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Restaurants: That sinking feeling

Tracey MacLeod To enjoy Titanic, you need to be young, groovy and loud - and to firmly believe that the Eighties never ended. Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
My attempts to have a meal at Titanic, Marco Pierre White's fate- flouting new mega-restaurant, met a series of small disasters. First a Sunday lunch, planned for the opening week, was called off the night before, when a panicked functionary phoned at midnight to say that the restaurant's power supply had failed, and it would be closed the next day. A later dinner was jeopardised when my companion cried off, with just hours to spare, pleading illness. So it was with a noble, all-hands-on-deck manliness that my friend Geoff Dyer stepped in to save the day.

Titanic is a cavernous place just off Piccadilly Circus, carved out of the old Regent Palace Hotel, and designed to attract the young and groovy late-night crowd who flock to the Atlantic Bar and Grill beneath it. The Atlantic has never appealed to me, because of its vast size and scary door policy. But I have fond memories of the hotel, whose Carvery was the first London restaurant I ever visited (not very groovy, but plenty of gravy, as I recall).

A phalanx of gelled and overcoated security men guards the Titanic's revolving doors, but once you've persuaded them that you're a bona fide young person with a reservation, and not a befuddled tourist in search of a good Carvery, you're allowed down a flight of shallow steps into a huge, noisy and rather dark version of an ocean liner's dining room.

On first impressions, Titanic is an Art-Deco approximation of Hades. Clamorous and impersonal, the enormous space is dominated by a central bar, packed with yelling drinkers, most of them in suits or little black dresses. Marooned incongruously in their midst, in colourful clubwear and On Golden Pond hat, sat a gloomy Geoff, like a steerage passenger reluctantly prodded up into first class.

Looking up from his paperback, he greeted me: "It's horrible here, isn't it?" And indeed it was, although we couldn't quite work out why. The restoration is sympathetic, the detail opulent, the atmosphere glamorous. But there's also something oppressive about the darkness, the techno-ish background music, the endlessly circulating cigarette-girls - the sheer scale and cynicism of a place designed for shouting and spending rather than talking and eating. It was, we agreed, the most Eighties place we'd ever been in, even during the Eighties.

After margaritas from a menu of gimmicky cocktails, many of which seemed to feature Kahlua, Baileys or Malibu, we moved to our table. Something struck me as familiar about the leather banquette seating, the etched glass screens and the elbow- jostling proximity of our neighbours; we were in Conranworld - just like the original, but bigger and louder.

The menu, too, is a distillation of contemporary brasserie orthodoxies. It borrows particularly freely from The Ivy, both in its layout and the inclusion of several of that restaurant's specialities, such as corned beef hash. Seafood and fish are well represented, but there isn't much of Marco in it, apart from upmarket reworkings of declasse favourites such as chicken Kiev. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, given the surroundings and location, with starters at about pounds 6.50, main courses at pounds 10.

Geoff is a Caesar salad connoisseur, and found the Titanic's satisfactory, mainly because the lettuce was very fresh. It was a Little Gem, not the traditional Romaine, but worked just as well, though it contained some unadvertised pieces of bacon.

I too went for an American starter, a clam chowder, after checking whether it was Boston or Manhattan style (one is creamy and thick; the other all tomato skins and brine). Happily, it was the Boston, but the thin, wine- flavoured liquid that arrived bore little relation to the stand-your-spoon- up heartiness of any chowder I'd ever had. Crunchy little vegetable morsels bobbed about in it, rather than soothing chunks of potato and bacon and, unforgivably, the fragments of potato it did contain tasted reheated.

My main course, smoked haddock, was much better - an undyed slab of firm, fresh fish, its saltiness offset by the soothing ooze of a poached egg and a buttery, chive-flecked bearnaise. Underneath, a patty of bubble and squeak was pleasingly rough-hewn. Less successful was the "steak hache a la McDonald's", Titanic's jokey take on the hamburger. Served with home- made tomato ketchup and US-style fixings, it was a towering thing, its scale mirrored by huge chips, each as thick as a sailor's thumb. But the meat was dry and flavourless, and the chips too big to pack any kind of crunch.

One thing we couldn't complain about was the service. Waiters arrived before we expected them, and our wine waiter - respectful, friendly and DiCaprio-cute - served up our maddeningly delicious Cloudy Bay as though we were the most honoured guests at the captain's table.

Titanic's desserts are reliable nursery favourites. You'd think it would be hard to go wrong with a sticky toffee pudding, but mine was neither sticky enough nor toffeeish enough. Geoff's bread and butter pudding slipped down more easily. "It's the best thing I've eaten all evening - which is a major indictment of the establishment," was his verdict.

Marco has promised that a three-course meal at Titanic should cost around pounds 20 a head for food, and ours did, but with all the extras, including pre-dinner drinks and a service charge, the total topped pounds 90. "It feels like we're really on the Titanic," Geoff concluded, as we surveyed the ranks of shiny-faced revellers. "Don't these people know there's a recession coming?" I suspect Titanic will do very nicely. I just don't think either of us will be making a return voyage

Titanic, 81 Brewer Street, London W1 (0171-437 1912). Lunch noon-2.30pm; dinner 5.30pm-11.30pm; breakfast 11.30pm-2.30am. Limited disabled access. All major cards.