Navajo Joe: Southwestern Bar and Grill

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Clifford Mould comes out from behind the cactus

The sheer inventiveness and enterprise of today's restaurateurs leaves me breathless. Whoever would have thought of naming a restaurant after an Indian, or rather a native American, who took a fancy to the whiteman's laughing waters, won compensation from the US government and opened a casino enabling him to get his own back on the perfidious palefaces? However do said retaurateurs raise an immense wad of money to do up a prime site in London's Covent Garden, equipping it with a vast bar made of six tons of translucent marble? The collection of bottles behind the bar reminded me of a Wurlitzer organ with rank upon rank of cleverly lit pipes of all different shapes sizes and colours. I'm told that Navajo Joe sports the largest collection of Tequilas and Bourbons this side of Austin Texas. So much for his disillusion with the laughing waters.

The answer to my somewhat rhetorical questions above is Brian Stein. He has been kicking around Covent Garden for years - remember Brahms & Liszt, the wine bar just around the corner from the Royal Opera House? That was Brian Stein's. His Maxwell Group owns the branches of Maxwells, PJ's, The Roadhouse and the very popular Cactus Blue in the Fulham Road.

We noticed Navajo Joe whilst wandering through Covent Garden on our way to Soho and the Lindsay House. The groundfloor bar is simply stunning and there's an additional mezzanine dining area that makes use of the lofty ceiling of this old greengrocer's warehouse. For non Londoners and anyone under about thirty, I should point out that Covent Garden Vegetable Market was one of the three great food markets of central London, the others being Smithfield (meat), and Billingsgate (fish).

The menu is sensibly arranged in sections such as appetisers, quesadilla & nachos, salads & sandwiches, pastas and pad thai, grills etc. The centrepiece is Southwestern Specialities. We ordered some nachos smothered in melted monterey cheese and I drank a sweet but smokily refreshing beer, Celis Pale Bock, brewed in Texas while we thought about our main choices.

A starter of Ceviche of fresh salmon marinated in with lime coriender chili and coconut sounded adventurous, but we decided on the sampler plate, always a good choice for the restaurant critic. We couldn't figure out what Sedona Spring Rolls were, except that a julienne of vegetables had been thankfully substituted for bamboo shoots. The Crispy Calamari Rings were good, not terribly crispy, but that's only a criticism because they were billed as crispy. Curried calamari rings would have been a more accurate description. I thought the polenta coating was rather a good idea. Chicken wings, Wing Dings were plump and didn't taste of creosote, a flavour that is strangely popular in certain other American style diners. The dips were very good, the guacamole had a bit of texture and the salsa tasted of tomato. The highlight of the selection was an excellent quesadilla, crisp on the outside, runny with molten cheese and wild mushrooms within.

Be warned, portions are generous, by the time we'd finished off the nachos and the samplers, we knew we were going to end up as foie gras.

My pal continued with a Pad Thai noodle salad with large juicy prawns and she was severely defeated. It was a slightly odd concoction with various ingredients in search of a theme. The peanut satay sauce topping might have been better served in a side bowl. Do raunchy Texans go for this sort of fodder, we wondered? I think it was just another case of Thai a yellow ribbon... Come to think of it, I wonder who were the Three Amigos who dreamed up fettucini with seared scallops, jumbo gulf shrimps and mussels tossed in chipotle citrus cream. As fantasy menu items go this sounded a goodun - I must try it another time.

Instead I had a Southwestern Speciality in the form of Caramelized Tequila duck breast with black cherry sauce and black bean rosti. The slices of duck were pink and tender with a good crisp skin. The bean rosti was terrific - lots of flavours and texture - and the sauce would have been great on a friend's dinner table in Berkshire but didn't seem quite at home amidst the cactus! I couldn't resist a side order of Jalapeno Poppers. Don't miss them, they are gorgeous little darlings. The sour cream comes oozing out just in time to quench the fire!

I don't know quite how I managed to find room for a cheesecake, but it was one of those properly cooked cheesecakes on a crunchy chocolate biscuit base, not a horrid gelatine mousse.

The service was excellent, from a very pretty girl who is probably really an actor. Many actors especially around Covent Garden play the role of waiter, and very good they are at portraying the kind of waiter we'd prefer not to see that often. This young lady gave a convincing performance of one those rare professionals who adeptly steer the narrow path between irritating enthusiasm and supercilious nonchalence.

I think Navajo Joe has the potential to be a winner for the Maxwell Group. I don't think they should be afraid of taking the bull by the horns and going all out for really authentic Southwestern cuisine. I got the impression that all the necessary skills are there, but someone is just a little afraid that if the bets aren't hedged, and the funny funky names aren't there then the punters won't come in. What's it to be, a no compromise destination or just another catch-all passing trade? Destination every time I say, so go for it!

Prices for central London are quite modest: Appetizers, quesadillas 3.45 to 5.95; Southwestern specialities and grills 6.95 to 10.95; sides 2.45; desserts 3.45; House wines from 9.25

Navajo Joe, 34 King Street, Covent Garden, London WC2. Tel: 020 7240 4008

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