THE FIRST and greatest demand one must make of any restaurant, if you ask me, is to provide each customer with a good chair. Firm, supportive, and comfortable enough to stand a good hour or so of contemplative arse- wriggling, that's what you want - not too small, too hard, too flimsy or too back-breakingly badly designed. Being a little on the heavy side for even my 6ft 5in frame, I perch on most restaurant chairs like an elephant on a tiny podium, but there was no need for such a balancing act at Circus, whose owners apparently spent pounds 40,000 on the tables and chairs alone before it opened in November.
The budget for comedy noses and spangly leotards must have been very much smaller: clowns and acrobats are off the menu at this restaurant, which is more Stasi than Moscow State Circus.
I walked straight past the anonymous grey frontage at first, assuming it belonged to one of those mysterious media corporations that have offices in Soho. It wasn't until later that someone told me that the architect David Chipperfield (yes, really) had adapted what used to be the London headquarters of Granada Television.
With the view from outside totally obscured by gauze screens, this is not somewhere to go if you want to be seen out on the town. It would, however, be perfect for former members of the East German Secret Police, who should feel at home in an Orwellian room with high grey walls, white linen and oatmeal-coloured chairs.
We went at lunchtime, and the mood was definitely businesslike - as you might expect from a restaurant owned by a former City financier, Christopher Bodker. Suits were de rigueur, and the room felt like a board meeting that had split into small groups for a brainstorming session. It was impossible not to feel under prepared, having come without a contract to finalise. Given the atmosphere, I was glad to have taken a friend from work and not a lover.
Simon chose the wine, since he knows about these things, selecting something white from the Rhone valley, a 1993 Crozes-Hermitage. Our waitress, who looked disconcertingly like the X-Files star Gillian Anderson, materialised with a bottle of the wrong vintage, a detail that counts for a lot when you're paying pounds 22.50. When the right one did arrive it was as heady and honeyed as its rich colour suggested. A comfort wine, in a way, and therefore one that went well with Simon's starter of pan-fried risotto with smoked haddock and soft- poached egg. The risotto and fish were served as a round cake, which was sticky without quite being a pudding, and crowned with a layer of spinach, then a mermaid's purse of an egg. The yolk is the thing, of course, and this one was perfect, firm around the outside with an oozing golden centre.
My sardines on toast were more demanding. Grilled rather than blackened, they required advanced hand-eye co-ordination to separate the flesh from the many bones, but it was just about worth the effort. The toast was even harder work, a concave shelf of shiny biscuit, oily and hard to cut. It promised crunch, but gave chew. The dish was redeemed by a salsa verde with a citrus tang.
Thank goodness the chef, Richard Lee - formerly of Mezzo - did not leave the head on my rabbit as he had done with the sardines. The main course meat came boned and rolled in a cone, with bacon, a world of discretion away from the gutted rabbits that hung in my local butcher's window (complete with fur) when I was a child, and their flesh was a cheap alternative. Despite being a carnivore, I do suffer from that particularly modern form of squeamishness that prefers meat not to look like murder.
The rabbit was superb, but the accompanying spinach and tiny portion of leek mash were a great disappointment. The little bits of leek had been cooked to exhaustion, and what mash there was had been done in that unfortunately fashionable way that is actually potato puree. Oh, for some lumps, or some life. We found the latter in bowls of French beans and fried courgettes, and forked them with enthusiasm.
Simon's brill with spring onion puree and enoki mushrooms was a disaster. Brill is a tough fish, but after poking around its transparent lump of a centre we decided that it was undercooked. Experience suggests that the beautiful staff at an ambitious designer restaurant will be sullen and rude, but those at Circus were helpful to the point of mateyness. So we summoned Agent Scully's doppelganger, who despatched the fish to the kitchen with an efficiency normally reserved for alien body snatchers and its eventual replacement was fine.
And so to dessert. It would be no overstatement to say that the amaretto cheesecake with coffee sauce was magnificent, both in presentation and taste. The cheesy bit was mild and creamy and there was lots of it. The crumbly biscuit base was soaked in liqueur. The coffee sauce balanced between bitter and sweet. It was the highlight of my day. If it had been alive, I would have proposed. However, if Simon's poached fruits with nutmeg ice-cream had been alive, I would not have even asked for a date. They were anonymous and plain in comparison.
Asked what sort of coffee we wanted to drink, it seemed reasonable to ask what was available, in the hope of some sort of list. "Almost anything you want," was the answer. We both searched for the name of a vaguely remembered coffee whose beans are ground after passing through the stomach of some wild animal, but settled for filter.
The restaurant had all but emptied by the time we finished, as even executives must get back to their desks these days. The bill for two was close to pounds 100, but cheaper set menus are available. If you are looking for somewhere to enjoy a high-powered lunch on expenses, Circus gets the highest recommendation. But for similar reasons, if you're thinking of it as a place to blow your savings on a big night out in relaxing surroundings, I really wouldn't bother.
! Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on holiday
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