Restaurants: Service definitely included

Harvey Nichols' latest restaurant is in a former City bank. Fabulous? Absolutely - if the waiters would leave you to it. Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
It's harder than ever to get your hands on money - real money, the folding stuff - now that banking's all done on the phone and empty banking halls are being turned into restaurants. The latest such conversion, although you probably wouldn't have queued here to withdraw the weekend's cash, is the Bank of New York, a Twenties building on a cathedral-like scale - designed when they worshipped bundles of notes the way we now revere food on plates - opposite the Lloyd's building in the heart of the City.

The brains behind the restaurant is Harvey Nichols, sellers of smart garms, and more recently restaurateurs, with the Fifth Floor in the Knightsbridge store, the Fourth Floor in Leeds and, away from the shop floor, the Oxo Tower Restaurant and Brasserie on London's South Bank. It's made eating and drinking over the shop seem stylish, but now that it's setting up restaurants elsewhere, perhaps we shouldn't set too much store by the Harvey Nichols connection. Not that you'd know this venture was anything to do with them as, in its wisdom, the company has called it Prism.

Though the downstairs bar seemed a drably minimalist dive, the restaurant is a breathtaking white space that dwarfs the money-makers sitting in the red leather Mies van der Rohe chairs. The moulded ceiling, supported by classical columns, was as far over my head as an analysis of the FTSE index. Even my two fellow diners, Dick and Nick, one a lawyer in a suit, the other a publisher who is no stranger to the long working lunch, felt like insignificant worker ants overawed by this capitalist cosmos.

The food is thankfully nothing like as lofty; more what you'd call classless, stateless modern, though underneath the descriptions there's enough for the conservative City appetite to feel at home with. The chef most recently worked in Leeds and this may account for the presence of no-nonsense battered cod with mushy peas on the menu, although here it appears as tempura of Whitby cod with pea puree.

After a first waiter had told us the wine list was being used, making it sound as if it might be soiled when we got it, another arrived to take charge of the food and from then on was seldom far from our sides. Since his performance made almost as much impression as the food, it seemed right that the top of the bill bore his name.

We set Dorian off with an idle query about the croustade of mushroom duxelle, soft poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Thereafter his knowledge and enthusiasm were impressive, though his choice of words was not always enticing. I picked cod polonaise with braised lettuce, pea, ham and parsley broth. "Polonaise, it's a crust," he explained, making the light breadcrumbs and parsley mixture on top of the perfectly pearly-white fish sound like something that would take time to heal. He inadvertently almost put Nick off the idea of peppered haddock by describing the accompanying brandade cake as akin to a fishcake, triggering a flashback to the grey fishy mush in ginger-coloured breadcrumbs of school dinners.

"You know, like fish fingers," Nick recalled for the waiter. "Fish fingers? It is not possible," replied an appalled Dorian who, I should have mentioned, was French.

A deal was struck: Nick would have the fishcake, Dorian would try his first ever fish finger in the near future. And while the Frenchman may be in for a nasty surprise, my lawyer friend was presented with thick, juicy flakes of salted cod with a light crusty coating which made him revise his long-held and outdated opinion.

The third main course, veal chop in a salty sauce - made traditionally, perhaps, with anchovy essence - was also the kind of dish that gentlemen in the City are known to relish.

We'd barely started eating these when Dorian asked us whether we were enjoying them. Under earlier interrogation about the starters I'd admitted I thought my risotto unconventional though not unpleasant. The arborio rice mixed with Spanish chorizo and a trio of perfectly formed prawns was more like an underpopulated paella. A classic fish soup, with a bit of chilli in the rouille, was the business.

"Perhaps I'm out of touch with restaurants nowadays," said Nick - who had already proved to be out of touch with fishcakes, "but is it usual for the waiter to get so involved?" Perhaps, in fairness, the staff were being so eager because the restaurant has just opened, and was not full.

So far the cooking had been most successful when it stayed close to Anglo- French conventions. In this category there was also Cumberland sausage, creamed potato and brown sauce onions; skate with caper and brown butter, and roast duck breast with black pudding and caramelised shallots. But I had to bully the boys into trying puddings from a selection they thought to be somewhat wide of the mark - rum ba ba and apple strudel just didn't appeal.

And they rebelled when I suggested we ask Dorian what chocolate and coffee delice was. This box of shiny dark chocolate filled with coffee mousse the colour of liver sausage and surrounded by thick creme anglaise and rays of chocolate sauce turned out to have less presence than its appearance suggested. Citrus fruit salad, a yellow, pink and orange spectrum of segments, arranged around a scoop of mango and chilli sorbet, got a rather cool reception.

Others, including Harvey Nichols presumably, whose web address for its new restaurant is, have pointed out the ease of mistaking Prism for Prison. In this corner of London it certainly has a captive market. We were detained pleasurably enough for pounds 40 each

Prism Restaurant and Bar, 147 Leadenhall Street, London EC3 (0171-256 3888). Open Mon-Fri lunch and dinner. Around pounds 30 without wine; bar meals around pounds 12. All cards.

Restaurants to bank on: Bites, page 44