As front people they are perfect; they're both very blonde and attractive, and to many people, they must ooze classiness - he's a wine connoisseur, she's the posh one people fancy on Men Behaving Badly. But there's something - whisper it - a tiny bit naff about them, a little too blonde, a little bridge and tunnel, as the crushing Manhattan put-down has it.
Teatro's name reflects its location in the heart of London's theatreland - it occupies an entire floor of a substantial building on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Greek Street. They're hoping to attract the theatre crowds - there's a fixed-price early dinner menu - and as well as the restaurant, there is a members' bar aimed at the kind of media and advertising types who can afford pounds 150 to join plus pounds 300 a year in membership fees.
The first-floor premises have been converted from a car park, which formerly served the VAT offices upstairs, and the hi-tech stairwell which leads up to the reception area still carries a municipal whiff of new paint and ammonia. On a Monday night, a few days after opening, customers were substantially outnumbered by the staff, a squad of brisk and friendly women in severe designer trouser suits.
While one of them checked my coat, I gazed idly out of the window, and was rewarded with a glimpse of a semi-naked chorus girl from Les Miserables scampering down an empty hallway in the adjacent Palace Theatre. It was the last sign of life I was to encounter for some time, as I was led down a Zen-like corridor into a hushed open-plan bar with the same ratio of high design to low energy you might find in a Japanese hotel lobby.
I settled myself in a huge low-slung sofa, rather than trying to perch on one of the giant upholstered cubes that were ranged around - one would be tempted to describe them as "poufs" if it weren't a dangerous word to bandy about in footballing or theatrical circles - and waited for my guests. Gradually, though, I became intimidated by the cathedral-like atmosphere. The crunching noise I made as I motored my way through a bowl of crisps seemed to ricochet off the bare white walls, and by the time Sharon and Helen arrived, I had resorted to a silent sucking technique.
The restaurant opens out from the bar area, and exudes formal elegance, like the first-class dining room of a luxury liner. Low ceilings are counteracted by careful lighting, which shines an intimate pool down on to each table. But the sense of isolation from the Soho streets below is reinforced by the view across Romilly Street into the windows of Kettners, the louche old haunt where Oscar Wilde once feasted with panthers and Edward VII dallied with Lillie Langtry.
Despite the Italian ring to the name, Teatro's menu owes little to the cooking of that country. It's strong on fish and game, and offers such favourites as poached salmon and roast cod alongside more outre offerings like crispy pig's trotters and caramelised veal sweetbread.
Our starters were variably received. While Helen was delighted by the complexity of a celeriac, apple and roasted walnut soup, my lobster risotto, with peas and trompettes, was muddy and undercooked. Sharon ordered the foie gras du jour, purely because it came with caramelised Sharon fruit, which she took as a personal tribute. But the powerful savour of the organ overwhelmed her, and she tried to hide it under her salad. "I still liked the Shazzer fruit, though," she whispered apologetically.
Teatro's main courses are prepared in that labour-intensive way which involves the ingredients being heavily interfered with, then re-presented in elegant approximations of their original form. Vegetables are whittled into uniform torpedo shapes, making them look like they've been put in a big pencil sharpener, and, to my mind, robbing them of much of their personality.
My roasted Bresse pigeon with white root vegetables packed a big taste in a small package and came in a spicy, almost Oriental sauce. Sharon's rack of lamb, too, had an unexpected ethnic dimension, in the form of a garlicky pine-nut crust and a Middle Eastern-style aubergine confit with olives and roasted red peppers. Helen's breast of guinea fowl, on the other hand, could have done with livening up. Bland and on the cold side, it came stuffed with duxelles, which, as she pointed out, "sounds like something you'd get at John Lewis", but which turned out to taste a little like Paxo.
All our dishes were beautifully presented but, in the end, none of us was particularly moved by their blow-dried formality. "I just wonder what it was," mused Sharon, "that Leslie Ash and Lee Chapman felt was missing from London's restaurant scene that they think they're supplying with this place..."
I ended with a dense and delightful banana sticky toffee pudding, and Sharon with a steamed meringue nest, a dish which would seem to defy the laws of science, but which turned out to be an upmarket take on baked Alaska. Herb teas were unexpectedly free-range, after the manicured perfection of the food, the mint made with whole fresh leaves, and the camomile brimming with a pond-weed tangle of flowers and seeds.
Our bill came to pounds 40 a head, including a pounds 31 bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse. On our way out, we were allowed to peek inside the members' bar, a long, dark, shuttered room which exudes raffish elegance. It felt relaxed in a way the restaurant hasn't yet attained, and for which it will have to strive if it's going to succeed. Otherwise, Chapman and Ash may well find the only people who'll frequent Teatro will be the dining equivalent of the Les Miserables audience - truly a case of the blonde feeding the bland
Teatro, 93-107 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (0171-494 3040). Lunch, Mon-Sat noon-3pm; dinner, 6pm-11.30pm; pre-theatre menu (6pm-7.30pm), two courses pounds 15, three courses pounds 18. All cards except Diners Club. Disabled accessReuse content