Restaurants: A bad business
Greed is good at Conran's new City restaurant, but definitely not when faced with the egg in jelly. Photographs by Nicola Levinsky
Saturday 12 September 1998
launched Coq d'Argent, his first
restaurant in the City of London, and announced that it would be the perfect place for business types to celebrate a successful deal. The world's financial markets immediately plunged into chaos, but it would probably be over-estimating Sir Terence's influence to try and establish a connection.
The restaurant is on the roof of No 1 Poultry, the controversial development designed by the late James Stirling on the former site of the Mappin and Webb building. Emerging on the sixth floor - having been waved through by the uniformed doormen downstairs - Helen and I were disoriented to find ourselves in what appeared to be a big, cold room with a blue ceiling, but which was actually one of the Coq d'Argent's five roof terraces. Once we were inside, in the reception area, the evening's autumnal gusts of wind were replaced by a full-on blast of excited chatter from the packed restaurant.
Despite an understated taupe colour scheme, the dining-room has the sleek, hard-edged glamour of a Manhattan cocktail bar, an impression reinforced by magnificent views of the City skyline. The trademark Conran design puns have been kept to a minimum, though there is a customised poker-chip coat-check tag, crystallising the greed-is-good atmosphere of the place.
We found our friends Tony and Andy hunched disconsolately over margaritas, attempting to recover from a bruising encounter with the "clipboard Nazis" at the lift downstairs. Indeed, seated in a room full of sleek City boys, the two did look decidedly chancy. On all sides, large groups of predominantly male co-workers were kicking back at the end of a hard day's trading. Even the sprinkling of power-suited women looked as though they'd had their eggs frozen in order to concentrate on their careers. As Helen observed, "You wouldn't come here for a quiet romantic dinner."
The menu emphasises regional French cooking and wines, and includes oysters and the inevitable crustacea. There's also a selection of caviar including Beluga at pounds 92 a portion. Of the starters, our waiter had recommended the pounds 9.75 Coq d'Argent salad, but Helen discovered it to be nothing more than a standard-issue assembly of mixed leaves, around which lurked a few meagre slices of chicken and roast lobster. An identical pile of leaves formed the basis of Andy's artichoke salad, with artichoke hearts and pickled walnuts standing in for the cold cuts. Both plates arrived copiously sprinkled with chopped chives, as though this personal touch would compensate for the perfunctoriness of the preparation.
But worse, far worse, was my own starter, whose terse description on the menu - "eggs in truffle jelly" - gave scant warning of the horror to come. I suppose I was imagining some delicate little quails' eggs nestling in a delicious bed of truffley richness. What arrived was a big Pyrex bowl filled with a shimmering, cold jelly that looked, smelled and tasted like chicken stock straight out of the fridge. In its depths sat a single cold poached egg. My companions crowded round it like concerned relatives round a hospital stretcher. "Oh, God - it isn't even cooked!" breathed Helen, transfixed, as the egg broke open to release a stream of runny yolk into the jelly. No truffle flavour was discernible, though it may well have been lurking somewhere behind the all-powerful taste of animal fat. It was impossible to manage more than a few mouthfuls, and when my waiter came to take away my barely-touched dish, he apologetically admitted that no one ever ordered it. "That explains it!" cried Helen. "They panicked and just gave you whatever was in the fridge!"
The main courses were an improvement, though still patchy. Tony and Helen did best, he with a rump steak topped with a garlicky tangle of stewed cepes, she with a glossy and substantial coq au vin. Andy found his lobster saute with tarragon and cream overcooked, and his verdict on the food was echoed by all of us: "It's both basic and annoyingly fussy." True to form, I made the worst choice, with a pot-au-feu that arrived looking so forlorn and pallid that Helen was moved to exclaim, "Oh, Tracey, you've done it again!" As well as the traditional boiled beef and vegetables, this version included chicken, pork belly and sausage, but the only vivid taste came from an accompanying green herb sauce. "Dry human meat in washing-up water," is how I described the dish in my notes, though I was probably still feeling unsettled by the egg in jelly.
Our disappointment with our food seemed to be isolated, however. Around us, an atmosphere of noisy enjoyment prevailed as the Alpha male from each office held forth at his respective table. Our neighbours all appeared shamingly energetic, given that they'd probably been at work since six that morning. Several of them were yapping into mobiles, despite an explicit request on the menu not to do so, and some were juggling their tiny phones with outsize cigars. "It all feels very Bonfire-ish," as Tony commented.
To finish, we shared a couple of reasonable desserts - an authentic tart of almonds and plums, and a slightly soggy cherry clafoutis. The pudding list, though, is dwarfed by an amazing selection of post-prandial drinks, which spans everything from vintage cognac at pounds 95 a glass to such secretary- pleasers as Kahlua, Baileys and Creme de Menthe. Coffees came with a plate of madeleines, which I didn't dare sample in case a Proustian rush should bring back the taste of my starter. Like someone who's been through a near-death experience, I found myself obsessively reliving the horror of my egg-in-jelly moment, eventually forcing Andy to silence me with the stern reprimand, "Un oeuf is an oeuf!"
Our bill came to a recession-defying pounds 258, which even without wine worked out at pounds 45 per head. Rather than attempting to justify this reprehensible sum to The Independent the next day, I was tempted to follow the example of Nick Leeson and flee the country. In fact I've started to sympathise with the rogue trader since my visit to Coq d'Argent - I'd never realised how easy it is to run up huge losses in the City over the course of a single night
Coq d'Argent, 1 Poultry, London EC2 (0171-395 5000). Lunch Sun-Fri 11.30-3pm (closed for lunch Sat), dinner Sun-Fri 6pm-11pm, Sat 6.30pm- 11pm. Disabled access. All credit cards.
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