Restaurants: Off-colour - The future isn't Orange Balloon for Caroline Stacey

Orange Balloon is the name of a new chain setting out to colour the country as ubiquitously and even more brightly than Cafe Rouge. So far there are two: one in Tonbridge, Kent, the other in Twickenham, Middlesex, but they won't be alone for long; the plan is to open a dozen between now and next November, and to have 50 by the millennium. Already, Orange Balloon isn't just a restaurant, it's a jolly catch-all concept ready to be rolled out more confidently than Red Barrel.

On paper (bright orange cards and a slew of press releases), the brains behind the concept - catering mogul Jerry Brand, with TV chef Brian Turner as executive chef - have meticulously designed their brand and food in the shape of several different menus to please all of the people at all times. Orange Balloon is on a "mission to cater for all, in spectacular surroundings at a reasonable price".

In the evening, it features Turner's eclectic international menu, viz Thai-spiced scallop stir-fry with marinated root veg; duck confit (ah yes, that old canard), avocado and Morecambe Bay shrimps tossed in walnut oil on a little gem salad. But during the day, Orange Balloon offers sandwiches such as grilled tuna with coriander mayonnaise in a baguette, salads and pasta, or half a honey-roasted coquelet with a timbale of cous cous.

But that's not all. There's also the family menu - goujons, and roast chicken, spag bol and sausages with apple pie, ice-cream or fruit salad for afters at three prices for little people, bigger people, and mums, dads and the rest. And there is yet another three-course menu with roasts, also in three price bands.

So eager to please, so complicated does the Orange Balloon's personality structure sound, that we felt obliged to offer family therapy. This mum and dad and little person (sorry, but they said it) went to see whether at least one of its egos was inflated or a well-balanced member of the community. This meant preparing ourselves, as guests, to be "transported from the traditional English regional restaurant to the heart of the Modern European dining experience". In fact, we travelled to Twickenham.

Oblivious to the "decadent barstools" (I swear it's written here), we were shown straight to a no-smoking section, and offered a high chair for the infant, who, at less than two is still too feral to qualify for membership of the species. Perhaps that's why we weren't offered the Cedric Airhead family menu, but the grown-up lunch card. And though they didn't seem very surprised to see the child, no concessions were made when it came to cutlery or drinks. A glass tumbler wasn't ideal for his orange juice, though they gave us a straw when we asked, and it was lucky only the ice cubes ended up on the floor.

Risking multiple personality disordering, we chose main courses which seemed closer to the restaurant's evening identity, rather than lunchtime sandwiches or salads. And they were fine for midday, but suggested dinner might lack gravitas. A large spring roll with curried prawns on a pile of shredded raw vegetables - lots of runner beans, carrot, red cabbage - involved some minute investigation to find the prawns and had a dull curry flavour. Halibut steak with red pepper sauce, the most expensive main at pounds 8.95 (for dinner, the halibut comes with anchovy mayonnaise for pounds 9.75) was a well-cooked piece of fish, on crunchy green beans with a thick orangey pepper puree. Everything was perfectly fresh, cooked for the right amount of time and tasted of nothing more or less than itself, though neither dish made much impression on the way down or afterwards. We were still hungry.

A side-order of saute potatoes didn't add much extra substance; mixed vegetables were nicely done cauliflower, carrot and mange touts.

Best-fed of the three of us was the infant, given our off-cuts of halibut, potatoes and vegetables, a healthier meal than he'd have had from the family menu. He still had an appetite for cake afterwards, and from a selection of puddings that should appeal to all ages, seemed to enjoy the not-very-sticky toffee pudding most, the apple, raisin and ginger crumble quite, and the more adult, aspirational prune and armagnac tart as much as he was allowed. We thought them all pleasant but undistinguished.

Allow me one last quote designed to describe the inoffensive orangey interior: "A composition of understated elegance and bold features, the design and ambience of the restaurant sits comfortably around the whole concept of the Orange Balloon and reflects the functional duality of Jerry Brand's visionary project."

Does this mean the future is Orange Balloon? Anywhere families can eat reasonably well together is welcome, though what makes somewhere good for children is not necessarily an infantile menu but a willingness to adapt interesting, nutritious food, provide an indestructible setting and tolerate unpredictable behaviour. OB's mission statement is a step in the right direction, but off-concept, the staff, though willing, didn't seem to understand little people's needs any better than many other places. And the company you keep with your children isn't always what you want without them. I suspect Orange Balloon is too anodyne for an especially interesting encounter with its evening persona. Lunch cost pounds 40 for two adults eating for three

The Orange Balloon, 58-62 The Green, Twickenham TW2 5AB (0181-893 8998) Open all day. 10am-10.30pm Mon-Sat, 10am-3.30pm Sun. 150-152 High Street, Tonbridge, Kent (01732 368008).

Open 10am-11.30pm Mon-Sat, 10am-3.30pm Sun. Average: pounds 15 lunch. pounds 25 dinner. All major credit cards.

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