RESTAURANTS: Dining to be seen

Has a star been born in the heart of fashionable London?; What wasn't immediately apparent was how we were supposed to enter the place. There was no obvious doorway or even a door handle: just vast rectangula r panes of commercial glass. Main picture by Madelaine Waller
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Reviewing a restaurant the first week it opens is a bit like picking up a new-born baby and expecting it to smile charmingly at you. That said, a new-born baby doesn't charge pounds 50 for the first cuddle, so as long as customers are being asked to pay for their meals, critics like me will defend their right to review.

Our lunch at Coast took place four days after this new restaurant from Oliver Peyton, one of the principals behind the enormously successful Atlantic Bar & Grill, opened its Mayfair doors. London's restaurant aficionados have been buzzing with anticipation for months. Would Mr Peyton hit the jackpot twice in a row? Would Coast prove to be this year's Atlantic, Quaglino's, Ivy or Kensington Place? Would it ignite a bonfire of enthusiasm in the heart of fashionable London, broadcast an irresistible summons to every trendy lemming within earshot?

The restaurant's modern, all-glass facade certainly impresses itself boldly on poor old Albemarle Street. What wasn't immediately apparent was how we were supposed to enter the place. There was no obvious doorway or even a door handle: just vast rectangular panes of commercial glass. Fortunately, the maitre d' noticed our befuddlement and came to admit us.

We were shown to a large black table and seated on striking-looking yellow chairs (obviously custom-designed and costly), which proved to be only slightly less hard and uncomfortable than you'd find in a bus shelter. As we attempted to sit back, relax and imbibe Coast's unique ambience, it became obvious that we had entered a far-flung outpost of Designerland, where "strong visual statements" take precedence over mundane concerns like comfort, intimacy or charm. Bulbous plaster lighting- fixtures protrude from the walls and ceilings, resembling - depending on your psychological ink-blot profile - octopus eyes, bosoms or the giant pox.

By now I had a strong hunch about what to expect from the menu. Something "Anglo-Med" or "Pacific-Rim" or "Nouvelle Napa Valley", a selection of "unique, creative, innovative, cross-cultural" dishes that would knock our socks off with gastronomic astonishment. This is, of course, the cuisine regionale of Designerland.

To give him credit, the chef at Coast seems to be genuinely creative and technically skilled. Both starters we ordered were good. The terrine of fresh goats' cheese and roasted summer tomatoes was everything it promised; my four medium-sized raviolis were variously filled with a puree of duck confit or a puree of sweet potato, served in a light duck-broth. The two flavours worked well together, although the portion (at pounds 6.50) was not generous.

On the other hand, the "pave of tomato risotto with avocado and artichoke", ordered as a main course, bore no imaginable resemblance to what most of us would have expected. This "risotto" was a square platform of re- fried rice (too crispy, with a sour aftertaste and resembling an oatcake), with a melange of minced avocado and artichoke heaped on top. Risks this drastic need to be backed up with a flawless sense of taste.

But my main course was delicious: underdone tuna, arranged to look like slices of roast duck breast, accompanied by a minty tabbouleh salad and a tangy, anise-like fennel salad. When it was time for dessert, my companion, having tried two courses that featured tomatoes, could not resist the "sweet confit of tomatoes with a vanilla cream".

It looked very pretty when it came: three cherry-red cooked plum tomatoes atop a white moulded custard. But the first nervous taste, followed by several more increasingly incredulous ones, revealed that these tomatoes tasted like absolutely nothing at all. All you could discern was the pleasant- enough flavour of vanilla flan. All that red might as well have been steak.

My own pudding was wittily called "something chocolate". Basically it consisted of three small triangles of rich, dark chocolate that concealed chocolate sponge and a kind of dried fruit jelly that tasted like what children in the USA know as a "fruit roll-up".

We didn't drink anything but mineral water with our meal, but Coast does have an interesting wine list. The starters range from pounds 6 to pounds 10.50 (scallops with lettuce hearts and a creamed vanilla and lemon dressing); the main courses cost between pounds 13.50 (for baked cod, pea and polenta "Pont Neuf") and pounds 17.50 (fillet of Scotch beef, truffled macaronis, spinach and sweet onions); all puddings are pounds 6. Our lunch for two, including tip and VAT, cost pounds 63.50. We didn't cry like babies, but it didn't put a smile on our faces, either.

One final word: try not to accept a table in the downstairs dining room. Not only does it have three female cut-out "artworks" of the most astonishing silliness on the wall, but the room is as claustrophobic as a cistern. And watch your step on the stairs. There's been a designer at work here too.

Coast, 25B Albemarle Street,

London, WI (0171-495 5999)

Coast may be the place in which to be seen; the following are all rather simpler outfits in which to eat.

LANCASHIRE

September Brasserie, 15-17 Queen Street, Blackpool, (01253-23282) is the his-side of a husband and wife operation. The her-side is a beauty parlour below the restaurant. I cannot speak for the hairdressing. The cooking, however, is skilled. Much of the produce is from local sources and, where possible, organic. Best are the herrings, cured by the chef's Polish father. Light meals from pounds 10, full ones more like pounds 20. Open lunch 12-2.15pm, and dinner 7-9.30pm, Tue-Sat. Major credit cards accepted.

NORTHUMBRIA

Were Dallas set in the north-east of England, its characters would live in the pillared bungalows of Ponteland. The ones with stomachs as big as their shoulder pads would eat at Cafe 21, 35 The Broadway, Darras Hall, Ponteland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (01661-820357). Here well-chosen wines, perfect French onion soup, braised oxtail and local fish are served on a first-come, first-serve basis. The elegance and cheer of the staff tip the place as the sister operation of 21 Queen Street in Newcastle. Open Tue-Sat lunch 11.30am-3pm (coffees till 4pm); dinner 6-10.30pm. Light lunches from pounds 8, two-course lunch pounds 11; dinners from pounds 15-pounds 20. Major credit cards accepted.

NOTTINGHAMSHIRE

The proprietors of Gannet's Bistrot, 35 Castlegate, Newark, (01636-610018) hung out a daft sign announcing the arrival of star chefs when Colin and Gwen White moved there last autumn. A sweet but inept gesture. The Whites are not stars, just good cooks (favourites of the late Jane Grigson). And they probably never will be celebrities. Their cooking style, for instance, searching out local organic pork and serving it with prune sauce, prefers dilligence and craftsmanship to showmanship. Light meals from pounds 10, full ones approx pounds 20. Open lunch Tue-Sun 12-2pm, and dinner 6.30-9.30pm Tue-Sat. Access and Visa cards are accepted.

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