively for diners but be prepared to prop up the bar for a while as there are no advance bookings. Approx pounds 12 per head.

Poseidon! Poseidon! Telephone 0171-289 3266, mobile 0411 385692/0958 314864. Self-proclaimed artists in roistering and oystering, Jasper Baird- Murray and Duncan Geary have set themselves up as a mobile crustacea bar. They arrive, armed with oysters, shallot vinegar, lemons, black pepper and most importantly, superior oyster-opening abilities. Minimum order for oysters is 100 which works out at about pounds 1 an oyster. So far, delivery encompasses London and the home counties. Aoife O' Riordain

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