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Toby Young
Friday 17th December 2004

CVO Firevault


Now here's a novel concept. A fireplace showroom-cum-restaurant combined. Who on earth thought of that? I've heard of restaurants located in former fire stations. I've even been to steak houses where you can flame grill your own meat at the table. But why a restaurant in a fireplace showroom? What will they think of next? A bistro in a building that is actually on fire? Just think: waiters dressed as firemen and drinks dispensed through fire hoses. It might not be to everyone's taste, but I imagine it would be very popular with hen parties.

CVO Firevault--the name is as odd as the concept--is the brainchild of Caroline Van Outersterp, a fireplace designer who opened the showroom/restaurant in Great Titchfield Street four years ago. To get to the eating area you have to make your way into the basement, conveniently passing several designer fireplaces on the way. I'm sure you know the kind of thing I'm talking about. Pebbles resting on a slab of granite, for instance, or a giant, concrete bowl containing flames instead of fruit. They're the fireplace equivalent of plasma televisions--a way of advertising to your friends how well you're doing--and they cost about the same. I was astonished to see that one of them--a Square Table with White Stone Cube Fire--costs £22,647. (It's the Bang & Olufsen of fires.) I know the housing market is out of control, but who would have thought you'd need to take out a mortgage to buy a fireplace?

Fortunately, the food on offer at CVO Firevault is a lot more down to earth. If you can get past the rather vulgar display of favourable notices on the menu--"One of London's ten best kept secrets"-Time Out--you'll discover that the kitchen provides basic modern European cuisine at fairly reasonable prices. My dining companion was William Sitwell--the Food Spy--and he impressed me immediately by confessing that the previous day he'd dropped his daughter off at school on the way to lunch and picked her up on the way back.

Unfortunately, this was not destined to be one of those lunches. We confined ourselves to two courses and one glass of wine each and were in and out in less than 90 minutes. He started with a circular mound of crab and avocado--which he declared "just right"--and followed up with roasted breast of chicken, while I opted for a very tasty green bean and Parma ham salad and, for my main, a nice piece of lemon soul. It was altogether excellent and we both asked the restaurant manager to convey our compliments to the chef, an Algerian by the name of Halim Harrache.

It was fairly busy for a Wednesday lunchtime, with the kitchen having to cope with 45 covers, though that's nothing compared to most evenings. In spite of its conceptual oddity, a restaurant in which you dine surrounded by naked flames--each table has its own matching fireplace--is actually quite appealing at around Christmastime. It's in the middle of summer that it makes less sense. According to the manager, Matthieu Destandau, CVO Firevault is the hottest restaurant in London in the months of July and August--and he doesn't mean in the fashion sense.

The décor in the restaurant is more in keeping with the fireplaces than the food. For instance, opposite William and I there was a set of shelves containing an array of brightly-coloured glass animal sculptures. The overall design is pretty eccentric, giving the impression of a series of interlocking corridors rather than a cosy dining room, though perhaps that's intentional. Given the multitude of hearths, this is a room without a obvious centre and it could be that the designer has decided to make a virtue out of that. Certainly, I can imagine worse places to take a date for an intimate dinner for two.

All in all, William and I were quite impressed. Given the fact that this is a restaurant whose primary purpose is to attract customers to a fireplace showroom, Matthieu Destandau has pulled off a minor miracle. The fireplaces may be underwhelming and overpriced, but the food and the service are first rate.

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