Restaurant: Flight of fancy

Tired of minimalism? Caroline Stacey experiences an exotic antidote at Birdcage
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twice in one week, I saw Michael von Hruschka and the settings couldn't have been more different. After a brief encounter with him in the flesh, he appeared on the TV. Hardly surprising to see a chef on telly, though this wasn't Ready Steady Cook but the Modern Times documentary Bare, about minimalism. Wearing the stiffest, starchiest whites, he was presenting Anouska Hempel with his latest soup, which she approvingly described as tasting like grass.

As executive chef of the I-Thai restaurant at London's Hempel hotel - the last word in white on white and shocking prices - von Hruschka pushed open the envelope of fusion cooking. Just over a month ago, since the programme was made, he left to open Birdcage. Here he has gone against the prevailing big-and-bare trend for restaurant design.

What else should we expect of somewhere sharing a name with the American remake of La Cage aux Folles? This tiny Fitzrovia restaurant houses the same species of cooking as I-Thai, but here the habitat is one of profusion, with one foot in the Bangkok and the other in Marrakesh, a rebellion against the architectural diktats of La Hempel.

Between a mirrored glass, winged dragon and a sculpture of a priapic figure, is a Moorish boudoir corner for cocktails and cigarettes (smoking isn't allowed at the tables, so both the couple of Samson shag rollers and the office party of Silk Cut smokers kept nipping over from their tables for inter-course nicotine). We had a deliciously frothy fresh orange juice here before moving to a table laid with golden bowls, a miniature pestle and mortar for grinding salt and pepper from tiny saucers, next to a miniature bell which may not be able to make itself heard above unlikely Motown tracks including Mary Wells's "My Guy".

The only thing that could be described as bare is one of the many large, garish oil paintings of nudes; every other surface is brightly painted and covered with artefacts - even the treads of the spiral staircase leading to the lavatories are painted mauve.

The menu is short: three choices for each course plus a couple of specials recited by a man in a khaki shirt - sober dress in surroundings where a sarong wouldn't look out of place. The menu comes pasted inside the flyleaf of a second-hand book. My book, appropriately, was a copy of British Nesting Birds. The wine list, well annotated, is a piece of slightly dog-eared origami inside a delicate wicker birdcage.

So far, so bizarre. But though the food is no less than an extraordinary miscellany of East and West, prices - pounds 15.50 for a two-course lunch, pounds 19.50 for three-course dinner - are sensible and you feel that von Hruschka's singular vision is born of real passion, not just fashion. So does the precision with which it is carried out. After a bowl of great breads including focaccia and crisp chilli-dusted parchment draped with a sprig of mint, we had a tiny, perfectly square case of light pastry containing the Thai equivalent of coleslaw. Thereafter, each dish was geometrically aligned, and each component had a depth and complexity of spicing that make it difficult to give an accurate inventory of the contents.

Individually, the morsels didn't jar, but, then neither did they always cohere. Take my starter of Cajun fish patties (small and more porky than fishy) with a saucer of vodka creme fraiche and an accompanying pottery urn of south-east Asian beansprout salad. How are you supposed to eat these three together? I quickly messed up the minimalist tripartite composition by dropping a fish patty into the creme fraiche with a splat - from Mondrian to Pollock in one uneasy move. That's the risk when you eat Cajun with chopsticks (which came tied together with the skinniest ribbon of lime zest). These premises and the not-a-grain-of-rice-out-of-place arrangements of the dishes are a challenge for the cack-handed.

My friend's "Tom a lin plate" (we had to ask) featured the same salad- in-an-urn, slices of a very superior veggie spring roll, and another urn of sublime orange soup whizzed up to cappuccino frothiness but with a chilli-hot coconut and galangal taste. Though the underlying influence of it all was Thai, the preparation was far more refined.

When it came to the main course, she declined a spoonful of my unusually smooth Thai chicken curry with gingko nuts: she was halfway through fish steamed with cumin in a neat sandwich of banana leaves with pesto-flavoured rice. There's only so much a palate can register.

Tiramis seemed a prosaic choice for pudding, and my curry had come on a plate of pottery with swirls of brown and creams so that I felt as if I'd been eating off a fossilised coffee mousse, so it was the warm berries for us. This was hot and runny and cinnamony like a sweet fruit tea with bits in, with a sensational intense and compacted lime sorbet on the side.

It was a very sweaty chef in a black T shirt who came round at the end of the meal soliciting reassurance. We were able to give it, but were lost for words when it came to writing in the visitors' book.

Still, if minimalism is not your cup of tisane (here, flavoured coffee or herbal teas are included in the price of lunch or dinner, but we were relieved there was also plain and very good espresso), Birdcage is certainly a beguilingly eccentric antidote. The unusually skilful cooking, though it flies off in all directions, sometimes takes wing beautifully

Birdcage, 110 Whitfield Street, London W1 (0171-383 3346). Lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, dinner Sat. Lunch pounds 15.50 two courses, pounds 18.50 three courses, dinner pounds 19.50 three courses.

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