3 OCTOBER 1992, Page 42

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IT DID NOT start well. On phoning to book a table for dinner, I was asked for a credit card number. As far as I know, this is a new practice this side of the Atlantic, dis- comfiting but not perhaps surprising. It's not the Criterion's fault that I had then to get hold of someone else's credit card to avoid alerting the restaurant of my visit, but it gets worse. I was told that if we can- celled a £10 charge would be levied. Now I can understand penalising the discourteous diner for simply not showing, but there is no excuse for charging those who bother to ring to cancel their table. More to the point, I don't see that the establishment has any legal right to do so. Since I knew I wouldn't cancel — or I'd have no restau- rant to review — I didn't argue, but I think under other circumstances I'd be consider- ably less meek, and I advise you to be.

The room in all its restored glory is a splendid sight: the gold mosaic ceiling and stone-encrusted walls make this quite the most beautiful dining-room in England. The small tables which line this echoing hall (if you have trouble hearing, dinner here will be a trying experience) have been painted by a Yugoslavian muralist, Filip Sotirovic, in the muted colours of Byzan- tine frescoes. Apparently Sotirovic, or so one of the waitresses cheerfully informed us as she sat us down at one of his tables, became so obsessively entranced by the beauty of his creation that he went mad and is now languishing in an asylum. Whether this is the truth or just a sales pitch, I wouldn't like to say.

The menu is in that now over-familiar, idiom, 'eclectic Italian/American', which I, at least, am becoming heartily sick of encountering. I love this sort of food, but surely it's time a restaurant felt it could open without plying the old polenta, brus- chetta, pizza and pan-fried whatever with balsamic vinegar. That having been said, the Criterion does it well enough, especial- ly considering the numbers of people around 200 — the kitchen has to feed.

However, the bruschetta itself was not a success. The toasted farmhouse bread, smeared, as it should be, with garlic and olive oil, was reduced to sogginess by the tomatoes sliced on top of it. This perhaps is one of the disadvantages of catering for such crowds, for it all should be assembled at the last minute so that the crunchiness of the toasted bread remains in contradistinc- tion to the fresh and fruity wetness of the tomato; here they merged into one damp whole. The Caesar salad was fine, but a desire to do something new with it led the chef to adorn it with thin slices of cheese. Any chef should realise that a Caesar salad cannot be improved upon: any addition detracts from the original, perfect composi- tion. Fried spaghetti is such a provoking idea I had to try it. You may learn by my mistakes: avoid it. It was quite the most disgusting thing I think I've ever eaten. Other starters exhibited no such flaws. The minestrone was off the night we went; in its place was a white bean soup with pancetta, thick and grainy, the pancetta infusing the creamy liquid with its barony breath. Crab cakes are small, plump rounds, the sweet meat steamily fragrant with curry and pungent coriander, and the sausages with soft polenta are the genuine article, no camped-up Cal-Ital confection.. Main courses are standard fare for this sort of menu. Garlicky squid with lemon oil (whatever that is) and diced peppers were tasty and tender, but the peppers were too sweet: the dish cloyed. Liver and mash came as one great slop, the liver chopped too finely, the potato puréed too exuber- antly. It all tasted as it should, but texture was lacking. Steak frites was fine, the chips sweet and fatty just as I like them, though some may prefer a crispier finish. A lemon tart was gloopy but agreeably tart, but the warm chocolate cake was a tri- umph. More of a pudding really, it man- aged to convey both rich denseness and a delicious melting powderiness. For the four of us, getting through three courses each, including a couple of glasses of wine before, lots of water and a bottle of innocu- ous Californian white with, then coffee after, the bill came to £92 without tip.

The Criterion, Piccadilly Circus, London WI; tel 071 925 0909

Nigella Lawson