Published 21 November 1993 Style Magazine 21st article
Restaurant guides are grossly perverse. I complained to the editor of the Ronay Guide once that he didn't even list the French Horn at Sonning. He told me later that he'd sent an inspector there specially to re-check it and still left it out! I think it is excellent. What it lacks is pretension.
The food actually looks like food and not like plate decoration. The place itself is set on the river in Berkshire, at the edge of a lovely village. Lawns of some size slope down to the water, where swans dither about as swans are apt to do. The house itself is a large, converted 1850s grand dwelling, with some rooms for hire.
It is run by Carol Walsh, whose father founded Wheeler's in the good old days, and by her Portuguese husband, Ronnie Emmanuel, whom she met when he sold toilet rolls from a barrow. I have taken some of the greatest Hollywood stars there (all right, I won't list them, or someone will say I'm name-dropping) and they all loved it. Personally, I'm happy to see a roast duck that looks like a roast duck, not little slivers of what could be steak, set among a bed of tiddly whatevers. Crevettes thermidore and smoked salmon may not have endless blended sauces to boost them, but if they're good they can be exceptional. The whole place has a 1950s feel to it. The staff are discreet and efficient, there's a lot of space, so you're not eating with some stranger at the next table, and the river views are spectacular.
You have the feeling that it is all deeply professional. The wine list goes from plonk up to a 1945 First Growth Chateau Margaux at £2,000, but it's a snip really because that includes Vat and service. The only time I was a tiny bit let down was when I took Peter Falk there (see, I can't help name-dropping) and went mad and ordered some old wine for £400 which was a bit musty. And that's being kind.
Ms Walsh herself has recently opened, with her daughter, a Wheeler's clone in Charlotte Street called Walsh's, which I'm told does all the old favourites including Sole Capri, my favourite when I ogled Carol at the Wheeler's bar in the 1950s. It's done with chutney. I haven't been there because I find Charlotte Street unsettling, but friends tell me it's excellent.
While the French Horn, most unfairly, does not even rate a mention in the guides, another river place, the Waterside Inn at Bray, gets top marks. This, of course, is Michel Roux's culinary haven, and although I accept that the cooking is of a higher order, I find it no more and no less enjoyable than the French Horn. The food is more memorable and the owner is invariably there to make sure of that. I fail to see why I should go to any restaurant that the owner can't be bothered to go to as well. I like Michel and I congratulate him on reaching his 21st year there. My only complaint was that it was overcrowded, but he tells me he has reduced the capacity by two tables, serving 70 instead of 78. The atmosphere is too respectful, but the place is a gem and it would be churlish to say otherwise.
In case you think I am in a particularly benign mood this week, I have a complaint against Simon Hopkinson, the splendid chef and co-owner of Bibendum. Thinking he'd know (a mistake), I asked him to recommend somewhere to eat. He said I should try a Thai restaurant in Kensington High Street called 109. It was smelly, gloomy, dusty, and the basement atmosphere matched the food, which was slow to arrive and dreary. The family running it were enchanting but, oh dear, I shall never ask a chef for his advice again.
We had been the greatest fans of Joyce Molyneux's Carved Angel in Dartmouth until being stung there on a repeat visit to the tune of around £150 for two adults and a child. On the first visit, a child's portion was automatically served and charged for, and both food and service were exemplary. We fairly rushed back several months later, only to get a nasty shock and not just because the food was indifferent. We were charged full whack for our child, even though he was not served the cheese course and coffee which Ms Molyneux serves up as part of her prix-fixe dinner. Worse, the staff abandoned their posts to party in the kitchen while we waited in vain for a second cup of coffee and the adjacent table frantically signalled also in vain for a bill. We left feeling thoroughly unloved. We wrote at length to Joyce Molyneux, and while she wrote back with her apologies, she did nothing to redress us for the food not consumed and the service not received. Restaurateurs may not be able to offer whole families a free meal to make amends, but how difficult would it have been to offer us a bottle of wine on the house? Not to make at least some small goodwill gesture smacks of arrogance. Thank goodness for Restaurant Watch, and for The Good Food Guide, which printed our comments about the Carved Angel.
Anthea Gerrie, Ticehurst, East Sussex
I have little sympathy with the whingeing from readers who are unable, apparently, to get good, cheap food in London. What do they expect when they are looking in places such as Knightsbridge and Chelsea? May I suggest that they try China Town? Almost anywhere in those few streets will guarantee a good meal but I have found that Mr Kong, Lisle Street, offers particularly good value. On the many occasions that I have visited this restaurant, I have never been anything less than completely satisfied, and Edwin and his staff are always friendly and efficient in that unfussy way that is characteristic of Chinese eating places. As well as good, inexpensive food, you get the atmosphere of one of London's more lively districts. What more can you ask for?
Mike Higgins, Swansea
While most readers of Restaurant Watch seem to complain about the establishments they have visited, I would like to take the opportunity to recommend the French House in Soho. A dinner there last week ended up being one of the best evenings I have had for ages. The atmosphere was great, the food eclectic, delicious and good value for money. Best of all, though, was the service. Our waiters looked genuinely delighted when we told them how good everything was. I had not seen my companion for quite some time, and we stayed far later than we had intended, but no effort was made to get rid of us, long after we had paid our bill. When late customers arrived, our waiter merely suggested we move to another table then offered us a glass of wine on the house for our trouble. I hope to go back there very soon.
Peter Warren, London N5
I am very concerned by the fact that the vast majority of restaurants do not have no-smoking sections. Given that non-smokers exceed smokers by three to one, and that smoke is especially unpleasant when eating, I cannot understand why this is the case. Most restaurants do have the space. It does not matter how good the food is, or the service, if the diner has to tolerate pollution from smokers.
Bryan Lask, London SE22