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Table talk: FEELGOOD food; Alison Davison has seen the future of fast-food lunches - and it's light, healthy and stylishly minimalist: Verde, Mailbox, Birmingham. 0121 632 1444: Rating: HHH.

Byline: Alison Davison

Among the many new eateries lined up for the Mailbox is one tucked away in the retail section - and it's one that completely updates the idea of a working lunch.

Verde is the first of 40 outlets planned across the country (London is the next place to see one open) and is the baby of Alysoun Stewart, formerly commercial director for the Petit Blanc group.

It has all the steamlined modern good looks you'd expect for a new venture here. With its sharp, clean lines, it looks very simple, light and minimalist. Anaemically pale wood is used for the chairs and bare tables designed in a style that is almost upmarket school refectory. It has the open plan ceiling complete with revealed heating ducts that is now rather a cliche and its smart glass frontage looks out on the building site that will soon house the poshest shops in Brum (a couple are there already, including DKNY).

But if you're looking for healthy fast food to make an ideal light lunch, this is the place. You can eat in or take out and there's even a 'delivery to your desk' service planned.

I tried it out with a friend and our gang of hungry children. Youngsters are welcomed here (there are the obligatory colouring bits and pieces laid on and there's also a plan to create special finger-food selections) but the unusual ordering system makes choosing for any group a bit tricky.

They've laid on a friendly chap or two to give the permanently bewildered like us a helping hand. Basically, the choice is soup, salads or panini (hot ciabatta bread sarnies) or a combo of two or all three - you pay upfront for whichever combination you want, pick up your dishes or tokens and then wander off to make your choices from the selections on offer.

The prices seem steep at first sight - pounds 3.75 for one of the groups on its own or two for pounds 5. (This is especially the case when you see the small dish handed to you for salad.)

But the byword here is home-made quality - and when you consider a shop-bought little plastic-wrapped salad can cost pounds 2 - pounds 3, as can a decent pre-packed sandwich, you may find your mood becomes one of benign forgiveness, which is a much nicer partner for your slavering hunger.

Trouble is, the food looks so good, your appetite may well surpass the portions on offer (there are bigger portions available but who likes to ask for the larger size and feel like a greedy pig? 'And would madam also like one of our reinforced chairs?' you imagine them asking).

The gorgeous array of salads is the main problem. Bowl after bowl of fantastic-looking choices are lined up and any hungry diner worth their Malden sea salt would want to try the whole lot. Excellent pasta, couscous, greens, rice - you name it, it's here, but tasting better than you could ever manage at home. The flavours are fresh and lively with leeks and capers, peppercorns or perhaps anchovies here and there to rev up the tastebuds.

It's healthy and light (no great puddles of oily dressings in the bottom of these dishes) but with bags of flavour - Verde describe it as feelgood food; not a phrase I'd normally associate with salads but it's true here.

An enticing aroma hung over the tureens of home-made soups (there are three different varieties on offer every day); the flavours were equally excellent. I tried the roasted winter vegetable with cumin which was beautifully warming and rich with just the right level of spicing. My friend's chicken with vegetables was so packed with fresh ingredients it was almost a stew and was also highly recommended. That was replaced by cream of winter vegetables as it ran out. A chunk of tasty herb-topped foccaccia is also provided to go with them; ours was covered with so much fragrant rosemary it scattered all over the table like confetti.

The panini are knocked up at a central island manned by a couple of chefs. Between us, we managed to sample all three varieties on offer - tomato, basil and mozzarella, Thai chicken and cheddar - all very good indeed, all completely demolished without a crumb to spare.

Of course, with the hungry mob there was no escaping the demand for pudding. These are few but we can happily report that the Danish pastries were delicious - judging by the rare morsels we could prise away from mean little fingers. The cinnamon pastry in particular was lovely while the apricot version was utter gooey perfection. Two great slabs of moist, chewy apple and chocolate cake also did a rapid disappearing act (cakes and pastries all cost pounds 1.25). When you've had salads, you tend to feel you're entitled to something for your sweet tooth.

My friend and I followed a glass of decent white wine apiece with cappuccinos (there are the usual lattes, hot chocolate etc also on offer). The coffees were pounds 1.50 for decent-sized mugs but, although acceptable, were not up to the high standard of the food.

It is obviously aware of the hiccups its novel system may cause and is doing its best to steer you through. Verde may well be the future of fast-food lunches for office workers and shoppers. Let's hope so anyway.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 17, 2001
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