A different kind of steak-out on Heath Street

BY JOSEPH CONNOLLY Attentive readers might recall that last week I lunched in the whitest restaurant in town – St John. Soon after I went for dinner to the Hampstead outpost of the Argentinian chain, Gaucho, whose interior is modelled upon that of a coal mine. Walls, floor

Attentive readers might recall that last week I lunched in the whitest restaurant in town - St John. Soon after I went for dinner to the Hampstead outpost of the Argentinian chain, Gaucho, whose interior is modelled upon that of a coal mine. Walls, floor and ceiling, all black - but unlike St John, they just won't let the idea lie: there are other factors too, and these are weird.

It took a while to accustom my eyes to the fathomless gloom during the lengthy amble from entrance to table; although one is above ground, we have here the air of a converted tunnel. From the outside, this Heath Street building rather resembles the dickied-up fire station in Ghostbusters, should any of you be so old or trivia-minded as to recall that thing.

And while a hack far slacker than I would at this point dub the place a "Tardis", you won't be hearing it from me. Suffice to say that the main long thin bit seems to stretch back for ever, whereupon it blossoms out into yet another, even larger space. From time to time the midnight of the walls is punctuated by a panel of hairy bovine - bristly hide that extends to the upholstery of the 1970s-style chromium pedestal swivel chairs.

Do you begin to detect a theme here? No, me neither - so let's just settle for that of a determinedly dated eatery given over to solemn genuflection before the altar of beef. Cows R Us, they might have called it - didn't, obviously, because that wouldn't be retro-cool or ironic. For this, bizarrely, is what I think they are working at here, in this rather spooky recreation of Hades.

Then there are the chandeliers: vast, rococo and pendulous - the sort of thing that Liberace might have gazed up at from amid the bubbles in his Steinway-shaped Jacuzzi. They don't actually emit any light, of course, but when in a restaurant was that ever the point? So we have here a backdrop where Cruella de Vil might lurk and cackle, plotting to make topcoats from the newborn of an unsuspecting herd (poor cows). There is also a splatter of Stringfellow's to it, and a nod to the Playboy Mansion circa 1974. I shouldn't have been surprised by the appearance of Hugh Heifer himself, silken pyjamas flapping about his, um - calves.

No girls, though - not in that sense - but a bevy of helpful and attractive waitresses. I was with Max, a local lad who spent his youth in Highgate, mooching with intent. Then, 30 years ago, he went to live in Canada, for reasons that continue to elude him. I was just pleased he got the right place (last time he was in London we had met in the Groucho, so you can see the potential for confusion).

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Max owns a travel company and has on many occasions eaten Argentinian beef and drunk Argentinian wine in Argentina, so I was red-hot keen for his comments. Myself, I don't know a thing about the place, except that the wine can be thick and soupy and fellingly alcoholic (not, actually, a good thing). But here's a snippet from Gaucho's website: "Argentina is where the survivor mentality meets with the herd instinct with sometimes chaotic but always fascinating results!". Mm - as in the invasion of the Falklands, I suppose.

Anyway: time to order. The menu came in the form of a truncheon (black leather) that concertinas out into the Magna Carta. First thought: not cheap. Second thought: Jesus - bloody expensive, actually. The starters were not very interesting at all - and, with hindsight, should have been skipped. The place was nearly full, seemingly with regulars, who were pointedly not having starters: in all of their eyes was eerily aglow the self-same lusty impatience: Where's The Beef?! Slavering carnivores, every man jack of them - so imagine my astonishment when there in a corner, dressed in a patent leather jacket, knee-skimming pink suede boots and gorging on a pound of flesh... was Stella McCartney!

Well no, not actually: looked a lot like her, though.

So, deep-fried soft shelled crab for Max, warm corn-fed chicken salad with Colston Bassett stilton for me. Both no good. The tiny crab (�9.50!) could have been deep-fried anything - and does the kitchen really not run to a roll of Plenty to blot up the residue? A further quilted sheet was needed for my mean little chicken slivers: pointless, and greasy to boot.

My heart went out to the waitress as she manhandled a mighty board laden with raw and massive cuts of beef. Smiling and so eager to impart such knowledge, but ultimately crushed by the sheer number of times she had had to talk the punter through the rump, the ribeye, the fillet. The steaks come in three sizes: small (pretty sizeable), medium (damn big, no question) and large (get yourself down here, Nigella - we need you now!). "Are they any good?" I asked the waitress. She gave me such a look.

Max went for a mid-size ribeye, while I, ever conscious of my svelte silhouette, ordered a small fillet, medium pink. "It will be medium pink?" I asked the waitress. She gave me such a look. I seemed to have contracted foot-in-mouth disease. There was a hefty wait for the mains. I asked for the music to be turned down. Wasn't music, of course - just an eternal synthesised thumpingly beaty opening to a disco track that never actually got around to starting: just the migraine of an intro, endlessly. You do wonder, don't you? Who it's meant to be for. We'd nearly finished the wine by the time the steaks came; I'd asked for the red with the lowest alcohol content which turned out to be something called Zuccardi, at 13%. Still thick and soupy, though - and not remotely good value at �30.75.

Which brings me to cost: the bill here is quite frankly ridiculous. Everything is extra: a thimbleful of (vinegary) bearnaise: �2.50. Three (vinegary) portobello mushrooms: �4.75. So-so chips, spinach - all extra. Yes yes yes, I know: but what about the steaks? Well very fine indeed, actually (and so I should bloody well hope). Tender and extremely flavoursome, without a doubt. Max said his was as good as in Argentina, or even Chicago (the highest praise, as those who know, know) - with one rather telling difference: in Argentina (and even in Chicago) beef and wine are pretty cheap. In Heath Street, they ain't. All of the above, plus one bottle of horrible Hildon water - came to �104.35. Without service. Well.

The bubbly waitress was eager to tell us that soon they would open the little garden at the back where there would be an all-you-can-eat barbecue at �35 a head, which she seemed to imagine was a giveaway. "Do you like steak?" I asked her. "I don't remember," she happily replied. "I haven't had one this year. The chef gives me bits for my cat, though. I go home after my shift and eat crackers". Got to love her, haven't you?

And then I wanted to leave - ride bareback and rough-shod across the sun-scorched pampas, and home to my estancia. But I don't know... a sort of lassitude came down upon me: all that black, I think. I felt I could just have sat there and stared at it till the cows came home. Oh, enough - look: if you want it, this is Gaucho. No more argy-bargy.

Gaucho, 64 Heath Street, NW3.

Telephone 020-7431 8222.

Food: five star rating for steak, two star rating for everything else

Service: four star rating

Open: Mondays to Thursdays noon to 11pm, Fridays and Saturdays noon to11.30pm, Sundays 10am to 10.30pm.

Cost: More than �100 for two, with soup. Sorry, wine.