21 FEBRUARY 1987, Page 43

11 11 11.111111111 11 11I 111 1111 1 1 11 1 1111 1 1111111 1 1111 11 IF YOUR idea of hell is one long, perpe-

tual office party, do not go to Gorky Park. I would even go so far as to say avoid Mackennal Street, St John's Wood, where this six-week-old restaurant is situated: for I shouldn't be at all surprised to find some sort of rambunctious Slavic conga snaking its way through the streets of this otherwise sedate neighbourhood. Gorky Park (722 5009) is all about fun, and it's only fair that you should be warned.

It used to be a pub, and many of the original fittings remain: capacious bar, a great deal of dark wood and clusters of 'Victorian' glass lamps on the walls, now cluttered with an indiscriminate mix of Russiana propaganda posters from The Great Patriotic War, 'mediaeval' icons, rugs, guns, red stars and an artistic draping of gothic and classical hangings.

The show seems to be run by an arrest- ing and implausible Russian with a name that sounded like Vaughan, but I'm sure was really something more impressively Ostblokisch. With his radical chic 'Soviet' track suit (Cyrillic characters laddering up his thigh), visible wedge of matted chest and almost waist-length mane of highlight- ed, rough-cut corkscrew curls, he looked as if he could have escaped from Stringfel- lows. He is, rather, an adroitly successful businessman. On the night I went, in its fifth week, the place was fully booked up. The floor above the restaurant houses a private room, for 'intimate' (his word) parties, and two other businesses — an interior d6cor company and 'celebrity and model agency'. And anyway, 'Vaughan' has another business in Moscow. (I asked what this was. His ingenuous reply: 'Black market'.) Strange though it may seem, one of the things that has made the place so popular is its bulging retinue of entertainers. As you come in you nearly trip over the backbone of the evening's performance — a band of red-waistcoated middle-aged men, desper- ately clinging on to whatever might remain of their dignity as they churn out ballads and rousing melodies from the mother- land. That one of these melodies turned out to be Mary Hopkin's 'Those Were the Days' could, in a sense, be thought reassur- ing. Throughout the evening there is much gong-ringing to warn of other acts includ- ing an exotic, camel-eyed dancing girl in the eastern style (suspected provenance somewhere in Tunbridge Wells), suitably decked out in puce chiffon and spangled pendant furnishings. For this you pay £5 cover charge — per head. Anyhow it goes down terribly well with the customers, most of whom wear leather mini-skirts, shaven heads and/or peaked caps.

Naturally, you drink vodka. For £1.60 a shot, there are plenty of different sorts to choose from: limonaya (infused with lemon), zubrovka (with bison grass), pert- sovka (with red and black pepper), stavka (with, apparently, Crimean apple and pear leaves, port and brandy added) or okhbot- nichaya ('hunter's vodka', infused with just about everything) to name, as they say, but a few. The only thing was, the vodka wasn't very cold, so it didn't have that compelling viscosity proper freezing gives it. But the alternative is an unexceptional wine list — no Georgian wines or cham- pinski, though 'Vaughan' — in true Rus- sian manner — says there are special wines 'not on the menu' but available to those who ask.

It must, by now, be fairly obvious that the food is not the place's main draw but, price apart, it is not too disastrous. Their menu, written in Steadmanesque hand, offers a small, necessarily incomplete, selection from the enormously varied Rus- sian cuisines. Starters include borshch, verging on the indifferent, blini with sal- mon and sour cream (or beluga caviar at £22.50 for 2 oz) and of course, zakuski the 'little bites' or hors d'oeuvre which form the basic part of the Russian table. Best of the main courses seemed to be the Salmon Kulebiaka — salmon, mushrooms, rice, onion, eggs and dill mixed in layers and wrapped in puff pastry — and the Chicken Pozoski — patties of minced chicken and veal, vodka-glazed and in a creamy mushroom and gherkin sauce. Pud- ding, if you must, should be their cheese pancake, if it's on, otherwise the rhum baba (just), but not their pavlova, about which they so unjustifiably boast. Anyway, I had always understood pavlova to be New Zealand's only contribution to gastro- nomic culture, if you can call it that.

If this sounds like your sort of a place, and you don't mind spending £25 a head without tip, go. But don't say you haven't been warned.

Nigella Lawson