Published 3 October 1993 Style Magazine 15th article
During the second world war, I would often go with my father to the Savoy Grill. In those days meat was rationed, and not much was available anyway.
Whenever Dad ordered chicken, he would ask the head waiter, "It will be chicken, won't it? Not rabbit?" For it was not unknown to switch one for the other. Today at posh restaurants, the humble rabbit is enjoying its day. It comes dressed up in all sorts of guises. Jambonette de Lapin aux Girolles is how rabbit with wild mushrooms is presented at Patrick Guilbaud, a bit of French chic re-set in Dublin, where I was doing some tub-thumping for my film, Dirty Weekend.
Why, I wondered, did both the Dublin restaurants I went to have French-style food? Why was I not offered Irish stew, one of the great dishes of the world, with the menu in Gaelic? After all, the French aren't serving Lancashire hotpot with a menu in English. Yet all over Britain and Ireland, we too often hide our local recipes.
So I sat in Patrick Guilbaud facing a lump of rounded rabbit, which tasted okay, but was not remotely memorable, and surveyed the cream walls, the clumsy modern paintings, and the four other diners. The sliced potatoes that came with the rabbit were so hard on the outside that I had trouble cutting them, and gave up. Then the waiter refilled my glass of still mineral water with someone else's fizzy. Luckily, the bitter chocolate tart with pistachio ice cream was exceptional.
Back at the Shelbourne Hotel, which I remembered correctly as superb, and following an afternoon of interviews, we went to the lounge for tea. A dear old lady with a blonde rinse and a purple blouse gave a fair rendition of On A Clear Day on the piano, and our very efficient waitress with the name badge "Breege" (the Irish have such wonderful names) sported a fake Rolex watch and brought some exquisite scones.
Scones are usually too solid or clammy in texture, and invariably arrive cold. The butter is often too hard, so when you apply it they crumble. These were light, not insignificant and pre-buttered, so it had sunk well in. The cream and jam were also first-rate. The hotel was clean, neat, well-run, and obviously a centre of local life. As well as hosting me, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, and more than 40 rugger people, the notice board announced "Insomniac Update 1993". At least they didn't have to spend money on bedrooms!
After doing Pat Kenny, a Dublin TV talk show, we went to La Stampa. "That'll be lively," said Pat Kenny, and he was right. It's a large room with dried flowers, palm trees and a high ceiling. Lighted candelabra reflect endless, receding flames from one mirror to another. The clientele was young, well-dressed, very bright, and as good-looking a group, all 140 of them, as you will ever see. The food was tasty in a modern, slightly ambiguous, way. Again the menu was in French (absurd), but my (translated) "French Dublin Bay prawns provencale with garlic peppers and courgettes in a filo pastry and sesame seed basket" was terrific.
I feel a bit sorry for restaurant owners when I come in. Poor Patrick Guilbaud kindly left his family lunch at home to say hello; and now Louis Murray, the owner of La Stampa, came over to offer information and drinks. He had, apparently, two significant members of Nico Ladenis's Park Lane kitchen staff joining him, so next week things would be even better. I told him they were pretty good as they were, a bit noisy for a man of my sensitivity, but otherwise very cheerful. He smiled and, as I started to leave, his smile increased. You could feel a great sense of relief enveloping him.
Perhaps you should have a new classification of Sunday Times readers those who know when they're served with cup handles the wrong way round and spoons in the wrong place and those who don't (Letters, September 26). Restaurants could be given a new symbol for this elite service the cup and spoon springs to mind so that those refined persons could avoid establishments where uncaring waiters force quite needless exertions upon their clientele.
Mary Shaw, Coventry
I've just come back from a bargain lunch at The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel £22.50 worth of heaven, and, unlike Michael Winner, enjoyed very orderly and swift service. It is a lovely restaurant, especially for a ladies' lunch, so I am going there once a month. And I hope the Cod Viennoise is on again it was divine beyond description.
Sue Bodinetz, London SE24