Irish born chef, Conrad Gallagher, gained a first Michelin Star in his restaurant Peacock Alley in Dublin at an age when most men havenÕt yet had their first proper shave. So itÕs no surprise to see him expanding with an ambitious 170 cover restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue. At street level thereÕs a plate glass, JetsonÕs style bar seating about 100 serving simple food and a retail outlet selling a small range of produce where you can buy must have essentials such as punnets of pouting, pursed lipped raspberries should the walk up to Berwick Street seem too onerous.
The restaurant downstairs is a sprawling, low ceilinged, brown space with blue neon lighting, furnished with comfortable two person sofas. The walls are papered with blown up, blurred sepia cine film stills, like alcoholic room spin without any of the attendant queasiness. A three course lunch is £23.75, at dinner thereÕs a £49 six-course menu gourmand, a pre/post theatre menu at £18.75, or the a la carte costing enough to make you hurriedly, focus your eyes.
Service is convivial yet unfailingly attentive, and food the culinary equivalent of full on, exhibitionist sex with a first date, who then does your laundry. ItÕs clever, show-off food, streaming from the kitchen in one long, never ending curliculiar fanfare; like three hours of Exultate Jubilate with pudding the Halleluiah chorus, all played with hardly a false note. However, the elaborate food, each dish featuring a wealth of ingredients (perhaps a hangover from GallagherÕs early stint in America where less is just never enough), is a tad overwhelming. A slow movement and a change of pace between courses would have aided enjoyment, as well as digestion. By the time youÕve had your ear blown off from canapˇs all the way through to a brace of plates bearing eighteen petit fours (served at the same time as pudding) youÕre longing for Air on a G String and the accompanying panatela. Though frankly, the G-string had long since twanged, and Air, all by itself, would have been enough.
There was so much happening on the plate you get food exhaustion just looking at it Š though every ingredient worked harmoniously as a whole, even if busier than current food fashion allows. My main course featured three variously sized pan-fried fillets of swordfish, on which three scrubbed baby carrots rested, like elegant umbrellas rakishly leaning against the hall table; a disk of squid ink polenta, topped with spinach, and a palm sized ravioli stuffed with piquant, creamy goats cheese, on which reclined two perfectly crisp asparagus spears, draped like fatigued supermodels after a long day eating Tic Tacs. Crayfish and saffron vinaigrette (I assume - by this point I was beyond bewilderment) was dotted around the plate, looking pretty. Similarly DelphineÕs Roast duckling came arranged like an obsessive compulsiveÕs library, amid a mound of chunky buckwheat and walnut cream, duck liver parfait, poached figs and asparagus.
All tasted wonderful, but if youÕve ever wondered what it feels like to be a foie gras goose. This is about as close as it gets.
After an amuse bouche of scallop with fennel cappuccino, my starter was excellent; pastrami cured sea trout Š here meaning marinated and pressed, pierced like a posh punk with a sliver of chilli, and adorned with more decorative pings of pickled pear, ginger, cr¸me fraiche and topped off with a scoop of sticky rice. It was surprising, refreshing and a fresh, bracing entry into the meal. DelphineÕs ravioli of basil with Basque style peppers and truffle was, by contrast, a disappointment; more of a one-note triangle ding, with no depth or texture served in an awkward to eat from glass bowl that my mother would put fruit in.
The grapefruit sorbet served between courses with fromage blanc was sweet enough to be a pre dessert. And the dessert itself; a zingless, rather claggy orange tart, a pleasingly tart soufflˇ billowing forth from the obligatory demi tasse, was served with an anaemic, but zesty, blood orange sorbet. DelphineÕs peach and pineapple ravioli came in exactly the same formation with a mango soufflˇ and citrus sorbet. The taste was silky and cleansing but looked, she felt, rather like grilled cheese drizzled with ketchup. And this woman is Smart Restaurants R US, so that took a leap of the imagination.
As it was warm up week we were not charged for desserts, which are normally £7.50, and correspondingly no service charge was added. A glass of champagne at £11 (which has since been lowered to £7.50 for house fizz) and more fulsome wines than our modest glass each, will undoubtedly add up to a big night out. Only time will tell if the market will bear this sort of fancy, full on food. But the savage beast of overindulgence, on all fronts, can be soothed by piped poetry being played in the bathroom. Apparently one customer, thinking that a very literate drunk had wandered into the wrong restroom, confided in the manager that there was a man hiding in the ladies.
According to the chef, they had the Pope John Paul pontificating away in the upstairs stalls. One way to get religion, I suppose.