May 26, 2009, 1:00am
YOU can hire out Bel Canto’s opera-singing waiters and waitresses – who are liable to break into arias while you tuck into your foie gras – for private events. It may be a better way to enjoy their prodigious talents than visiting this ropey restaurant.<br /><br />If warbling waiting staff isn’t the campest dining idea ever, Bel Canto’s location in a building adjoining Mincing Lane must place it up there. The City extension of a successful Parisian venture mixing opera and food, I had imaginings of some romantic, Belle Epoque-style hide-away in an old cobbled courtyard – one can dream. Instead, it sits in the basement of a thrusting modern office block near Fenchurch street – an area that, by night, has all the liveliness of a graveyard. Ah well.<br /><br />You half-expect the waiting staff to trill “thank you sir, may I show you to your taaaable” as you hand over your coat. In fact, the music is managed on an every-15-minutes basis, whereupon a piano sparks up and majestic arias echo round the room – and there’s a lot of echo. The cavernous dining room, despite its crimson walls, old opera posters and decorative stage costumes hanging here and there, is denied any sense of drama by its ugly architecture and yawning dimensions.<br /><br />Hardly more attractive is the a la carte “Lyric Menu”, which comes in at a terrifying £55 a head, and is truly uninspiring. The main course veggie option, penne pasta with pesto, is something that would embarrass most cheapo Italian bistros. Such basic fare at Michelin star prices is going to need spectacular singing to make it worthwhile – we’re talking Queen of the Night in all her glory.<br /><br />We kick off with salmon gravadlax, a free range poached egg, and the main aria from Tchaikovsky’s Onegin. The salmon’s fine if unexceptional, coming with a peculiar cucumber sorbet that adds nothing while taking nothing away, as is cucumber’s wont. The egg sits among scatterings of fatty bacon lardons, atop tiny bread rolls that look like pebbles and are about as easy to chew. The Tchaikovsky, performed with dashing bravura by a young baritone waiter, is sublime.<br /><br /><strong>TERRIFIC SINGERS</strong><br />As with operas, things take an age. After an hour and a quarter, we’re still only just past our starters. The singers are terrific though – solos, duets and quartets are all beautifully and entertainingly executed. When they fill everyone’s glasses with prosecco and launch into La Traviata’s Drinking Song, we fa-la-la along to the chorus gleefully.<br /><br />The place needs more of these moments – for the rest of the evening, we sit in frozen silence during the songs, conversations lopped off in the middle. Were we in an atmospheric old room in the West End, with singers squeezing between tables while the pianist hammers an old upright in the corner, it would be tremendously jolly. Here in the cold desert of the City, even Mozart feels po-faced – as it turns out, Bel Canto isn’t nearly camp enough.<br /><br />Salvation certainly isn’t coming from the food. A grilled beef fillet is nondescript, with sweet potato and beetroot mash that actually manages to taste grey. Pan fried sea bass, meanwhile, turns out to be a flattened sliver of a fillet, about a centimetre deep at its thickest point. It arrives entirely hidden by a pile of steamed vegetables, the garnish concealing the inadequacy of the main part. Desserts of chocolate fondant and panna cotta are merely indifferent.<br /><br />Bel Canto is such a pleasing idea, but this isn’t good enough. As a place of musical charm and operatic fun, it’s too reverential and dull, despite the best efforts of its charming, gifted singing staff; as a venue for serious, expensive dining, it’s practically a crime. As a place to have happy birthday sung to you, as one diner discovers, it won’t be bettered anywhere else in London. As it happens, anywhere else in London is where Bel Canto should be, and with an entirely different menu.