People I know are divided on Aubergine in Park Walk. Eighty per cent say "wonderful", 20% "dreary food, awful service". My friend Michael Caine wanted to go there, so I phoned. "This is Michael Winner speaking, I'd like to book a table next Wednesday for myself and Michael Caine and his wife."
"It will be a great honour to have Michael Caine here," said a man with a strong French accent. "What about me?" I replied. "Won't it be an honour to have me?" There was a pause. "It will be nice to have you as well," said the Frenchman dismissively. "What time would you like to come?" "Eight o'clock," I said. Another pause. "Could you make it 7.45?" said the Frenchman. "Look," I said, "if it's a great honour to have Michael Caine, do you think we should really ask him to come at a time he doesn't want?" "It will be all right at eight o'clock," said the Frenchman, "but 7.45 is better."
I put the phone down in stupefaction. "This is what eating out in London has come to," I said to myself. The customer is a pawn for the convenience of the restaurant. Ghastly beyond belief. We duly turned up at three minutes to eight, both Mr Caine and I being fastidiously punctual. It was Shakira's day to drive, and parking near Aubergine is impossible. She was gone for a full 15 minutes finding somewhere to leave the car; luckily I'd brought the chauffeur! We were joined by Roger Moore, having phoned first of course, and then turned our attention to matters in hand. The room is inoffensive. Some uninteresting paintings on the wall, no sense of style, but it's all right, it's just there.
For a starter I had langoustine soup, which was exceptional. Sarah had a tian of leeks and scallops, sauce champagne (that's how the menu put it!). She pronounced it good. My main course was pigeon poche grille, puree of swede and wild mushroom ravioli, jus medeira. As pigeon goes it was impeccable. Sarah had fillet of sea bass roasted with braised salsify, jus vanille. I didn't understand the menu at all, but she liked it greatly. We had a bit of free chicken soup to start with, and all of us voted the food thus far tip-top. I found the desserts a considerable let-down. The orange tart was heavy, the creme brulee jus Granny Smith marginal, the millefeuille of vanille with red fruit okay at best.
We adjourned to the front bar area for a gossip and coffee. An enormous, tough-looking man in white, wearing a chef's hat, appeared. He turned out to be the owner, Gordon Ramsay from Scotland. I was glad I could say I genuinely liked his cooking. He kindly offered us the meal free. I should obviously go out with Michael Caine more often. But it was my turn to pay, so I said, "Thank you, no," much encouraged by Michael Caine, who said, "Let him pay, he's a millionaire he won't notice it."
Overall, I found the atmosphere in the Aubergine rather tepid. No buzz, although our group was a delight. I prefer to see a bit of adrenalin flowing, as it does at The Canteen. I'm sure Aubergine will get a Michelin star when they next hand them out. Gordon will deserve it.
Talking of Michelin stars, Stephen Terry, the chef at The Canteen, which has one, has gone. Stephen started out in partnership with another chef, went solo and now out the door! Marco Pierre White assured me the sous chefs were doing just as well. To my great surprise, they were. The Canteen really is the best value in London. I guzzled gazpacho of crab, the lovely Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh had roast sea scallops, sauce vierge. Then I took Marco's recommendation and ate cod viennoise, buttered noodles, sabayon of grain mustard; Elisabeth had tuna done up with this and that. All fantastic, and the desserts are a lesson in dessertery! If it wasn't for the awful car park and the horrific architecture of the building and atrium, the place would be near-perfect.
It seems to be accepted wisdom that the true test of a top-notch restaurant is to go for lunch preferably mid-week. Perhaps breakfast is an even better trial. My wife and I decided to treat ourselves to the set (£16) breakfast at Claridge's two weeks ago. We booked and arrived on time. And waited. After about five minutes we were shown to a table (and two menus were hurled in our direction). We chose from the mouth-watering selections on offer. And waited. After about 10 minutes (this is breakfast after all most people are supposed to be dashing off to VIP meetings) we tried to attract a waiter's attention. And waited. After 15 minutes we tried to find the restaurant manager he seemed to have disappeared without trace. Not even being able to find someone to complain to was the last straw. We left. A five-minute stroll took us to the Connaught. Despite the fact that neither of us had set foot (regrettably) in the place before, we were greeted as old and valued customers. Service was exemplary, to the smallest detail, and the food (particularly the scrambled eggs) superb. Earlier, as we had stomped out of Claridge's, Sir Geoffrey Howe was entering, and being warmly greeted. Perhaps we were just too low on the celebrity scale for such a place.
T J Blake, Croydon, Surrey
I would like to sing the praises of South Lodge Hotel, Lower Beeding, Sussex, for the delightful food and service we received when we visited the restaurant last month most importantly, for the professional way they dealt with a problem over my booking and the courtesy shown to my elderly father, who suffers from Parkinson's disease.
Maureen Bell, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire