Food review: Scoff & Banter at Covent Garden

Scoff and Banter

Scoff and Banter - Credit: Archant

Joseph Connolly enjoys pleasant banter at this Covent Garden restaurant but the only scoffing he can manage is in derision at the inedible dishes and shaky service.

Disaster. Oh God yes – sometimes, despite all my careful planning and fine intentions, I am prey to a queasy feeling that I teeter upon the verge of disaster. The awful thing is, my instinct is unerringly sound … and so, I am afraid, it was just the other day. Now look: I am lucky enough to know a good few amusing and interesting people who are eminent in their field, so I don’t just ask anyone to lunch, and book somewhere handy. I try to match suitability – and, in common with any host, I want my guests to enjoy themselves. Yes – and hence to Scoff & Banter: a delightful name, don’t you think? Could serve as my epitaph. Anyway, the highly respected theatre producer Roger Chapman – in charge of touring productions at the National Theatre – is a man who likes his scoff, and the banter between us is always lively … so where better? Well just about anywhere at all, as it turned out: a Wimpy Bar would have represented a quantum leap forward in terms of gastronomic capability and epicurean delight.

So what went wrong …? Oh God: let me count the ways. Firstly, it’s a bugger to find. Part of a Radisson hotel, the address is Mercer Street in Covent Garden – but don’t for heaven’s sake go imagining that it is actually in Mercer Street, because it ain’t: it’s in Monmouth Street, more or less opposite Mon Plaisir. Also across the road is Orla Kiely – a woman who has established fame and fortune from having rescued an infantile and stylised imagining of spindly leaves from the 1950s and slapping it on to anything you care to name. So I went into the restaurant – lots of black shiny marble and general swishness contrasting hilariously with acres of the nastiest upholstery imaginable: mauve and yuck and green and yuck, looking like an explosion in the Axminster factory. And I stood at the lectern with all the bookings on it, and waited. Because nobody was there. So I waited a bit more, and then I had a wander. Met a waitress of eleven-and-a-half who spoke no English, but had a lovely smile. Shuffled back to the lectern: nothing and nobody. Then someone appeared and wordlessly stared at the screen: took forever to locate my name – I said it didn’t matter anyway as the place was practically empty. So I took my horrible seat in a featureless room on a far too low and bilious divan. There is silly music.

The lunch menu is tiny, with two courses at £17.50, three for £21, as well as things called ‘bar bites’. I then noticed that Roger was late … and Roger is never late. Then came his email: ‘I have just been shown the door. They know of no booking in your name’. Jesus Jesus Jesus …so I shot out of the door and found my guest palely loitering on the pavement, looking justly forlorn. And it was then I should have obeyed my instincts, cut my losses and taken him to Mon Plaisir … but I didn’t. The person at the lectern had transmogrified into a boy who wasn’t eleven-and-a-half, more like nearly nine – and when I remonstrated he muttered something curtly in possibly Croat.

Roger is as busy as ever – touring with Under Milk Wood and The Audience, and now staging David Mamet’s American Buffalo at Wyndham’s theatre, starring Damian Lewis. So we chatted – and despite the rocky beginning, the banter was on form. And so to scoff: we agreed that the only vaguely enticing starter was pulled hot pork and pear salad with winter greens and thyme dressing. The waitress – possibly even in her teens – was smiley and helpful and blissfully unaware that she was working in a car crash, and one that is seemingly devoid of any managerial presence whatsoever. The pulled pork one pushed away: what a joke. Cold, hard, tough little bits of debris on a tangle of leaves, beneath which was a sliver of icy pear. Roger politely apologised for not pursuing the thing: “I seem to be chewing for no very good reason”. He had ordered to follow haddock and chips because “I come from Hull, and I know fish”. But he and this particular incarnation were sadly to remain strangers: a tiny, thin and battered thing served in a stupid metal basket, with half-cooked totally unseasoned chips.

But the worst was yet to come! I had ordered something odd because it sounded quite wonderful: baked free range duck egg omelette with smoked ham and a toasted hazelnut salad. Well God Almighty – how could anyone manage to DO this to eggs …? For here was an omelette that was maybe made from the leftover stuffing of the disgusting sofas: you could have thrown it against the wall, and the wall would have thrown it right back at you. Quite literally uneatable … and the chips were as bad as Roger’s. Lordy, Lordy, Lordy … we fell upon the Cotes du Rhone as desert castaways towards an oasis.

We talked about Roger’s extraordinary career, while wishing that one of us had had the wit to bring sandwiches. He trained as an actor, but felt that directing was more his line. At the age of 23, he was directing and producing plays for schools with a staff of 10.

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Then Australia for 13 years … and then he got the call from Richard Eyre at the National. “So my son swapped Adelaide for a tough school in Friern Barnet, which he only survived by being six months ahead with the plotlines for Neighbours”. They lived in Muswell Hill, and Roger discovered Hampstead. “I come back regularly: Barratt in England’s Lane for meat, and then lunch at The Stag”.

So, following abandoned awful fish and jettisoned unspeakable omelette … a Bakewell Tart for Roger: He was amazed that it was pretty good. I liked my chocolate fondant … or maybe we were just starving, who’s to say? We had good banter … but if it’s scoff you’re after, I very much recommend just anywhere else on the face of the planet.

Joseph Connolly’s latest novel is STYLE, published by Quercus in hardback and ebook. All previous restaurant reviews may be viewed on the website