Restaurants: Beefing it up

Beefeater is boasting an excellent new menu. Ben Rogers puts it to the taste test
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is strange how important tradition and identity is to cooking. No one expects the design of cars or computers to reflect national traditions; clothes aren't marketed as Modern British or Peasant Italian. Yet even the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan types - in fact those above all - like to feel that the food they eat has a history. The International Style never caught on in cooking, as it did in art, architecture and design.

There is no reason why Beefeater should be different from any where else, up market or down market, in this respect and it isn't. On the contrary, the chain of pub-restaurants has just launched a new menu reflecting what Simon Wood, Beefeater's managing director, describes as "the emergence of British cooking, pioneered by this country's top chefs, as a cooking style of which we, as a nation, can be thoroughly proud". It should go without saying that for most people in the country, this represents an event rather more significant than the launch of another Conran, Novelli or Marco Pierre White. Beefeater is the largest "casual dining group" in Britain. Its three hundred restaurants serve 19 million meals each year and it's expanding all the time. The chain has already done as much as Elizabeth David to shape the dining habits of the nation: it was the Beafeater, or so the publicity boasts, that first "introduced the now legendary prawn cocktail, steak and chips and Black Forest gateau meal to the restaurant market". The launch of a new menu, then, seemed a development worth exploring. Here was a chance to see... nay to taste... The Future. Or at least that is what I tried to tell my friends.

Oddly, it was hard to find anyone to accompany me on this particular tasting, but in the end I press-ganged Eliza. Spoilt for choice, we picked a Beefeater just to the side of Charing Cross Station, in the centre of London. Technically it was nearer Trafalgar Square and Embankment than Covent Garden but it had been designed round a market theme, with low beams and roughly plastered yellow walls covered in make-believe memorabilia from the old Covent Garden. The theme, however, seemed to stop at about crotch height: the tables had a Formica sheen, and the carpet a greenish- reddish swirl that Henry Higgins could never have placed. The kitchens, too, all micro-waves and deep-fat fryers, rather spoiled the effect. The smell of fat hung thickly in the air. The new menu, sleek and shiny and reader-friendly, sent out yet another message: what this place needs, Eliza said, was a semiotician not a restaurant reviewer.

The heart of the new Beefeater menu still lies with steak - 10 varieties of it. Other old favourites, too, like the prawn cocktail and chicken Oscar (although not the Black Forest gateau) have also been preserved. The new items from the modern British repertoire however, just about outnumber the old: they include Caesar salad, roasted vegetable pasta and chocolate cheese cake. Well, the British never have known exactly who they are.

Determined to see the best in the place - and we really were - we ordered adventurously. Our table gave us a view of the kitchen and I was interested to see what looked like a bag of mothballs being poured into the fryer. These, it turned out, were our deep fried mushrooms: button mushrooms, encased in a bread crumbs. When cut, they spurted out what Eliza, stimulated to a flight of poetic fancy, described as "garlic pus". A lot of attention has gone into the new-look prawn cocktail and we admired the curly lettuce, cheese sticks and over-hanging jumbo prawns. This, in fact, was the best dish of the meal: it was vaguely sweet and otherwise tasted of absolutely nothing.

For the main course, we chose two new dishes, lamb and apricot skewers and baked cod on a potato crust. The accompanying sauces (hers red, mine white) came in little jugs and formed a crust within seconds of arriving. Something told me that if I ate these I would be saying "au revoir" rather than "adieu". My fish was of a dry unnatural texture; the potato mush that came with it left an oily film in my mouth that an insipid glass of Cabernet Sauvignon couldn't wipe away. Eliza's kebab had a teddy boy gelatinous glaze and a rubbery bounce in the mouth. Our friendly waitress added the only human touch to the evening.

It's not just a pleasure in being nasty that makes me say all this: the last thing the underpaid Beefeater staff need is to have their restaurants rubbished.

In normal circumstances, there would be a strong case for just passing these sort of chains over in silence - and that despite the fact that they, more than anything else, represent the state of the nation's food. But then these aren't normal circumstances: everyone is hyping British cooking and Beefeater has jumped on the wagon. "We are not pretending," Mr Wood has declared, "to be high priced, haute cuisine but we are committed to producing excellent food at terrific value-for-money, served with individual care and attention."

Nothing in fact could be further from the truth. With its raspberry coulis, Parmesan melba toasts and French sauces, Beafeater "cooking" does have pretensions to haute cuisine; there is nothing "excellent" about the food; and far from it being prepared with individual care, it is industrially manufactured and cooked according to a manual. Nor, and this is the real point, is it by any standards good value for money: our two-course meal, with a single glass of wine, came to pounds 31.40 (including service). There are pubs all over the country where you can eat real food for that price: even McDonald's looks stylish, cheap and good quality by comparison. There is not much anyone can do to prevent Beefeater touting its wares or to prevent millions of tourists every year taking this chain and others like it as representative of British cooking. But perhaps it is worth pointing out that when they claim to be contributing their bit to a revolution in British cuisine that they are not quite telling it how it is

Beefeater at St Martin's Tavern, 26 John Adam Street, London WC2 (0171-839 2697)

Beef-free restaurants

The Seafood Restaurant, Riverside, Padstow, Cornwall (01841 532485) Run by the ever enthusiastic Rick Stein of television fame, this establishment, situated right on the quayside, excels in simple, but deliciously fresh seafood. "No fuss" could be the motto of the restaurant, which applies as much to the service as the food: dishes such as turbot steak with hollandaise or roast cod with spices on a bed of puy lentils; "properly made pavlova" or a passion fruit tart to follow. (Set dinner pounds 32.50.)

Livebait, 43 The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 (0171-928 7211) Simply decorated like a tiled pie and mash shop, the popularity of Livebait is such that it has been necessary to open another branch, in the more central location of Wellington Street, Covent Garden WC2 (tel: 0171-836 7161). While it is possible to eat seafood here in the traditional sense, more adventurous cooking is what Livebait has become known for. Thus Cornish bouillabaisse sits on the menu alongside an offering of roast cod with a crust of baked banana, chilli and almond served with okra gumbo and bok choi. Mussels, oysters, whelks, crab and cockles are all available in various quantities, as well as a delicious array of breads and complimentary prawns on arrival. (Approx pounds 22 per person.)

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