A plea from the myopic. Can restaurateurs please provide large print menus for the visually vain? I look like a superannuated librarian in my specs and usually leave them at home with the brogues and the tweeds. But although I can decipher most things without them, small, elaborate menu-script, often defeats me. Factor in dim candlelight, a couple of glasses of wine and the body text being in Spanish, and I can't see what I'm ordering. To those readers who write in shocked that I could pay so much for a glass of water I admit it's poor night vision - often I can't even read the bloody bill. If I've done the maths in my head, and the total is within a ball park figure, then I pay.
Thankfully, this week's companion, an up and coming young Irish actor called Peter O'Mara currently shooting Band of Brothers - a Spielberg production, in the depths of the English countryside, also appeared to have forgotten his specs. Either that or it was Flirt with a Fortysomething Female Day and he'd bought a flag. Mind you, I'm not complaining. I don't mind a bit of soulful eye-contact and touchy-feely, arm-stroking - it certainly beats a pot of hyacinths on Mother's Day.
So there I was, down the white-tiled mosaic stairs at El Rincon in a dead corner of Chelsea with the menu at arms length, and the companion, a little closer. This is the latest restaurant from the people who brought you Al-Duca and more recently Anis in Kensington. Here the food is Spanish but the set-menu deal is similar - 2 courses for £20.50 or 3 for £24.50. I would have ordered the selection of hot and cold tapas for a £2.50 supplement but I didn't see it at the time - instead my eyes locked into a squint on the ravioli of hake. A delight - the fat pillow of perfectly cooked fish served with a parsley broth of clams and chilli oil. Peter didn't go for the farmed snails, frogs legs and bacon which did sound a bit pond-life, even for me, but had a pressed terrine of chicken wrapped in cabbage leaves - a sort of fancy chicken in aspic and not especially flavourful despite the inclusion of chorizo, but pretty enough to look at.
Which brings me neatly back to my actor friend. We hadn't met before, but from his peaty, dark brown telephone voice I was wishfully thinking maybe thirty-seven, Ralph Feinnes meets Oxford Don. Obviously, this was before it had sunk in that if cast as a new recruit in the US Airforce, he would have to look about 19. And he did. Thank the God of good copy, if it wasn't enough to play out our own episode of From May to September, we were also sitting next to a gay couple who were in the middle of a fight: One poor chap cried throughout the entire meal while the other toad-faced individual watched him wordlessly.
In the mood for love, or what?
Main course included a mound of roasted suckling pig with hi-gloss crackling - Peter's choice, Lasagne of salmon, spinach with a saffron sauce, sirloin of beef and baked dorade with clams and mussels. I settled for squid as tender as the bleeding heart at the next table, stuffed with creamy rice and served with prawns and a tiny salad of tomatoes and peppers. Totally delicious, though perhaps a tad elegant for those with a huskier appetite than mine.
The restaurant is pleasant - red pillars, ochre walls - a red lacquer ceiling and scarlet banquettes that curve along the wall like a series of reclining odalisques, all of which encourage you to forget you're in a basement. However there was a spareness to the meal, not reflected in the price, that didn't exactly encourage one to linger. Desserts were simple - ice cream studded with nuts and draped with chocolate sauce, and a coffee mouse with cheese wrapped in white chocolate which was odd but a lot nicer than it sounds. The grim gay chap appeared to fall asleep during his pudding, while his partner wept on. But it wasn't that bad.
Meanwhile, all was charm on our table. Peter asked what my favourite restaurant was, took my hand, and went all gooey eyed and thoughtful. "Do you know what aim thinking?' he asked softly in his lilting Irish accent.
'I'm thinking about Fahks,' he replied, looking deeply into my eyes, though it sounded /slightly/italics different to my ears at the time. Well, that's a tad blunt, I thought. But he continued. "Yes, Fox - you know the studio? They've cast a friend of mine in his first starring role, and I'm thinking I'd like to take him off to the Ivy to celebrate."
Phew, I must listen harder. After I'd picked myself up from the floor, I left him to lavish his undivided attention on the waitress and prepared to tap my way back home. Deaf, half-blind and spurned for the serving staff. It's really not much fun being forty. Oh fox/italics/ no.