15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 65

TODAY'S restaurant trade seems to have passed into the hands

of the empire- builders, headed by Sir Terence Conran and Marco Pierre White, and of these the greatest appears unequivocally to be Sir Terence. Already he has a dozen restau- rants up and running in London, with two more due to open next spring: Coq d'Argent in the City, and the Italian style Sartoria on the corner of Savile Row. As one who has never greatly enjoyed eating at Quaglino or Mezzo — both too vast, impersonal and noisy for my taste — I was fascinated to find out the form of Conran's latest trio, particularly as one of them, Orrery, is just by my home, and Zinc is also not far away.

Orrery is on the first floor of Conran's conversion of the old fire station at the top of Marylebone High Street. His aim, appar- ently, is to provide Londoners north of the park with the same consumer gratification already available, thanks to him, at Bromp- ton Cross's Bibendum to the south. Thus on the ground floor there is a Conran shop purveying highly priced groceries and domestic artefacts, and Orrery restaurant is a long, thin room on the first floor, looking out over St Marylebone churchyard. An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, named in the 18th century after the fourth earl thereof, and an example faces you as you enter the restaurant. With just 80 seats, this is not a blockbuster in the style of Quaglino or Mezzo, but neither does it feel intimate. The long, thin room has two rows of tables, one against the wall, with banquettes broken up by screens, the other of larger circular tables by the win- dows. Sir Terence seems eager to ram home the message that it's uncool to be two. We were two, and art expert Lucy Beazer and I settled at a banquette, facing each other. At least, with my back to the room, I faced mirrors that showed me that Andrew Neil was at a circular table behind me.

Orrery's menu is up-market with a Fran- co-British accent, a la carte only at dinner, with a set lunch (£19.50 for two courses, £23.50 for three) offered at midday. Lucy and I chose from the interesting, and not over-long, carte, and the young English chefs, brothers Chris and Geoff Galvin, did not disappoint us. Lucy chose smoked salmon with deep-fried scallops and pickled cucumber, which seemed an error of judg- ment on Galvin's part — deep frying the scallops masked their delicate flavour, which was further reduced by the strands of pickled cucumber astride the salmon. My jellied lobster with fines herbes and fennel was a conspicuous success, opulent and delicious with the bonus of a shelled claw beside it. Next, Lucy enjoyed a plump maize-fed chicken with Puy lentils and roast garlic cloves, and I ate some marvel- lous fillets taken from the saddle of lamb, roasted perfectly pink and served with grilled aubergine, peppers and basil: a poem of a dish. To end, Lucy's black choco- late tart with crème fraiche made her happy, my Grand Marnier soufflé, with candied fruits and crème anglaise poured in at service, was slightly stodgy and, at £8, over-priced. Also over-priced was a half bottle of 1994 Mercurey rouge at a dizzy £18.50. With that, aperitifs, an espresso and an excellent fresh infusion of lemon and thyme, and including 12 1/2 per cent for polished service, the bill was £112. If rather costly, it was an enjoyable meal and I shall return.

Bluebird, on the first floor of the former garage in the King's Road, above a mega Conran foodstore, seats 240, but does so more companionably- than Conran's other large venues by grouping the tables into sections rather than stretching them out in long lines, canteen-style. On a sunny autumn day the Who's Really! Who author Richard Compton Miller and I settled at a window table overlooking the King's Road and marked our meeting with glasses of house champagne at a tolerable £6.25. Chef Michael Moore's showpiece at Bluebird is his wood oven, so I chose wood-roasted squab with pommes dauphinoises, even though £18.50 seemed a lot for a small pigeon and potatoes. Richard chose roast pheasant with creamed cabbage and shal- lots, though nobody seemed able to explain why two similar birds should undergo dif- ferent roasting processes, but at least the pheasant cost only £13.75. Both were good without being memorable, though the cele- riac puree, at £3.25, was distinguished. Pre- viously, Compton Miller had tackled a rather exiguous half-lobster mayonnaise for £12.50, and I had enjoyed some baked eggs with wild mushrooms and cream sauce better value at £5.25. Richard ended with crepes souffles with orange and lime, and I with good panna cotta and dried fruits in grappa liquor. With these I took a glass of French muscat and Richard a glass of Cotes du Rhone for £4.50. Thus, with a bottle of run-of-the-mill red burgundy, at an excessive £20.75, and 12 1/2 per cent ser- vice, the bill came to a punishing £128. But the room was full, and the pretty owner of Mimi's fashion boutique opposite and her designer seemed happy and said that they lunched there often, so the Bluebird com- plex can evidently be counted another Con- ran success.

So too, I suppose, can Zinc Bar and Grill in Heddon Street, off Regent Street, as it too was packed. I confess I hated it. It holds only 115, though the searing noise- level in the low-ceilinged, bare room makes it seem many more, and the relentless rows of tables, with skimpy round ones in the centre, give the ambience of a works can- teen. When I arrived I was given the Con- ran immigration service treatment by a charmless young woman named Hazel who, when finally satisfied that my name was on her list (I'd booked a week earlier), led me to the nastiest tables, by the emergency exit at the side of the room. Ungraciously she let me sit instead at a table in the window where the advertising wizard Judith Frame found me. We did not greatly enjoy our meal, which was not bad, just dull. Judith's crab bisque was actually very good, but my nice fresh crab, in its shell, not dressed, with mayonnaise, was an uphill struggle to dismember at a tiny table. Next, Judith's lamb shank and mash was precisely that: a kleftiko-cut adorned only by anonymous gravy and mash, no vegetable or garniture, nothing. Likewise my two decent sausages were served with just gravy and mash: for £6.50 surely Sir Terence could afford to give me a little onion too. You can't even order a green vegetable as an extra — only potatoes and salads. Desserts were vast portions of cappuccino mousse and praline sauce and two poached pears with caramel ice cream. The whole meal, with aperitifs, a bottle of dim red bordeaux at £15.50, poor coffee and 12 1/2per cent service, came to £68 for a cheerless experience.

Orrery, 55-57 Marylebone High Street, Lon- don NW1; tel: 0171 616 8000. Open all week. Bluebird, 350 King's Road, London SW3; tel: 0171 559 1000. Open all week.

Zinc Bar and Grill; 21 Heddon Street, Lon- don W1; tel: 0171 255 8899. Open all week.