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Holly Acland goes groovy at a.k.a.

West End restaurant a.k.a. is not for the faint hearted. Its purple, windowless exterior gives little away and any sense of displacement accelerates as you step inside and are confronted by an awesomely trendy greeter with platform shoes, peroxide spiky hair and leather jacket.

Did we prefer leather or velvet - our host asked - as we were shown up a wide, featureless staircase to the restaurant. He was of course referring to the seating fabric, but I did wonder for a fleeting second, if we had stumbled upon a dubious x-rated drinking den. Not your average introduction but then a.k.a. is not your average Covent Garden restaurant.

The venue opened in July as an addition to nightclub The End and is situated squarely between Holborn, Tottenham Court Road and Covent Garden. It includes a late night bar and mini cinema on the lower level and aims to offer good quality, affordable food to a younger audience who might not find their tastes catered for in the tourist-swollen heart of Covent Garden.

But don't be put off if you're worried about feeling hopelessly out of place in a restaurant cum nightclub you imagine will be populated by bright, young Soho trendies. There is little cross fertilisation between a.k.a. and The End, which attracts a younger eighteen plus crowd.

Exposed metallic heating ducts and wiring, roughly plastered walls and plywood tables contributed to a look which can best be described as 'industrial'. Over a Japanese Slipper cocktail, a sharp combination of Tequila, Midori, lemon and lime, my partner rather unfairly commented that the venue was begging for some of Handy Andy's magic - the masterful handy man from the BBC programme Changing Rooms. The design is bold and spacious and includes an aerial walkway to a suspended dining table, recently used by Channel Four for a private party.

We selected the Côte à Côte French house wine which was perfectly acceptable for £10. The wine menu rose to £32 for a bottle of Wild Boy Chardonnay and included a good selection of wines by the class. The menu was unfussy and just over half the items change every day. Starters ranged from £3 to £7 although the more extravagant could indulge in an audacious terrine of foie gras with brioche and agen prunes soaked in Earl Grey and armagnac for £13.50. I selected grilled sardines with roasted tomato and basil on aubergine toast and my partner plumped for fresh crab with cucumber relish and indian leeks.

The presentation was beautiful and the sardines perfectly cooked with the meat flaking away from the bones. My only complaint was that the large cooked tomato made the aubergine toast slightly soggy and might have happily sat alongside sausages and beans at your local greasy spoon. My partner raved about his starter. The crab was piled up into a precarious pyramid in the centre of the plate with a zesty sauce artistically arranged around the edge.

Our waiter Solomon was quietly spoken and attentive, clearing the table with minimum fuss and filling our glasses unobtrusively throughout the meal. Our main dishes perfectly complemented each other. I selected the char-grilled tuna - so evenly seared that it could have been spray painted - accompanied by an aromatic pale yellow piccalili sauce dotted with sprigs of cauliflower (£11.50).

My partner chose a robust grilled fillet steak on red pepper, with cous cous and basil terrine (£12.50). The terrine looked alarmingly like pesto, providing a vivid reminder of student days when one jar of pesto and a bag of dried pasta provided endless meals, but it was the perfect companion to the soft cous cous. After the first mouthful the steak was declared one of the best he'd ever tasted! So top marks to the chef standing in for head chef Paul Holmes, on holiday in Ibiza. (Where else would the chef of a.k.a. choose to holiday?) Further superlatives came from the table opposite where I overheard a young man describe his grilled lamb rump on saffron curried potatoes as "outstanding".

Both courses were pleasingly light and we had plenty of room for desserts, all priced at £4. The hot ginger doughnut with pineapple and honey ice cream was an imaginative combination and the strawberry fool and cinnamon twist had me scraping at the bottom of the glass for the last remains, finally resorting to fingers.

This restaurant is undoubtedly going to flourish. It is not actively marketed, relying more on friends and satisfied customers to spread the word. Judging by the number of friends I have sent their way since our meal, this strategy should prove effective. A haven for anyone wanting to escape from the street entertainers and themed restaurants which dominate Covent Garden, a.k.a. is likely to inspire a loyal following.

Holly Acland, September 1998

a.k.a. 18 West Central Street, London WC1A 1JJ
Telephone: 020 7836 0110

Opening hours. Lunch: 12 noon - 4 pm Monday to Friday;
Dinner: 6pm to 1 am Monday to Saturday;
Sunday Lunch 12 noon to 6pm

And here's a comment from a reader...

Date: 26/10/98 15:45:55 GMT
I visited this restaurant back in September, the food was excellent, and plentiful. We had a set menu, although not as it seems, there were 4 choices each of started, main courses and desserts. We were in a party of 12 and all tasted each others. They were all great.

I will certainly be visiting again...



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