Before I sat down at Aurora, the Conran restaurant in the Great Eastern Hotel, I explained to the French maitre 'd that I was in a bit of a hurry on account of the fact that my wife was about to give birth.
"Ow many months pregnant is she sir?" he inquired politely.
"I don't think you understand," I replied. "She went into labour a couple of hours ago."
He looked shocked, but he was far too well-trained to ask me what on earth I was doing having lunch at one of London's fanciest French restaurant if my wife was having contractions. The truth is, our house had become a mini A & E ward, stuffed to the rafters with parents-in-law, sisters-in-law and god knows who else, and I was glad of the excuse to get out. Still, I didn't think it prudent to have the seven-course degustation menu. On this occasion, three courses would have to do.
My dining companion was Mike Jones, a crack financial adviser, and we'd arranged to meet to discuss my life insurance options. Given that I was shortly to be the father of two, it seemed prudent to think about some form of term assurance. The fact that Aurora is only a stone's throw from Liverpool Street Station helped to concentrate our minds. After all, you take your life in your hands every time you get on a train these days.
Aurora has been described as London's answer to Brasserie de Terminus, being the only Michelin-starred restaurant within spitting distance of a London mainline station, but I would have thought Olivo in Victoria is a stronger contender for that title. Aurora has had a checkered history since it opened in 1999. It got off to a less than glorious start when Sir Terence tried to trademark the restaurant's name, an act of high-handedness that embroiled him in a lawsuit with another, much older restaurant called Aurora In Soho. Since then, head chef Allan Pickett has come on board, then departed, then come on board again.
I ordered sweetbreads and new potatoes to start with, followed by poached chicken and risotto, while Mike opted for a goats cheese starter and a veal main course. I asked the sommelier to suggest a wine that would go with all four dishes, but when my financial advisor saw the price--£50--he counseled against it. We asked him to choose four separate glasses of wine instead, an economy measure that only saved us £12.10 since the total came to £37.10. Still, the wines were all excellent, particularly the 2003 Sauvignon Blanc from Amagna that accompanied my main course. The food was good but not great, which was a little surprising given the prices. Our a la carte selection came to £62.50.
In the past I've been rude about the restaurants in the Conran group, complaining about their bourgeois, slightly stuffy atmosphere, but the truth is they're far too diverse to warrant such generalizations. Almeida, for instance, is really a very fine restaurant indeed and ample evidence that Sir Terence can get it exactly right on occasion. But Aurora is cursed with a cavernous interior, being housed in what used to be the entrance to Liverpool Street Station, and the upshot is that it lacks atmosphere. Various efforts have been made to compensate for this, including kitting the waiters out in funky purple ties, but it feels like a losing battle. If Steven Spielberg ever decides to remake Brief Encounter, I don't think he'll shoot it here.
To give credit where credit's due, the service was faultless. I was only brave enough to risk two courses in the end, but we were done and dusted within an hour and fifteen minutes thanks to the attentive staff. Our waiter even asked us if we wanted a second bottle of water, instead of just opening one, which was a first for me in a Michelin-starred restaurant. I was home by 2.30pm, just in time to drive my wife to Queen Charlotte's Hospital, so I'm eternally indebted to the staff. Still, if it's a girl, I don't think we're going to call her Aurora.