And now the West End crowd are heading east, led by Marco Pierre White. In July, he opened MPW, the first of a projected series of branded brasseries that will allow him to feed a wider public than can afford his more upscale ventures in central London. He says he was attracted to the area by its obvious need for a serious restauran. My colleague, Neil, whom I'd sprung from the office for the occasion , speculated that he might also have been drawn by the fact that the Canary Wharf tower is the only thing in London bigger than Marco Pierre White's ego.
MPW is perched high in the Cabot Place East shopping mall, a vast circular space under a giant glass dome, like some kind of space station or envirosphere, where busy droids bustle past on nameless missions, insulated against the howling, irradiated wasteland outside. Neil and I had both eaten at the mediocre brasserie which MPW replaced, and we were surprised to see that the decor was completely unchanged, down to the mosaic spelling out "Cafe Pelican" on the floor outside.
It was a good 15 minutes before our waiter came to take our orders, by which time we'd almost memorised the lengthy menu. Co-designed by Marco and MPW chef, Gary Hollihead, it offers classic French brasserie cuisine with a contemporary twist. Grilled plaice with tartare sauce rubs shoulders with trout au bleu, bread and butter pudding sits alongside nougat glace. In keeping with the thrusting, business-like feel of Canary Wharf, it's a real man's menu - no salads or pasta dishes here. Neil, who despite being a successful TV producer, proudly describes himself as "white trash", was particularly excited by the inclusion of upmarket versions of downmarket faves like mixed grill and chicken Kiev. He decided to order prawn cocktail and steak to show that he hadn't lost touch with his Stevenage roots.
His prawn cocktail was a thing of beauty - six jumbo Dublin Bay prawns draped around a huge wine glass filled with a saucy melange of lettuce, fennel and avocado. "It's greener and crunchier than the usual prawn cocktail," he enthused, "and the prawns are much prawnier." His only complaint was that the glass was so big he couldn't get at the delicious, sludgy residue at the bottom without standing up, which seemed inappropriate. My risotto of girolle mushrooms was perfectly cooked, creamy but light, with a subtle lacing of fresh coriander. Neil tasted it reluctantly, having been frightened as a boy by an encounter with a Vesta Beef Risotto, but he was quite overwhelmed, murmuring, "Oh, Tracey that's fantastic..." with an uncharacteristic, quiet intensity.
During another long wait, we began to reminisce about the food we were both raised on, and hit on the idea of starting a rival brasserie chain to MPW called LMC, serving lower-middle-class staples such as Vesta Beef Risotto, oven chips and Fray Bentos pies. We were still salivating over the memory of butterscotch Angel Delight when our main courses arrived. My salmon fishcake - exotically described as "pajarski of salmon" on the menu - came on a bed of spinach and topped with a poached egg, but didn't quite live up to its stage name, being, finally, a little boring. Neil's rib-eye steak fell apart succulently under his knife, and he found the lemony tang of the accompanying butter "fab, fab, fab" - he was, though, frustrated by the fussy insubstantiality of the umpteen garnishes, which included a grilled tomato that looked like something you might scrape off your windscreen.
To finish, Neil was hoping to crown his meal, Simon Hopkinson-style, with Black Forest gateau, but had to settle for a fairly ordinary chocolate truffle cake. My walnut and honey tart was also disappointing with an unappealing suety texture. While we were waiting for our bill, they started playing piped music, a selection of female singer-songwriters from the 1970s, and as Neil tripped off to the loo, he erupted into a drunken falsetto harmony on Carole King's "It's Too Late". Our waiter must have got the hint, because the bill, which came to pounds 95 including wine, arrived quickly. As we walked back to the office through the bomb-scarred docks we saw boys from the nearby flats fishing from the deserted wharfs with home- made lines. "Let them eat fishcake!" cackled Neil madly
MPW Cabot Place East, Canary Wharf, London E14 (0171-513 0513). Lunch 12pm-2.30pm. Dinner 5.30pm-9.00pm, Mon-Fri. Wheelchair access. All major credit cards except Diners Club.
The Oak Room Marco Pierre White, Le Meridien Hotel. 21 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-734 8000/ 0171-465 1640). Opulent wood-panelled restaurant in one of London's swankiest hotels where Marco himself now cooks. Breathtaking French cuisine at prices to match - the four-course prix fixe dinner menu is pounds 75.
Signature dish: foie gras en surprise - foie gras coated in chopped truffles and glazed with truffle jelly.
Criterion 224 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-930 0488). This big, beautiful brasserie is one of London's great date restaurants. The film-set glamour of the room, with its gilded, neo-Byzantine ceiling and sexy long bar is matched by the inventive panache of the cooking, under chef Peter Refell. Signature dish: tuna sauce vierge, with confit of fennel and aubergine caviar. pounds 35 per head without wine.
Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, London W1 (0171-437 9585). Supercool lunch spot for Soho's media and film crowd, serving serious brasserie food in a long, pale room filled with Young British Art. Partner Damien Hirst is responsible for some of it, including the cow's head in the upstairs bar, so best not go with one of your vegan pals. Signature dish: Spit- roast duck Marco Polo with caramelised apples. pounds 35 per head without wine.
The Grill Room, Cafe Royal, 68 Regent Street, London W1 0171-437 9090. Marco's newest venture (opened last Monday) is a refit of the venerable former haunt of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Classic French food with added flair from 26-year-old star chef Spencer Patrick, and a spectacular dining room, all cherubs, gilt and red velvet which deserves to be filled with the kind of beautiful and fashionable crowd that thronged there in its fin-de-siecle prime. Signature dish: roast grey leg partridge a l'anglaise. pounds 45 per head without wine.