Published 14 November 1993 Style Magazine 20th article
Restaurateur John Gold. (Terry O'Neill)
As a child in the 1940s I would climb into Holland Park and roam through the acres of countryside that remained in central London. At the heart of this wonderland was a ruined Jacobean mansion of great splendour, hit by a bomb.
As time progressed things took a turn for the worse. The land was acquired by the authorities and opened to the public. The mansion was largely knocked down and part of it made into a modern youth hostel. Many of its elegant outhouses remained and one of these became The Belvedere.
This should have been nice, as I lived, and still do, only three minutes' walk away. But the place served tired old food. It seemed uncared for. From time to time I would encourage people to buy the site Pru Leith nearly did and use the lovely setting overlooking a pond and a cloistered garden to bring out its potential. It was finally taken over in 1991 by the only amusing Swiss chap I have ever met, Dieter Abt, and he made a hash of it. All the interior needed was a good wash and brush up; it possessed the most comfortable seating in England.
Mr Abt masterminded an expensive refit that made it resemble an Essex roadhouse. The lovely chairs were thrown out and some strange ones made that soon broke as people leant back on them.
Sadly, because I like Mr Abt, his company went bust, and at the end of 1991 two restaurateurs took it over. Mr Bill Offner without doubt the most excellent man I've met in catering had owned dozens of restaurants and now partners Mr John Gold in Tramp. The two of them brought in some wonderfully practical, 1950s-looking metal nightclub chairs to make up for the broken chic, and The Belvedere started to attract customers an element previously lacking.
The food was only adequate, but the atmosphere and setting were so splendid it didn't matter. Mr Ian MacRae, a quiet young Scot, managed it brilliantly. He was shortly joined by Mr Gold's son, Nicky. This carried nepotism to extremes. Early in his new career Nicky promised me one table on the phone and offered me another when I arrived, having given away the one I had been promised. Of course, I walked out, but not before giving him my views on the matter in a voice that could be heard in Luton. I am happy to say that he has since perked up no end and is a great credit to the place.
Further good news is that they have recently acquired someone in the kitchen who can cook. His name is Richard Sawyer and he comes from two years as head chef at the Brasserie St Quentin and seven years at the Connaught. Last week I lunched on his apple and parsnip soup (very tasty), a nice bit of pheasant with noodles, roasted shallots and garlic (good) and a chocolate parfait with honey, mango and ginger sauce (quite ghastly).
I understand the parfait was an experiment, since discontinued; but I am not the best person for that sort of thing. This week they started their winter menu with lemon tart, sticky toffee pudding and, for main courses, braised shanks of lamb with green lentils and crisp duck confit with braised butter beans, etc.
I have waited since 1947 the year I moved to my current residence by the park for a restaurant there to sort itself out. I suppose 46 years isn't much in the span of the world, but it seems an awfully long time to me.
I went, recently, in search of good, cheap restaurant food, to Pierre Victoire in Panton Street, London, of which I had heard promising things. The food around me looked and smelt very appetising, and the hard-worked staff seemed exceptionally pleasant and friendly. In the event there were a couple of minor problems: the dish I most fancied was off, and the glass of house wine I had ordered was frankly undrinkable. So I explained to my most obliging and understanding waiter that I'd give lunch a miss today and come back tomorrow. Then a tense and combative boss confronted me on the way out with the challenge, "I understand you didn't like the wine," as though I was obliged to. When I didn't answer he snarled, "What do you expect for £1.30?" What I expect, whether for £10 or £1.30, is something pleasant. Considering that his mark-up as he couldn't have paid more than £2 a bottle would have been at least 300% selling by the glass, it wasn't cheap anyway. How ironic that his restaurant is most professional and customer-friendly, when the staff are ignoring his example. I am still searching for good, cheap restaurant food in London.
Peter Halstead, London NW6
A girlfriend and I recently enjoyed two and a half hours of sheer heaven at The Ivy, in London. My friend, an art dealer, was impressed by the wonderful array of modern art, and by the fact that the charming head waitress was interested in us and in her surroundings. The food and wine were faultless. We were pleasantly surprised when the bill arrived £50 for two, including a tip. Best of all, the restaurant is neither owned by Terence Conran nor has recently been reviewed by Michael Winner, and thus should stand a good chance of remaining a pleasant place in which to dine. After lunch we headed off to Quaglino's for a drink, but on arrival were told that only diners were welcome, even though it was only 6pm and my friend had had drinks there not two weeks before. The Ivy it is!
Amanda Crick, Cambridge
How I sympathise with the young man who wrote in your column last week saying that his whole evening had been ruined because his friend had been served the wrong dessert. When people are dying every day from starvation, am I the only one who considers the inanity of these whingeing letters week after week and this mindless obsession with food to be totally obscene?
Lee Jay, London N2
Last week I took an important business contact for lunch at the Blueprint Cafe, Butlers Wharf, in London. I will not be going back. I ordered kedgeree. It was quite disgusting more like a mushy sort of risotto with a few bits of fish in it. It was also a rather unappetising bright yellow. I took about three mouthfuls, and left the rest. When our waiter came to clear our plates, he noticed how much I had left and asked me if there had been anything wrong with it. I replied that I had found it totally unpleasant. He said he would get the manager. No manager, however, appeared. Neither were any more apologies made and no one else mentioned the incident even when they saw us putting on our coats. I was in a rush and did not have the time to make a fuss. Neither did I want a scene in front of my companion, but the meal was extremely poor value for money, given that I was not offered anything to replace my kedgeree. It does surprise me how little these people seem to care. The only thing that really matters is the profit.
Name and address supplied
And finally . . . letters on the subject of A A Gill's review of Plas Bodegroes continue to come in:
I read with interest the recent correspondence in your newspaper about food in Wales, which called to mind the following quotation: "Why do Welsh hoteliers not buy delicious wines? I hate their stewed tea and poor beer and cold cider, and they can't make coffee either...it is in Wales and in Ireland that one gets the worst cuisine in Europe." The author? Some patronising Englishman, some raving Celtophobe? No: none other than Saunders Lewis, one of the founders of Plaid Cymru and noted bon viveur. Lewis was writing over 50 years ago, but I thought that some of your readers might find his remarks still timely.
Lord Elis-Thomas, House of Lords