Restaurants: Come to the cabaret
A restaurant inspired by pre-war Berlin and Milan may sound a theme too far, but David Baddiel is won over. Photograph by Madeleine Waller
Saturday 26 September 1998
With post-modern insouciance, the people behind Axis, the restaurant, seem to have chosen the name not by mistake, but precisely because of its historical resonances - the publicity blurb asserts that the visual style is based on "1930s Berlin or Milan", and the design makes use of period references, such as the reprinted page from a 1937 copy of the Morning Post which decorates the backs of the menus. Before I drew it to his attention, the wartime significance of Axis's name hadn't occurred to my companion, David Baddiel, who nevertheless arrived in themed costume, wearing a black shirt. But then, he was still rather elated by the fact that the doorman had greeted him with a murmured "Good evening Mr Baddiel" as he made his entrance.
"I love it when they do that," he sighed contentedly, throwing himself down next to me in the Deco-ish bar which looks down over the main dining room, like the upper deck of a cruise ship. In fact, the whole place has a distinctly Cunard Line- like atmosphere, reinforced by the spectacular circular stairwell that descends from street level, and the windowless double-height dining area, in which the people seem very small, and the architecture very big.
Dominating one wall, and adding a sense of drama to the otherwise minimalist decor, is a huge Vorticist frieze of skyscrapers by artist Richard Walker. Giant pillars add to the feel of monumentalist chic, along with the black leather seating, much of which is rather close together - diners planning to put the finishing touches to the Pact of Steel should probably ask for one of the larger separate tables.
The menu evades neat categorisation, save to say that I would gladly have eaten practically everything on it. Chef Mark Gregory made his reputation in New Zealand, which accounts for excursions into Pacific Rim/fusion territory with dishes such as Japanese grilled cod with udon noodles, ginger shoot and dashi. But there's also a strong showing from the Home Front. One dish caught David's eye immediately. "Ooh, look, jugged hare!" he cried, with all the relish of the true Loaded reader.
He was still smarting from his last outing as my professional companion, when I had exaggerated a few mild criticisms he made about one of the restaurants at Chelsea football ground to the extent that the resulting review undermined his good standing with the club's chairman, Ken Bates. On this occasion, however, there was nothing he could find fault with. His choice of starter, potato and bacon soup, seemed rather frugal, but from the smooth, buttery finish, it obviously contained at least three ration books- worth of prime ingredients, and was whipped, in the contemporary fashion, to a cappuccino froth. My tart of poached haddock and cheese souffle was impeccably prepared, crisp on the outside and moussey within, while containing whole chunks of haddock.
The wine list is as impressive as the menu, and fairly reasonably priced, according to David, who fancies himself as something of a buff. We had wondered if it would only contain wines from Germany and Italy, with, perhaps, a few Japanese dessert wines coming in towards the end. But it was the regional French wines which were most tempting, and we allowed ourselves to be guided towards a 1986 Chateau de Canteranne Cotes du Roussillon, which tasted like a bargain at pounds 21.50.
By ordering the jugged hare as a main course, I managed to provide a talking point which kept us off the Nazi jokes for at least 10 minutes. The dish turned out to be a delicate, gamey version of corned beef, bound into a neat circle by some kind of membrane, and served with redcurrant jelly and a gratin of turnip, celeriac and potato. Truthfully, I could say that it was the finest jugged hare I'd ever eaten. I was curious, though, as to why it was described on the menu as "jugged hare 1922", until Jerome, the restaurant manager, explained it was based on a recipe from Queen Victoria's chef. Queen Victoria? 1922? The Axis experience was rapidly approaching a state of total historical meltdown.
David's ravioli - actually one large raviolo - stuffed with prawn and crayfish, was less historically problematic but equally delicious, and we agreed the food was as fine as we'd had anywhere in London. The waiting staff, too, were informed and efficient, though their enthusiasm tipped over into over-solicitousness when one of them sprang forward from the shadows to open the loo door for me.
From the dessert menu, I chose the "19th-century baked rice and apricot castle", a crisp-coated tower of rice pudding with a caramelised base. David was drawn to the idea of blackberry and apple souffle, but changed his mind when he noticed that it took 20 minutes to prepare. "I like my pudding to arrive immediately. I really crave something sweet after I've eaten - it's like being a heroin addict, only less glamorous," he explained.
In the end, he went for what the menu called "an excellent trifle from 1880", figuring that if it had been hanging around for 118 years, it should be eaten immediately. "Absolutely lovely," was his distinctly un-Loaded- like assessment. He inhaled the layers of summer fruits, syllabub and jelly in under five seconds, while murmuring, "They obviously didn't have hundreds and thousands in 1880."
Our bill came to around pounds 50 per head, excluding service, and while I waited for our waiter to return for it, I resisted the temptation to stand up and hold it aloft, intoning, "I have in my hand a piece of paper." As we left, the doorman ushered us out with "Good night Mr Baddiel. Good night Miss MacLeod", and, my goodness, David was right, it does feel good. In fact, everything about the place feels good. I have a suspicion that this time around, Axis will prove to be a winner
Axis, One Aldwych, London WC2 (0171-300 0300). Mon-Fri Lunch noon to 3pm. Mon to Sat dinner 6pm-11pm. All cards. Disabled access
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