Restaurants: The importance of not being earnest

Stephen Terry's Frith Street might be sensational - if only the waiters could learn when to leave the diners in peace. Photograph s by Nicola Levinsky

You can say "steak and chips" in a fraction of the time it takes to eat it. But some restaurant food takes longer to read on the menu or be described by a waiter than it does to consume. The challenge for the diner lies in appreciating the craftsmanship.

After working with Marco Pierre White at the Canteen in Chelsea, chef Stephen Terry moved to Coast, where he was one of the first to turn to fusion (and proved he had the talent to get away with it). Claudio Pulze, previously a partner in Aubergine, has a good record as a chefs' restaurateur. Now, together, they've opened Frith Street.

The appearance is modishly drab, a sleek pistachio and chocolate-coloured room. It has that expectant, reverential air common to the West End restaurants of the big-name chefs. The waiters act as Terry's equerries, constantly at the diner's side, explaining and presenting, and leaving no doubt that respect is due to the cuisine and that you might have to take a test to prove your appreciation of it.

It is not all the waiters' fault. Lots of different tastes on large glass plates, and more, smaller, courses than usual dictate that the waiters make frequent visits to the table. There's a five-course tasting menu, but even if you go for two courses the waiters appear in between with morsels you haven't ordered, explaining what each consists of before returning seconds later to ask whether you enjoyed it. One member of staff even told off another for pre-empting his job of describing the first extra dessert - a divine three-texture-and-temperature thimbleful of warm poached fruit, a layer of cool yoghurt, and colder pear granita on top. They reappeared so often we even thought of asking one to join us and save the trouble of all the return trips.

I visited twice, first for dinner and then lunch. On my first visit everyone was eager to please and the sommelier squatted at my feet to discuss which of three house wines I might have by the glass - a position that can bring out the dominatrix in you. The second visit was a chance to see whether they were as capable of producing terrifically good and complex food for an exceptional price at lunchtime, as well as at dinner.

And they were, though it confirmed that the staff are unable to let you get on with eating. There is a similar fussiness in the use of ingredients, although the only time contrivance went really too far was in the pairing of smoked eel with a slice of caramelised pineapple and a strip of green fennel jelly.

There's little structural distinction between starters and main courses. Ravioli was a recurring motif: stodgily filled with braised beef, with roast squash and Parmesan for one starter; bursting with vivid spinach puree beside monkfish and a timbale of cavolo nero lined with endive as part of a main course of three greenish shapes. My companion thought these looked like objects left too long at the bottom of a fish tank.

A salad of pigeon breast with pig's trotter (a starter) was sensational. Confit of duck with butter beans and cavolo nero was deceptively, simply great; pork cheek and pot-roast pork belly with butter beans and chorizo, and lamb fillet with stuffed lamb's foot (it didn't look anything like it) and pumpkin ravioli both achieved a miraculous transformation of some unpromising ingredients into meaty main courses of deliciously well- crafted substance. "We should do more of this at home," remarked my economy- conscious friend, who often knocked up an ox-heart casserole or fricassee of lamb's tongues when we lived together at university, forgetting the effort involved in getting organs and extremities in a state fit to eat, let alone rendering them as unrecognisable as they are here.

The cauliflower also has a champion in Stephen Terry. The first time it came beatified as a mousse with caviare; in the second meal a fabulous spring-onion jelly with cauliflower cream and balsamico and crunchy grains of sea salt was our pre-starter taster.

By the end of dinner we had become description-dependent. After two unadvertised puddings, my friend wailed, "but they still haven't told me what's in it", as panna cotta with tomato - poached and successfully treated like the fruit it is - was put in front of him. Sliced pear on creamed rice with bitter chocolate ice-cream to one side, and a monumental, multi-layered air-filled millefeuille with chocolate showed the kitchen was, perhaps, just as industrious when it comes to puddings. Coffee comes with chocolates with sorbet centres.

It's not an auspicious time to be opening a restaurant and Frith Street seems conscious of this. Considering the cost - pounds 37 each all-in, of which pounds 25 was on food - the food is rewarding: extravagantly labour-intensive, though not wantonly luxurious. But does eating out have to be so earnest?

Frith Street Restaurant, 63-64 Frith Street, London W1 (0171-734 4545). Mon-Fri lunch and dinner, Sat dinner. Lunch pounds 16-pounds 25, dinner pounds 21-pounds 35. All major credit cards, except Diners Club. Bites

Blythe Road, 71 Blythe Road, London W14 (0171-371 3635). Mon-Fri lunch, Mon-Sat dinner. An attractive appearance, friendly faces and prices (no main course is more than pounds 10) good food in the modern Anglo-bistro vein. Lunch from pounds 7.50 for one course to pounds 12.50 for three. Choose Parma ham with Stilton mousse and pear coulis, or grilled goat's cheese, for around a fiver; guinea fowl, duck confit or smoked haddock for main course; and classic desserts such as pear poached in Port or creme brulee.

22 Mill Street, 22 Mill Street, Chagford, Devon (01647 432244). Tue-Sat lunch, Mon-Sat dinner. In less than two years this restaurant has established a reputation up there with its famous neighbour, Gidleigh Park whence came chef/co- owner Duncan Walker. From bread onwards, expect cooking of exceptional poise and clarity. Dishes such as lasagne of fresh crab, spinach, red peppers and armagnac; sweetbreads with brown butter and capers; and rack of lamb with a herb and shallot crust are more surprising than they sound. Lunch pounds 13.95 for two courses, pounds 14.95 for three; dinner pounds 24.50 for two, pounds 27 for three including coffee.

Pelham Street, 93 Pelham Street, London SW7 (0171-584 4788). Lunch and dinner daily. A change of chef may have taken the shine off the cooking, although praise for the previous incumbent didn't create a roaring trade. Now it's a more informal set-up, with a daytime cafe menu running into the evening at bare tables, or the option of eating more off tablecloths at the back. From the dinner menu the likes of Thai fish cakes, linguini with poached egg, roast cod and rump of lamb are acceptable if not exceptional (main courses pounds 8.95 to pounds 12.95).

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