Shame about the food

RESTAURANT Vong: the French toast of New York; Vong, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1 (0171-235 1010). Open Mon- Sat, lunch, 12noon-12.30pm, and dinner, 6-11pm. A la carte, lunch pounds 20- pounds 25, dinner pounds 30-pounds 40. Vegetarian dishes. Major credit cards
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Indy Lifestyle Online
London restaurants, perhaps even more than clubs and shows, have their opening night crowds, who have somehow been to the glamorous new places the second they open. This breed have naturally been to Coast, to Mezzo, to the Criterion, to l'Odeon, and, yawn, they have certainly been to Vong.

Say what? Yes, Vong, they say, squinting suspiciously as your street cred plummets. As in Vongerichten, Jean-George Vongerichten, the French chef with the Alsatian name whose Gallic-Thai hybrid food and restaurant called Vong are the toast of tout New York. Surely you know. Everybody knows.

Everybody but me. Never heard of him or it. When the London satellite opened late last November I was, if memory serves, happily eating in a Cypriot restaurant in Kenilworth. However, having been upbraided for missing Vong's opening, I went along for lunch recently. Very entertaining and informative it was, too. One of my companions thinks she saw Barbara Knox, whom I had never heard of either, but who evidently runs the corner shop in Coronation Street.

Vong is also a sort of corner shop, set on the corner of Knightsbridge and Wilton Place. It would appear to be part of the Berkeley Hotel, yet restaurant staff say it isn't, at least "not entirely", so the relationship is perhaps a bit distanced, rather like a teenager affecting not to know its parent. There is an entrance through the hotel, and Vong has its own entrance out front. Whichever way you approach it, the place stinks of money.

Granted, the reception out front is understated: just a row of beautiful women, a reservations book, a curious little display of spices and a coat rack. However, go through to the bar, and you find the sort of serious shop fitting that is classy down to the door hinges, the kind only megabucks can buy. There is a beautiful marble bar, good modern furniture, and clever alcoves painted in colours that manage to be both dusky and bright. They don't get those colours, particularly the orange, off a Dulux chart. An exceptionally good designer has been at work and it is such a finely wrought place, it makes the job Conran did on Mezzo look shabby.

However, given that Conran has snapped up every home-grown waiter from here to Newcastle, Vong appears to have imported its workforce. The staff, mostly French, are immaculate, fleet and attentive. No cigarette goes unlit, no ashtray unemptied. The bar overlooks a series of dining rooms, set in descending split levels, filled with what Tom Waits calls jet trash: people for whom grooming is a way of life, their face-lifts from Los Angeles, hair from Paris, clothes from Rome, bank accounts from the Caymans, DNA possibly but not definitely from this world.

And so to the comestibles. We started with Hildon sparkling mineral water, and marvelled at the claims of "distinctive" taste made on its label. It was distinctly water, all right. By way of nibble, we were presented with a handsome, shallow bowl full of peanut sludge and a plate of rice crackers. This was a nice gesture, and the crackers and sauce tasted OK.

For starters we sampled something called "27 vegetables", a charred lamb salad, and crab spring rolls. The 27 vegetables are advertised on the menu as having simmered in their own juices, which may account for the watery quality. There were cauliflower, carrots, various green beans and about 23 other overcooked bits, artfully arranged, flaccid and sitting in a sort of vaguely sweetish marinade. The lamb salad was more appetising, involving little discs of meat, charred so lightly as to be nearly raw, set in a plate of herbs, including very nice coriander. The spring rolls were absurd, laid out like rolled napkins on trimmed leaves of cos lettuce. You were supposed to grasp the crab rolls with the lettuce, a waitress informed us. I cannot see why. They came with an all-too-gripworthy, cakey dough, more like the cone found in dry Italian biscuits than the thin and light pancakes used for rolling Oriental food.

The main courses stayed in tone. Something listed as "fish, wok fried Napa cabbage, chestnuts and chillies" struck me as being as dull-tasting as the 27 vegetables, but not as pretty. Glop on a designer plate, basically. I've no idea what the fish was. Grey mullet? A catfish caught in the Serpentine? Much better, and perfectly cooked, was monkfish. It was served with spring onion, asparagus and rather overcooked potatoes that had a vague pungency but no particular spice. For some reason, a whole piece of star anise was used as garnish. My choice, grilled beef and noodles in a ginger broth, was ridiculous. Strips of rare beef, perfectly good meat, were served in a large, steaming bowl of broth. This broth, crudely infused with ginger, managed to be both watery and dirty-tasting. There are no better beef broths in the world than those of Thailand and Vietnam and this was a shabby parody. Tangling at the bottom of the liquid were noodles. In the centre of the plate was a round of bone marrow, with a chive flower protruding. The whole was difficult to navigate, not particularly good, and as silly as restaurant food is likely to get.

Desserts were for fans of weird ice-creams, spiced with white pepper or cumin. My advice is to skip them, particularly the rice paper crepes with sorbet, unseasonal raspberries and coconut ice-cream.

The wine list produced a delicious Alsatian tokay pinot gris for pounds 22: expensive, yes, but a style of wine well suited to good Oriental food, and a relief when you are eating badly. This, along with those gloriously smart and dashing waiters and fabulously chic fittings, was something special. Serious London restaurateurs could do worse than study this New York standard. As for the food, I am compelled to admit that my companions, out of either politeness or genuine enthusiasm, insisted they liked their lunch, especially the lovely presentation of puddings. Though I am loath to contradict such nice people, I found it all Vong. I mean wrong

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