DEBORAH ROSS friends and I have a restaurant booking in town but cannot get to it as it's the day after the car bomb so the West End is all roped off. I did try shouting, 'Let us through, let us through, we've a restaurant booking" but this did not appear to cut it. I've yet to try 'Do you know who I am?' for fear someone will say, 'Yes, Olive from On the Buses.' I do, I admit, bear a striking resemblance to Olive from On the Buses but, given the choice, would rather not be reminded. Would you?
Anyway, in the end, my friends and I trail unimaginatively back to Islington where we find ourselves on Upper Street. I'm spectacularly unimaginative, by the way, as is my son. I even once overheard him telling someone, 'I tried having an imaginary friend once, but he was boring, I didn't like him very much.' So, where to go, now we're on Upper Street? We consider our options and decide that, while Islington has many, many restaurants, a considerable number at any one time are completely crap. Some aren't even here today and gone tomorrow as they're here in the morning and gone by the afternoon. And we don't want anything too trendy, either. We're too old and tired and shot for rooms full of young men with geometric haircuts and those skinny-jeaned girls with legs going up to their armpits — although not literally, as that would be freaky — and all wearing those boldly patterned smock tops that seem to be so in at the moment. I recently tried on a boldly patterned smock top, vividly floral in nature. I looked like a pregnant milkmaid emerging from some tropical bush and when I told the assistant as much, she did not argue, and even sniggered a little. I did not then add, 'Do you know who I am?' as I was upset enough and did not wish to be pushed to the brink of suicide.
In the end, we settle for the Almeida which, happily, will have us even though we are so last-minute. The Almeida has been around for five years now — an astonishing achievement, in Islington terms — and has to be the safe choice. The Almeida is a Terence Conran restaurant and Terence Conran restaurants are the Vauxhall Corsa of restaurants: reliable, trustworthy, it'll get you there and back, no worries, but it's not exactly going to knock your socks off or provide the drive of your life. Please, though, don't think I have anything against Terence — or `Tez', as I would call him, if we were acquainted. After all, this is the man who, via Habitat, brought the duvet and the chicken brick to England and I have to say that every time I want to brick a chicken I do think: thank god for Tez. Remember how complicated it used to be, bricking chickens? Today's generation just don't know they're born.
The lady at the Almeida's front desk may be a little snobby. She takes my friends' coats, which are proper coats, makes to take my jacket before deciding no, why bother? (Do you know who I am?) It is a very nice denim jacket. It is Gap. I don't know why she has to be so sniffy. The room itself is big and spacious, inoffensively beige and that's about all I can now remember about the decor. Thankfully, most of the other diners appear to be grown-ups in the 40-plus range which is good, but the menu is in tiny faux handwriting, which is bad. At every table diners are holding it at some distance while squinting, as with an A-Z or the ingredient list on the side of packets. Oh, it's horrible getting old and having the eyesight go but I'll tell you this: a vividly patterned smock top is not the answer — never has been, never will.
The Almeida's shtick is French regional cooking, but at London prices, naturally. Actually, it's not that bad. It's £25 for two courses, £27 for three and you can always save on the mineral water by saying, 'Whoa, tap will do' because tap will do. What will they have us pay for next? Air? Indeed, as I recently remarked to the chap running the Oxygen Bar in Harvey Nichols: 'What will they have us pay for next? Air?' My, how we would have laughed if he hadn't scowled and then turned his back on me.
The menu features all the French classics, with starters including escargots, steak tartare, trolley of charcuterie, terrine de fois gras; while mains include rib-eye steak with Bordelaise sauce, spit-roast rack of pork and Madeira jus, roast cod with piperade. We muse our menus at a distance while the waiter — very French, very dishy — brings bread. It's not great bread and there's no basket from which to choose. It's slapped on the table and has as much taste as sliced white. The butter isn't that cold, either. Perhaps it's just because I like ice-cold butter; the sort you can slice and lay thickly on bread rather than spread. Perhaps it's just me, but I thought I would mention it all the same.
I eventually opt to start with the crayfish and coriander salad with the saffron dressing, which is a lovely little salad: fresh, perky dressing; tender morsels of crayfish. But as the friend who also has this starter says, 'I could make this at home.' Really? You'd make a crayfish salad with a saffron dressing? 'No, but the point is I could. When I go out to eat I like dishes that I know I'd never be able to do at home.' I know what she means. Next, I have the rib-eye steak with sauce Bordelaise. Why? Because I'm in the mood for a steak and if you are in the mood for a steak, I always find, nothing but a steak will do. OK I could, and do, cook steak at home, but I rarely get it perfect. A good steak should be charred and black and smoky on the outside, sweet and juicily red within, and I do find that hard to achieve. That's why I like to order it in restaurants, particularly French ones. But this steak? Not wonderful, frankly. It's bland, chewy, not as rare as I'd like — I like blood to dribble down my chin — and it's all but drowning in the sauce which doesn't taste of much, either. As for the pommes Pont Neuf, these are fat chips that taste not dissimilar to Birds Eye waffles. Why not offer hot, salty, skinny pommes bites instead? Meanwhile, my crème brake for pud is good: wonderfully crunchy on top, fabulously custardy and sweet below.
OK, here's what I think about the Almeida. Well, with our wine, and an added 'discretionary' (yeah, right) service charge of 12.5 per cent the bill for the three of us comes to £170. For that, I do think you should get a fairly memorable experience, albeit safe, but this isn't memorable. It's not bad, but it's just not exciting in any way. I know, I know, Vauxhall Corsa and all that. But I did, at least, expect a new Vauxhall Corsa with all the extras rather than this, which seems like a bit of a clapped-out old model. Still, better luck next week and, hopefully, no more bombs. Do you know who I am? Nope, don't answer that.
Almeida, 30 Almeida Street, London Ni. Leh 020 7354 4777.