Published 6 February 1994 Style Magazine 32nd article
The Cafe Royal Grill Room: one of London's truly great rooms (George Jaworskyi)
There are those who have said some of them writing to this very page that Forte would never get decent food into any of its establishments.
What can they have thought when the latest Michelin Guide gave one of its rare stars to the Grill Room at the Cafe Royal, level-pegging it with the Connaught, the Meridien's Oak Room, Les Saveurs and the Capital, among others? And placing it above the highly considered Bibendum, Caprice, Greenhouse and Alastair Little!
Had the Michelin Guide gone mad? Or had the Cafe Royal Grill Room, previously unrated, taken a quantum leap in the culinary game of snakes and ladders? Fearlessly I trod through the gleaming, bronzed entrance, past the commissionaire in his black top hat with a gold band, and into the marble lobby that leads to eight floors of conference and banqueting rooms, together with assorted bars and restaurants, housing at peak well over 3,000 people! "Oh dear!" I thought, looking at two totally out of character, smallish bright red armchairs. Are they waiting to be collected for a semi in West Drayton? Is this the place where Oscar Wilde held court, where Beardsley, Beerbohm and Shaw argued literary matters and gossiped?
When you enter the Grill Room, you realise it is. It is quite simply one of the best rooms in London: ornate, rococo, mirrored, beautifully preserved. Its gilded nudes hold garlands, its ceiling is painted with foliated panels showing almost naked ladies dancing a chiffon striptease while cherubs and doves cavort. Subtle it isn't. But it has all the marvellous, thrusting vulgarity of the supposedly prudish Victorian era. The only jarring menace is an awful, large yellow lampshade with dark joins and silly red tassels that dominates the centre of the space and should be dispatched at once to West Drayton to join those ghastly lobby chairs.
The room is excellently managed by David Arcusi, whom I remember from the peak days of Soho's Braganza, and the chef is a 40-year-old Austrian, Herbert Berger, who graduated via Claridge's and the Connaught to run Keats and thence to the Cafe Royal. The dinner menu offers a set-piece at £32 and a large a la carte. Mr Berger recommended as a first course the set-menu wild mushroom and fresh truffle risotto with flat parsley jus. I hate risotto. The only time I ever liked it was at a private dinner party given by Mr and Mrs Rocco Forte. "Herbert's taking a chance," I thought! But it was absolutely brilliant! Better even than the Fortes' at home. Moist, tasty, marvellous parsley sauce; I could have eaten double the amount and gone back for more.
My co-diner, the international jeweller Miss Dorrit Moussaieff, is so critical she has been known to stand up at her dinner parties and exclaim, "God, the food is awful!" She voted her foie gras and sauce beyond-belief marvellous. I nicked a bit and I agreed. My main course was nage of scallops, lobster and langoustines with oriental spices. This was seriously excellent. Dorrit had sea bass, which arrived on a very hot plate, was itself hot, but not overcooked, a rare feat.
I was slightly let down by the chef's pudding suggestion, a hot almond and apple pithiviers with blackberry coulis and vanilla ice. Okay, but a bit blobby and not sufficient taste. Dorrit's crepes suzettes were as perfect as you'll ever get. The service was exemplary; they even gave us new napkins after the main course. The bill was £117.40 for two, which I couldn't pay as I never have credit cards or money, but they'll send it on. Forte has done it! A triumph! I would rate this more than one-star, not two, but certainly one-and-a-half! Why the clientele were nice, but mostly old and stolid, I don't know. This deserves to be the most jumping room in London.
I have read the recent correspondence concerning Brown's Hotel and the Grosvenor House Hotel, with some interest. In September last year, my husband and I had cause to stay in London on business. We took advantage of a Forte special weekend offer, giving preferential rates for dinner, bed and breakfast, and decided to stay at the Grosvenor House Hotel. On our first evening, we decided to eat in the Pavilion restaurant in the hotel, where we were subjected to truly dreadful food, along with some of the most unpleasant and surly service that it has ever been my misfortune to experience. Within the offer, we were able to eat at other Forte establishments in the city and so it was with some trepidation that we decided to go to Brown's on the following evening. The experience could not have been more different. The staff were friendly, and the food absolutely excellent. Despite this, I would hesitate to use another Forte establishment when staying away from home. Even though a supposed "offer", the package still cost in excess of £600 for two nights hardly a mediocre price for what was essentially an exceptionally mediocre experience.
Sue Lenton, Cranage, Cheshire