26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 64

DESPITE George Trefgame's concerns about the imminence of recession in

the capital's restaurant business (p. 11), within the precincts of the City of London itself, optimism still seems to prevail. Earlier this year, Gary Rhodes opened his City Rhodes restaurant in the caterers Gardner Mer- chant's headquarters in New Street Square, off Fetter Lane, and though I have yet to get there, I understand it has been doing good business at lunch and dinner on week- days. Now two more major establishments have just opened further into the City, and I have been to both and found plenty of customers happily eating and drinking.

Soren Jessen, the Goldman Sachs Danish banker, was backer and partner to Oliver Peyton at Atlantic Bar and Grill and Coast in the West End, and has now moved to do his own thing in the banking hall of an Edwardian listed building next door to Mansion House at No. 1 Lombard Street. He has already opened a large brasserie, and will shortly also open a smaller, de luxe restaurant behind it, with Herbert Berger, the Austrian chef in charge of both. At the same time Sir Terence Conran has occu- pied the top floor of the controversial building erected by Lord Palumbo at 1 Poultry. There he has a large restaurant, Coq d'Argent, seating well over 100, plus a spacious bar, also serving snacks, and a vast roof garden, with tables on the terrace at which to eat in warm weather. Coq d'Argent is open for lunch and dinner until 10.30 p.m. all week, except Saturday lunch. No. 1 Lombard Street is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday to Friday. Clearly these proprietors do not fear a recession, and both establishments were doing good busi- ness when I visited them.

I went to Lombard Street in the evening to meet David Damant, the financial analyst and adviser to the Russian government (not on their economy!), for a gentle dinner after his tough week in Moscow and Nov- gorod. The banking hall, with its shallow dome, looked clean and fresh, with square and rectangular tables as one came through the entrance, then a circular bar beneath the dome, with circular tables to the side. Appropriately, since it has an Austrian chef, it reminded me of Café Central in Vienna, with its bustling, bankerish atmosphere. The bar was encircled by middle-aged middle- management in suits, with relatively few women, and the dining area, initially rather empty, began to fill after our 7.45 arrival.

There is a wide-ranging menu, which includes caviar (£34 to £78 for 50g) and a good selection of crustacea (lobster £19.50 grilled or poached, £22 cold with crab and langoustine). Damant decided to start with a soft-boiled free-range egg on a grilled muffin, served with spinach and mushroom ragout, and I had a pig's trotter galette with truffle jus and mesclun and herb salad. This was excellent: a splendidly crisp parcel of well-flavoured meat, intensified by the truf- fie jus. Damant's egg was less satisfactory: not soft enough for the yolk to spread over the rest, the muffin dull and the mush- rooms and spinach not really happy togeth- er. One of the few gimmicks on Berger's menu, it could safely be dropped.

His next course was much better: a thor- oughly well-made coq au vin, with good, tasty chicken, an admirably vinous sauce full of shallots, mushrooms and chopped vegetables, accompanied by good mashed, not puréed, potatoes. My steamed finnan haddock in an English mustard sauce with green cabbage was likewise full of flavour.

To end, Damant chose delicious hot strawberries cooked with black pepper in sauternes and served with a fromage blanc sorbet, and I was pleased with a good old- fashioned cream caramel, served with roasted rhubarb. With coffee and a decent bottle of pinot d'Alsace, our meal came to £94.50, on the high side for a brasserie, and leaving me to wonder just how much more expensive the restaurant will prove. Yet No. 1 Lombard Street is a welcome City newcomer, and even in hard times should do well.

I lunched at Coq d'Argent on a warm, sunny August day with the Editor, having promised him good, simple cooking. After a brush with young women of the Conran Immigration Service who said I could not have the outdoor table I had previously reserved, a manager had to be called to guide them, and I duly sat out on the ter- race. So sad that these harpies should mar first impressions of so many Conran estab- lishments. Thereafter service was fine, and the food, though slightly more expensive and less interesting than Lombard Street's, was acceptable.

The Editor began with some beautifully fresh langoustines, with good mayonnaise. Caviar is dearer here than at Lombard Street — £42.50 to £92 for 50g — so I decided to start with just five cooked oys- ters (£8.75), and very good they were, en gel& with horseradish. Next, the editor ate some excellent French boudin noir, attrac- tively served with prunes and armagnac, and I had a less exciting spit-roast breast of chicken which, at £14.50, arrived bare on the plate, with no leg, bacon, chipolata or stuffing, just a dab of bread sauce, with veg- etables extra. It smacked of meanness and portion control.

To end, we shared a pleasant apple char- lotte with ice cream whose calvados I could not discern. It was a reasonable meal on an attractive, sunlit terrace — the indoor tables are agreeably clustered, rather than in Conran's usual long lines — but for £103, with just a half bottle of Mercurey, I think one is entitled to expect something more special.

No. 1 Lombard Street, London EC3; tel: 0171 929 6611. Open Monday to Friday. Coq d'Argent, 1 Poultry, London EC2; 0171 395 5000. Open all week, except Saturday lunch.