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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 10th February 2006

Archipelago


If you're looking for somewhere a little off the beaten track this Valentine's Day, you can't get much further a field than Archipelago. It may be only a stone's throw from the Marylebone Road, but, when it comes to the food, you might as well be in the Australian rainforest. Bees? Locusts? Crickets? Yup, they're all on the menu. A better name for this place would be 'The Bushtucker Trial'.

Indeed, I wish I'd known about Archipelago last year when I was asked to be a contestant on I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here. My main reason for hesitating was because I didn't think I'd be able to eat witchetty grubs or kangaroo's testicles, but after a week of dining at Archipelago I would have been fully prepared. This has got to be the strangest restaurant in London. It makes St John, with its squirrel stew and roast bone marrow, look like a branch of MacDonald's.

Oddly enough, it is quite romantic. You enter through a small doorway on Whitfield Street and in order to get past the maitre 'd you have to utter a password that's been given to you when you make your reservation. Mine was "Bushbaby", presumably because my companion and I would now be expected to subsist on a diet of fruit, insects and small vertebrates. The restaurant is tricked-out like a student's bedroom, circa 1975, with an assortment of tat procured from tourist markets in the Far East. Needless to say, all this bric-a-brac is for sale at a 2,000 per cent mark up. "It's what my father calls 'Liberace's House of Urban Crap'," said my companion.

Our waitress was a delightfully eccentric Polish girl who greeted each item we ordered with a loud cry of "Welcome!" I thought I'd been rather bold, ordering crocodile, but after she'd written it down she looked rather disappointed. "Ah, playing it safe," she sighed. My companion made a slightly better impression by ordering kangaroo. "It's quite gamey," she said, "but I think you'll like it."

There was only one other couple in the restaurant--two gay men--but it wasn't doing badly considering it was a cold winter's night. The remainder of the customers consisted of large groups of students, daring one another to try the most outlandish dishes on the menu. The winner, by a whisker, was a chocolate-covered scorpion. Our waitress, who said she preferred to eat her scorpions plain, told us they taste like fried chicken skin. We decided to take her word for it, not least because we didn't find the prospect of fried chicken skin dipped in chocolate particularly appetising.

As you'd imagine, the food was pretty bizarre. My crocodile, which came wrapped in a blackened lime leaf and accompanied by plum sauce, tasted like a cross between turkey breast and monkfish, whereas my companion's kangaroo was like a particularly tough piece of steak. We finished off our meal by sharing something called a "Baby Bee Alaska", a dessert incorporating rhubarb, honeycomb and an actual bee. Eyeing it suspiciously, my companion thought the bee looked more like a bluebottle. "Whatever happened to 'Waiter, waiter, there's a fly in my soup'?" she asked.

My main piece of advice for anyone thinking of taking a date to Archipelago is to expect the unexpected. The manager, a pretty Zimbabwean woman called Margaret Nicoll, told me that there used to be a similar restaurant on the same site called The Birdcage and, as a joke, I asked if it used to serve worms. "Oh yes," she replied, matter-of-factly, "but to tell you the truth they were more like millipedes." I searched her face for traces of irony, but there were none to be found. I fear she was telling the truth.

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