RESTAURANTS : The love shack

Marco Pierre White's voluptuous new venue : The Criterion Brasserie Marco Pierre White, 224 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-930 0488). Open lunch, 12noon-2.30pm, and dinner, 5.30-12midnight daily. Vegetarian meals. Two- course lunch pounds 13.95. Major credit and de This new Criterion is dreamily romantic, in modern parlance, a great date restaurant COUNTY DURHAM There is a rather handsome dining room to the Rose and Crown, Romaldkirk (01833 -650213). However, all I can report of its food is that, ten years ago, it served a wedding lunch involving 30 plates of salmon with hollandaise very efficiently. Rather, it is the tiny bar to which I return year after year. This is where the locals drink Theakston s by the fire, or stop for some good grub, say a perfect mutton stew. The rooms above are handsome, and it is worth stopping over. It's official: this part of the land is of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Food ava ilable daily 12noon-1.30pm, 7-9.30pm. Bar meals about pounds 10. Access, Visa DUBLIN Quite why an Irish brasserie would be named after an Italian newspaper is anyone's guess, but such is the case with La Stampa, 35 Dawson Street (00-3531 6778611). This showboat of a restaurant is set in a fine old room - it looks like a former guildhall. Staff dash around in corporate-issue waistcoats and name-tags. But there is real glamour, somehow, not least because of the cocky charm of the greeter, Declan Maxwell. The chef is Paul Flynn, an Irishman who did enough years with Nico Ladenis to have a chestful of medals. His fish i s cooked to perfection, meat melting, sauces just right. The present menu lists ramen of pork, spring o nion and ginger; and croustade of Gorgonzola with beetroot, chives and walnut v inaigrette. Open lunch Mon-Fri, 12.30-2.30pm, dinner nightly, 6.30-11.15pm. Abo ut pounds 30all in. Vegetarian meals. Visa, Access, Amex, Dinners LONDON The hummus was runny and lumpy and under-spiced last week at Costa's Grill, 14 Hillgate Street, W8 (0171-229 3794). This is unusual. It's usually perfect. I should know: I have been eating at this low-key Fifties' Cypriot restaurant f or 15 years and always have the same thing: hummus, grilled baby chicken, Greek salad, a beer and a medium sweet Greek coffee. Best is the chicken, which is served sp layed and seared with a wedge of lemon. It is always perfect. The rest is prett y basic, but served with exceptional friendliness. There are baked dishes, but it is called Costa's Grill for a reason. About pounds 10- 15 per person. Open Mon-Sat lunch and dinner, 12noon-2.30pm, 5-10.30pm, and thr oughout Sat afternoon. Cash and cheques only NOTTINGHAMSHIRE If there is one man who will agree with the critics who say Colin White is a great cook, it is Colin White. Only this sort of self- confidence could make him so stubborn: he cooks to his own tune, and his decept ively simple food was not necessarily the right thing for the fancy hotel where he briefly turne d up several years ago. His new perch, Gannets Bistrot, 35 Castlegate, Newark ( 01636-610018), is more like it: a simple first-floor place with a blackboard menu. Here one might find best-end of lamb with courgette gratin and garlic sauce followed by steamed orange pudding with orange and cardamom ic e-cream. Need I continue? About pounds 15-20. No smoking. Open lunch, 12noon-2p m, and dinner, 6.30-9.30pm, Tues-Sat. Access, Visa, Delta, Switch

The Criterion Restaurant is 121 years old. Originally built as a glittering status symbol for Spiers and Pond, the railway caterers, this vast London dining room is now a glittering status symbol for the Forte Organisation, the hoteliers and road-side caterers. A choice corporate bauble it is too, a long, vaulted, mirrored room, lamplight glowing against its gilded ceiling. It is an exceedingly rare room for England, much more in keeping with the neo-baroque excesses of 1870s Budapest than brick and stucco London.

But in London it is, bang on the south side of Piccadilly, lurking behind a pavement populated by beggars and buskers and an unpromising frontage. Over the years, the tables and chairs have changed but the fabric of the place has remained pretty much intact - and it is a listed building. Perhaps the name should have been protected, too, because what was originally the Criterion Restaurant, then the Criterion Brasserie, has just become the Criterion Brasserie Marco Pierre White.

Mr White is the celebrity chef who, as a partner rather than employee, the Forte Organisation hopes can fill the Criterion. Without doubt, he is a brilliant cook, the youngest ever to win three Michelin stars. However, he is not a modest man. His flagship restaurant in the Hyde Park hotel is called nothing less than the Restaurant Marco Pierre White. One wonders about the wisdom of letting him loose on landmarks. What's next? Cafe Royal Marco Pierre White?

White was not the first choice as a tenant for the Criterion. Three years ago, Forte installed Bob Payton there. This jolly and egalitarian American spent great sums of money furnishing the place with Edwardian-style wicker and hired a chef who served fried spaghetti. This might have been OK for a tennis club, but did not work in a great gilded hall. After Mr Payton died in a tragic road accident, Forte turned to Mr White.

Though the circumstances are sad, this has proved the better choice. Mr White has spent enough years cooking for the sickeningly rich to know what sumptuousness is about. And he has had enough girlfriends and wives to know a romantic restaurant when he sees one. So he brought in a camp Irish designer, David Collins, and they have created a room that is the architectural equivalent of a love potion.

Mr Collins has draped turquoise chiffon from the gilded ceiling, strung the room with extraordinary dangling lamps of the sort one might expect to find only in Venetian glass shops, or Bourbon Street bordellos. The lighting is a triumph: the most beautiful, and the most flattering, likely to be seen outside of films by the cinematographer Vittorio Storraro. Contributing to its luminous cloud are small kerosene table lamps big busty standard lamps, and the spidery original spotlights refracting against the gold roof. Even the tiny silver salt and pepper shakers sparkle (though these will probably be stolen).

It is easy to imagine Oscar Wilde, velvet clad, at one of the tables, drinking absinthe and clutching a lily. He would be alone. Whistler would have walked out in a rage, disgusted with the decor: Mr Collins has covered the room's in-built mirrors with paintings depicting scenes of Araby. Good subject, shame about the painter. If these canvases belong to a school, it would be the one known in North America as "gas station art".

Still, I bitch. I do. Messrs White and Collins have done well. This new Criterion is dreamily romantic, in modern parlance, a great date restaurant. By the way, the food is good, too. And, while pricey, it is far more accessible than the astronomical sums generally associated with haute cuisine, or Food Marco Pierre White.

A long menu is intelligently laid out, if written in English Marco Pierre White. Three to ten dishes appear under each of the following categories: Soups, Risotto and Pasta, Salads, First Courses, Fish Main Courses, Meat Main Courses. Desserts come on a separate menu. These divisions make ordering easier, and offer the possibility of eating lightly (a salad and pasta).

Soups are simple: watercress with a poached egg, cockaleekie, mussel and saffron. I have tried these at other establishments of Mr White's and never found them wanting. To judge from past experiences, risottos also probably taste good, they just sound strange: risotto of ink, roast calamari; risotto of saffron.

However, most of the food is cleanly classic, say foie gras and chicken liver with either sour dough toast or brioche. Or savoy cabbage ancienne. Some dishes sound less likely to enter the Larousse Gastronomique, gravlax with beignets of oyster with citrus butter, for instance. It is shrewd to corrupt the English here. It sounds better than cured salmon with a fried oyster doughnut and lemon butter.

My night at the Criterion, I ate very nicely. So did my companion, about whose dinner I honestly cannot comment, for, rapt with my own food, I failed to spear much of his. The spaghetti of langoustine was spaghetti with langoustine: very good fresh pasta in a rich sauce with chunks of squeaky sweet flesh and some sharp rocket stirred in as a peppery counterpoint. Granted, this is not gutsy food, more French than Italian, but it is entirely pleasant. A main course of roast suckling pig was very good indeed. Great pork, good crackling, perfectly cooked root vegetables, apple sauce and damn spicy juice. Perhaps too spicy. Its pungency must owe to what Mr White calls "jus marjoram".

Three years ago, when Mr White opened the Canteen in Chelsea Harbour, he did not include salads. Today, he is confidently giving them an entire category. A salad of Belgian endive with Roquefort and walnut dressing may be had as a starter. In our case, it was cheerfully served after the main course, and made a pleasant contrast to a plate of French cheeses. The cheese was fine, its accompanying raisin bread excellent, but no reason to skip dessert. The souffle of blackberries, if a mite overcooked, was a delightful thing: served proudly puffed up, and lanced by the waiter to pour in more fruit sauce. Elsewhere on the pudding menu, there are classics, such as lemon tart, spelled, for some reason, lemon tarte. It is bound to be delicious. Marquise of chocolate, sauce caramel, good sounds in language funny. I cannot speak, even backwards, for the tarte Tatin of pineapple with black pepper.

The wine list is full of peachy bottles, not least a delicious blanc de blanc champagne, made by the tearaway independent wine maker Joseph Henriot. This costs pounds 6.50 a glass. Cocktails, say a gin and tonic, will put pounds 4.50 on the bill. House wines start at pounds 11.50, with plenty of interest at the pounds 15-pounds 20 range. If told a cotes de Beaune is not in stock, may I suggest you don't, as I did, allow yourself to be guided by the sommelier to the 1991 Mercury costing pounds 30. It was young, hard and unpleasant, an expensive mistake, mainly mine in that it was all wrong with the food.

The service is chaotic, really dippy. This is undoubtedly because the place is new, and it should settle down soon. The only really relevant warning that should attend any recommendation of this restaurant is: choose your dining partner carefully. A meal with wine will probably cost at least pounds 40 per person, and, by the time you ask for the bill, you may have proposed marriage

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