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The Rainforest Café in London's West End

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We go on Safari in Shaftesbury Avenue

London has been honoured as the first place outside the USA to get a Rainforest Café, an establishment that takes the Theme Restaurant concept to new heights. Not that we at Dine Online have hitherto paid much attention to theme restaurants, as we've always taken the view that the food's the thing.

But where do you draw the line at what constitutes a theme? I enthused over the Venetian glass chandeliers and Rococo splendours of the The Oak Room at the Meriden Hotel, Piccadilly, which I likened to a set out of a grand opera. What about the Conservatory Restaurant at the Lanesborough with its decor reminiscent of the Prince Regent's Oriental Pavilion at Brighton? Or the the more homely frou-frou Francais of the Café Rouge chain? Whether you feel comfortable amidst gilded ceilings or facing out animated anacondas all depends on your own tastes, or those of the persona you feel like adopting on a particular occasion.

The Rainforest Café is nothing if not exotic. You enter through the mandatory shop, because the proof of the pudding is not only in the eating but in the wearing. Everyone should know you've been there and got the baseball cap - it's the modern equivalent of the old college blazer - just look where I went!

In the shop are some beautiful parrots and a fearsome crocodile that launches itself at you flailing its tail. You can ward off its attacks by throwing small change at it - several hundreds of pounds worth of assorted coinage glittered in its pool, to be scooped up regularly to help environmentally friendly charities.

There's no booking; on arrival you are given a passport, a safari name like "elephant", and the time your table will be ready. Then when your safari name is called, the safari guides take you downstairs into the huge grotto whose ceilings and walls are covered in dense foliage. Waterfalls cascade around you and animated critters of varying size and fierceness crouch in micro-habitats. We descended to a storm of Wagnerian magnificence - I was tremendously flattered as it seemed as though my party's entrance was being heralded to the assembled company. I felt like Jupiter visiting the underworld. In fact the storm passes overhead every twenty minutes or so. It's very good if you happen to be in the middle of a rather boring conversation. All activity simply has to cease and when it's over everyone will have forgotten what they were droning on about.

I took my nine year old godson, his father and my wife, so that we had a fair spectrum of opinion and so that we could justifiably try quite a few dishes. It would be wrong however, to think of the Rainforest Café as a kid's place. At about 7.00pm, most tables were populated by perfectly normal-looking adults who exhibited no obvious signs of being gastronomically retarded.

There's quite a lot to choose from on the menu, which takes a little while to digest, as it were, given that the names of many of the dishes are just as exotic sounding and unfamiliar as the decor. This means you have to read all the small print, to discover what Pieces of "Ate", Rumble in the Jungle, or Amazon Albacore are. African Wind turned out to be one of the Rainforest's signature dishes, not the after effect of eating Mojo Bones!

We kicked off with starters of Jungle Chowder (3.95) made from aubergines, courgettes and other vegetables "lightly stewed in a rich and zesty broth". The vegetables were good but the broth was anything but rich and zesty, and it was barely warm. Lack of hotness seemed to be a problem with some of the other dishes. The Godson had waffle fries, which are deep fried waffle cut potatoes with dipping sauce. He quite liked them (kids are so fussy!) - I thought they were very good, and would have rated them terrific had they been hot. Dad, a frequenter of such establishments, had the Mojo Bones (4.75), which are of course spare ribs in a BBQ sauce. Ten out of ten for the sauce, a little less for the ribs, which our stern critic thought were well cooked, but could have had a better meat to bone ratio. I had the afore mentioned pieces of "Ate" (6.75) which sounds expensive, but it's a "sharing dish", which could make a substantial main course on its own. I'm at a loss to describe this dish, other than that it was like a stuffed tortilla, with lots of relishes including a very good guacamole. It was genuinely delicious and I emerged from the first round as the undisputed champion chooser.

The lad chose his main course from the children's menu where all dishes cost Stg 3.45 There are tried and tested favourites like Rainforest Rascal, which is a hamburger, and Jurassic Chicken Tidbits - breaded chicken pieces in the shape of dinosaurs. Our Jeffrey, who is noted for his caution where culinary matters are concerned, chose Hot Diggety Dog, a very safe little hot dog in a steamed bun with "special recipe crisps", which sounded a bit alarming, so he ordered more of the waffle cut fries he'd sampled earlier. In any case he was far too excited by the regular antics of a nearby family of gorillas to take much notice of his dinner.

Dad had Island Hopper Chicken 9.85 which was indeed "char-broiled to perfection". He was most enthusiastic about this, and the piece of chicken I purloined from him was indeed very moist, tender and tasty. I didn't need to try his vegetables as they were just the same as mine, right down to the very attractive garnishes of strawberry, kiwi fruit and fresh pineapple. "Roasted veggies" crop up on quite a few dishes, except where the menu alleges that they are grilled or stirfried, which is what I reckon ours were. They were good as stir fried peppers go, but had certainly not been roasted and caramelized.

The Eyes of the Ocelot 9.95, was billed as a traditional American Meatloaf, which I thought I should try. The best thing about it was the super mashed potato and gravy that came with it, along with the ubiquitous roast veggies. The meat loaf didn't taste of anything very recognisable, but it was certainly not unpalatable and there was tons of it. Apparently the portions have been reduced for London, which says a lot about American appetites! Seafood Galapagos 9.95, turned out to be lukewarm pasta linguine with a fish topping that even a marine biologist would have had difficulty in identifying the constituent species, other than three or four little prawns.

Rainforest Rick's Apple Crisp 4.95, was a fairly standard apple crumble with ice cream, and the Chocolate Screamer Sundae 2.45, was a pale post modernist deconstructed version of the mind blowing concoctions we used to have in those old fashioned department store cafés in the fifties where you mined your way down through each exquisite layer. This one was simply ice cream, a strawberry and a bit of chocolate sauce. Where was the screamer?

We drank Beck's beer (2.25) and reliable Blossom Hill Californian wines of both hues (9.75). There are lots of other drinks, from Jungle Juices of various kinds, to "smoothies" made from frozen yoghurt and exotic cocktails at the bar, which is probably the best part of the whole enterprise. The bar itself is a beautiful winding mosaic snake, and the bar stools are the hindquarters of various wild animals - lotsa fun - as the menu would say.

We enjoyed our visit and my recommendation is, for the best value and flavour, to stick to the larger cuts of meat, they know how to handle them. By the way, I'd like to assure you that none of us suffered later from African Wind, and Jeffrey is still telling everyone at school about his jungle junketing.

by Jeffrey Wilkinson as told to Clifford Mould

The Rainforest Café London, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus

To find out about all the other branches, try the Rainforest Website

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