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In the soup

Published 26 September 1993
Style Magazine
14th article

Cafe Fish in Panton Street, London, is the sort of place I would never go into. It is painted a bilious green with matching fake fishing nets draped over a bar beside which sits a thumping pianist.

I found myself there last week, booked in by a lady whose name I shall draw a veil over, but with a very nice group of people including my friend, John Cleese. Mr Cleese is undoubtedly Britain's most successful film producer and made the word fish, as in Wanda, world-famous.

I thought on this as I looked at framed pictures of fish, read a green-printed place mat telling me how to eat lobster, perused a menu in green French (why?) with English explanations underneath, and observed efficient waiters in green-striped aprons.

Then I was served some excellent French bread on our tiny table and thought: "Maybe things will be all right."

They were not. My first course of fish soup tasted of no known ingredients. Had I been presented it in a competition I would have settled, uncomfortably, for tomato soup that was a bit off.

I was brought up from childhood on the finest fish soup in the south of France. To this day it is best at Bacon in Antibes and Tetou in Golfe-Juan. At Bacon it costs £9.30 including tax and service, whereas at Cafe Fish it is £3.94. Even so, the difference in taste outweighs the difference in price. It is good in London at The Canteen (£5.57) and Kensington Place (£5.06), but, in Cafe Fish, avoid it.

My next course was worse. Grilled sole came on a plate so hot that it would be overcooked by just being placed there. It was hard, utterly lacking in succulence, and tired. Ms Seagrove was not pleased with her plaice, either. I tried someone else's scampi and that sort of fell to pieces.

I thought back to Soho in the 1950s, when I lunched daily at the bar of Bernard Walsh's great fish restaurant, Wheelers, and I sat next to Francis Bacon and Clement Freud.

Ah, the juicy, easy-off-the-bone soles there, the firm deep-fried scampi, the remarkable choice of fish dishes and a signed Walt Disney drawing of oysters hanging behind the bar. I looked to the large blackboard menus dotted around the walls of Cafe Fish, screwed my courage to the sticking place and ordered tarte au citron with blackberry sauce. For me not to finish a sweet it has to be pretty poor. This one stayed, largely uneaten, on the plate.

I looked around at the clientele, many of whom smiled at me most charmingly, and noted that nobody seemed particularly unhappy. There must be millions of people growing up today who have no idea of the real taste of food. They have come into a world so mass-fed with products chemicalised and factory-farmed that any similarity between these and the real thing remains only in the descriptions on the menu.

By now the pianist was into a hyper rendition of Hello Dolly, and my fellow diners were knocking back Chilean chardonnay. My mind wandered to a night in Barbados when Ms Seagrove and I were seriously food-poisoned by eating the "Catch of the Day" in a posh, English-owned local restaurant. We got a few thousand pounds out of them for ourselves and others who fell with us, and learned that because contamination in the local waters has vastly restricted the fishing, the "Catch of the Day" was often kept in the deep freeze for as long as 10 weeks!

We had no tummy problems from Cafe Fish, and I must report in fairness that Mr Cleese cleaned his plate with extraordinary thoroughness and looked around cheerfully for more. But then he comes from Weston-super-Mare, so what would you expect?


Like Eileen Atkins, we also visited the Ritz - on September 4 - and decided to try its coffee, a much better guide to the service than the illusion that can be created around an extended meal. With no more than 10 people in the room, it took more than 25 minutes for the coffee to arrive. Ceremony is one thing but dumping is quite another, and that's how we were served by an uncaring waiter; only white sugar offered, cup handles the wrong way round and spoons in the wrong place. No, we were not "wooed into enjoying ourselves" and did not return for lunch, but then we did not ring to let them know we were coming either. Mon Plaisir, in Monmouth Street, did not let us down.
Susan A Davies, Monmouth, Gwen!

I was shocked to read Eileen Atkins's article about dress code at the Ritz. If I visited a top-flight establishment such as the Ritz and found people in jeans and such garb, I would have no hesitation in asking for a reduction in the bill. It is up to the likes of Ms Atkins to set an example.
Chris Hasman, Arthingwarth

Isn't it time for The Sunday Times to publish the more positive aspects of going out for a meal? I would like to recommend Gee's in Oxford. Set in a delightful Victorian conservatory, the food is innovative, well-cooked and well-presented, and the service is informal and non-intrusive. And they understand the meaning of a blue steak.
Cassandra Daniel, Theme, Oxfordshire

As head waiter in a leading London restaurant, I welcome the Restaurant Watch campaign with open arms. Now we can identify obnoxious customers at the outset of the meal rather than providing excellent, friendly service through three courses, only to be rudely snubbed once the last morsel has been safely devoured. Last Sunday we put this fantastic invention into use. On being seated, a foul middle-aged couple produced the sacred piece of blue paper and placed it on the table as if it were a loaded pistol. Happily, my staff were obsequious enough to be spared their wrath and were even left a cautious tip. But what fun we had in the kitchen . . .
MSA, London