Scaled down for the encore

Londoners know what's on the menu when they enter a Livebait or fish! restaurant. But there's always a catch..

By Thomas Sutcliffe
Saturday 17 September 2011 14:28

The interiors of Livebait restaurants are very big on transparency. There are booths divided by ribbed glass panels, an open serving hatch into the kitchen and a large chiller cabinet displaying several glassy- eyed fish and a random selection of crustaceans.

The interiors of Livebait restaurants are very big on transparency. There are booths divided by ribbed glass panels, an open serving hatch into the kitchen and a large chiller cabinet displaying several glassy- eyed fish and a random selection of crustaceans.

Even the plates are glass, so your view of the plain formica tables beneath is uninterrupted by anything but a large slab of grilled tuna or a herb-crusted cod fillet. And there is an implicit promise here - which is presumably why the Chez Gerard group have copied the general ambience of the first Livebait restaurant, at Waterloo, London, at their third branch, newly opened also in the capital at Notting Hill.

They are now planning a nationwide expansion of the chain. The suggestion is that what you'll get will be brisk and no-nonsense. And every frippery avoided suggests a concomitant concentration on the raw ingredients. The menu is a short list of starters and main courses, bolstered by whatever is available from the catch of the day section and an unsnobbish range of shellfish with whelks and Kent cockles mixing with the Madagascan crevettes.

In truth, the only thing that's opaque here is the relation of the prices to what you actually get. Here too there's a kind of promise perhaps. But even so you end up feeling there's a disparity; I suspect because the price tags have been inherited unchanged from Theodore Kyriakou's original menu but with the cooking scaled down to meet the needs of a chain operation. (If you want to follow the cook rather than the diluted franchise, you'll find him in Hoxton Market, at a restaurant called The Real Greek.)

I recall saying once that the original Livebait was a little over-inventive in its combination of flavours; on this occasion I'd rather have eaten my words than some of the things in front of me. I found the ingredients still pretty good but the cooking less reliable. A dish of pan-fried squid with chorizo, red peppers and polenta included a piece of squid as tender as a slice of calf's liver, and coins of good chewy chorizo (doggie treats for humans), but the Italian component lurking on the edge of this essentially Spanish dish was awkwardly out of place and bland and dry when what was needed was something oily and unctuous. Other starters - whole Dorset crab, seared scallops served with a good miso dressing and a fisherman's soup with clams and vegetables - were fine.

It was a little disconcerting though, to find that the angler had simply put on a beret and French accent to reappear as the Livebait bouillabaisse, some larger chunks of skate and grey mullet padding out the disguise. Deep-fried tempura sole fillets came with a good delicate batter, but the sweet tomato chutney tasted as if it had been made out of glace cherries. A poached plaice with palourde clams and Roseval potatoes was equally ambiguous, the fish just too delicate to stand up to an over-hefty peppering and that faintly rancid sweetness of clams a bit evasive in the soupy broth.

"Desserts are crap," said one of my companions indignantly when the menu arrived, her outrage levelled entirely at the brevity of the list (in her view, including cheese and ice-cream was simply cheating). As it happened the desserts weren't crap at all. There was a decent chocolate truffle cake and a cool, slippery panna cotta speckled with vanilla seeds and served with red berries. The catch here is simple. The less that's done to the food the better it is; the less that's done to it the more you do wonder about the bill. In our case it was pounds £156.82 for four abstemious people (one bottle of Rioja Blanco).

Another chain with territorial ambitions is fish! whose flagship branch is in Borough Market near Southwark Bridge, London. Theowners, the BGR group which also owns Bank in Aldwych, have just established a western bridgehead on the upper reaches of Queenstown Road, Battersea, in what looks like a rather stylish car showroom, with that kind of no-frills steel and glass which amounts to a frill in itself. The exclamation mark is carried through to the sign for the lavatories - "Toilet!" - which seems a miscalculation, both because of the unhappy overtones of gastric emergency and because the south Chelsea clientele wouldn't dream of yelping anything but "Lavatory!", even if they'd just swallowed a luminous oyster.

The sermonising menu appears identical to that of the original branch - homilies about creel-caught langoustines and "the last great wild food resource" on one side, and, on the other, the kind of multiple choice that can't fail; you can have whichever fish has a tick in the box, steamed or grilled and with a choice of salsa, hollandaise, herb butter, olive oil dressing or red wine fish gravy.

The menu also declares that fish! welcomes children, a claim which can mean anything from not snarling audibly when under-fives arrive, to the kind of wax-crayoned infantilism which makes it purgatory for anyone over the age of 15. fish! itself sits somewhere inbetween. It offers children's portions of battered cod and chunky chips but hasn't quite grasped that if your children's food is served with your starters your main courses are unlikely to be an undisturbed idyll.

I began with a prawn cocktail, which I'd hoped might be a rehabilitated version of the Seventies standard but it proved quite unrepentant, a drench of sweet pink sauce over what tasted like frozen prawns. My wife's devilled whitebait had clearly been resting in a temperate region of hell and arrived neither crispy nor hot.

The main courses were much better, with generous portions of organic salmon and swordfish cooked as ordered, undermined only by the vegetables - coarse fennel, spring greens, and carrots that tasted far too much like something that could be cooked in bulk and survive a microwave relatively unscathed. The bread and butter pudding was light and airy (a contradiction in terms, I know, but it tasted fine) and there was a decent chocolate and pear tart.

But, like Livebait, fish! reminds you that it is not easy to "photocopy" a good restaurant without losing the fine detail that made the original work. Lunch for two adults and three children came to £92.14 including half a carafe of chilled Gamay, a nice touch on the wine list.

fish! 41a Queenstown Road, London SW8 (020 7234 3333), Mon to Sat, lunch 11.30am-2.45pm, dinner 5.30pm-10.30pm. Sunday 11.30am-3.30pm. All cards, disabled access.

Livebait, 175 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (020 7727 4321). Mon to Fri, lunch noon-3.00pm, dinner 6.00pm-11.00pm. Saturday noon-11.00pm, Sunday noon-10.30pm. All cards, no disabled access

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