Magazine article The Spectator

Firebird

Magazine article The Spectator

Firebird

Article excerpt

SLIPPING slim volumes of Lermontov and Pushkin into the summer-holiday book-box was like taking a slug after 15 sober years. I've been secretly at it, in the manner of the most anguished adolescent pseudo-intellectual, ever since. That Chekhov, Turgenev and Dostoevsky - the masters of the short story, long story and full-length novel respectively - should have coexisted in the same country is astounding. Their world still lives rich in the imagination. And what makes Firebird interesting is that Tsarist Russia lives almost nowhere else. This greatly simplifies the job of a themed restaurant. Its designers could not otherwise expect to get away with their uniformly non-Russian staff wearing kitschly quasi-- Cossack costumes, the overlapping ends of their belts camply dangling while the buttons on their oddly twisted epaulettes gleam their unconvincing 'hellos'. Speaking of which, I shudder to imagine what Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov, the debonair anglophile aristo in Fathers and Sons, would have made of the Richard Clayderman-plays-Lionel Ritchie soundtrack.

Nevertheless, the original Firebird was celebrated when it opened in New York's theatre district three years ago mainly for its attractive room, and the London version is also quite nicely put together. It reminds one of a Victorian railway carriage, the effect being created by a huggle of banquettes, a low ceiling and numerous glassfronted wall-cupboards (disfigured by a DIY varnish) which somehow suggest overhead luggage racks. The benches are upholstered in a distinctive fabric, of which the principal motif is equal-sized elephants and swans. My wife took exception to this, but I thought it conceivable (although exceedingly unlikely) that it might be an authentic period touch. There seems to me to be something quite fin de si&le about equalsized elephants and swans.

Mrs Simon's preoccupation with the banquettes was due to the absence, for the entire duration of our visit, of any diners other than ourselves. Such desolation was hardly surprising in a month-old restaurant on a night (29 December) when almost every other nosh-spot in London was closed. Inevitably, the staff were sheepish. I thought their choice of the 'pretend it's not happening rather than the 'laugh it off option was the right one, but that being given a cloakroom ticket was too much. I kept anticipating a conversation in which I was forced to say things like 'Yes, yes, Porfiry, that's my coat there, the scruffy brown thing with the ripped zip, that's it. And that's my wife's coat just next to it, yes, that's right, the long dark one. I believe the others must belong to my cousin, Dimitry Timoseivich, the District Inspector, and to his entourage of young "hangers on".' In the end they brought our coats to the table rather than reveal the emperor's cloakroom.

In general, the staff managed to combine a pleasant professionalism with an air, except for the manager, of never having done a waiting job before, They responded, if spoken to, with what I can only describe as shock. As Mrs Simon remarked after I'd asked a passing Cossack for a bottle of the pink Sancerre, 'He looked as though you'd asked him for half a kilogram of heroin.' Having grasped, on repetition, that all I wanted was a modest upper Loire Pinot Noir, this Mayfair Mazeppa looked hardly less appalled, but nevertheless steeled himself to fetch it. …

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