Published 10 October 1993 Style Magazine 16th article
There are times, if things do not go absolutely splendidly, when it is better to give people A for effort than severe castigation. Such a moment occurred last week when I visited, of all places, Sheffield. Like most of us who are forced into the unknown, I consulted a guide, in this case Egon Ronay's, and read a description of The Old Vicarage, Ridgeway, so effusive in its over-statement that you would think a gastronomic pinnacle lay hidden near the moors. I entered in a state of some excitement.
As one might have guessed from the name, it is the old, 1846, residence of the Vicar of Ridgeway. It is done out in a diluted version of northern overkill with just too many colours, shades and bits and pieces abounding. The dining room walls are painted part light blue and part dark blue, and is it really necessary to have those large creamy white silk bows on the eight reproduction Georgian wall-lights?
The first real surprise was finding a bowl of soft fruit in the lavatory. Above the wash-basin, next to the pot-pourri, in a white china basket were raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. I touched them to check they were real. I wondered if other people prodding them had done so before or after washing their hands, so I didn't eat any.
The owner and the chef of this much cared-for establishment is Mrs Tessa Bramley who appeared, chubby and beatific, with glasses hanging round her neck and fully dressed in kitchen-white, like a female Pickwick. She was just genuinely and unbelievably nice. So were her handsome son, Andrew, and his lovely fiancee, Justine, who run the dining rooms. Oh dear, I thought, I shall feel awful if I write a word of criticism about this place. But then came the canapes. Lovely looking, but as you tried to pick up the little pastry baskets filled with something, they fell to pieces in your fingers. So I never did discover what was in them. I had to ask for a napkin.
The menu advertised four courses for £27.50 ex service, but dessert was £4.50 extra. What I got was a couple of mini courses (numbers one and three) which were grilled monkfish (very good), and ravioli of cardamom, ricotta and pesto (even better). They were sort of thrown in regardless. I chose first "Old Vic fish cassolette with crostini of Rouille glazed with Gruyere". It read better than it tasted; adequate but pretty bland. I followed with "roast Barbary duck breast on caraway and apple cabbage, with corn cakes and confit of duck leg on braised beans". I left most of that. My local Chinese did it better. Poetically described as it was, the actual quality of the duck was not up to much.
Things looked up a bit with an exceptional baked chocolate pudding with hot fudge sauce and English custard. As is common these days, the dark sauce and the yellowish custard were laid on finely, like cake decoration. Again my thoughts went to the old days at Wiltons when they would serve a miraculous rice pudding with a silver salver of hot golden syrup and another of cold cream and you would dollop them on yourself. But then, basics got more attention.
Sadly, Jimmy Marks has gone to the great restaurant in the sky and Wiltons carries on, slightly downgraded, as a first-rate purveyor of simple, good English food. Mrs Bramley, bless her, in the heart of old England, concentrates on the chic and the faddish. She does it quite well. I'd like her to take that as a compliment. But I'm sure she won't.
I assure fellow readers that not only is Marco Pierre White's food at The Restaurant, Hyde Park Hotel, as superb as Michael Winner wrote, but the service is of equal calibre. The wine waiter is worthy of commendation for suggesting cheaper alternatives to our own first selection, which he believed would better complement our choice of food. And he was right. What a refreshing change from some haute cuisine restaurants where you're unashamedly pressured towards more expensive bottles. Go to it Marco, you've made it into Michael Winner's "historic" category.
Ken Roberts, London SW1
I have dined on numerous occasions at Cafe Fish and, unlike Mr Winner, I and many of my friends as well as John Cleese, it seems have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves with their excellent food and first-class service. One cannot fault Mr Cleese's comic genius, but we must question his sanity in dining with Mr Winner. Perhaps he was researching for a new book: Dinners With Winner And How To Survive Them.
Ian Simmonds, Beckenham, Kent