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Completely off the rails

Published 26 June 1994
Style Magazine
52nd article



Fast food: one of the British Rail chefs on the London-York line, Chris Kinder (Francesco Guidicini)

British Rail has never been my favourite place to dine. When I was with them some years ago the buffet attendant voiced extremely lewd remarks to Miss Seagrove (ah, whatever became of her?) and the train kept stopping in the middle of grossly unattractive countryside. So distressed was I that I booked an ad on ITV saying "BRITISH RAIL IS A DISGRACE Michael Winner". Sadly my friend John Whitney, then the head of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, told me he couldn't allow it, as political advertising was banned. This saved a few bob but left me deeply frustrated, particularly as I had the card beautifully written out and ready to go.

Recently I ventured on to British Rail again. The excruciatingly beautiful Miss Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh and I headed for York. The first thing I noticed was that the carriage was extremely hot. I wandered into the dining car, where various British Rail officials were gathered, and asked if it could be cooled. A very nice man in uniform came along and suggested I went to the adjacent carriage which was reasonably temperatured. This is clever, I thought. Not only can BR sell facing-engine and back-to-engine tickets in two grades, it can sell very hot, hot, middling and ice-cold carriages at varying prices, as well.

The dining car itself had First Class written on everything from seats to menu and of course wasn't. But it was expensive. Most of the main courses cost more than The Canteen, a superb establishment where no main course is over £11.50. I had the rack of lamb with a mustard and herb crust at £12.95, 11% more than the Michelin-starred Canteen. The lamb was shrivelled, the vegetables (courgettes, beans and potatoes) quite good. The whole thing forgettable. I had started with nachos, guacamole and salsa picante, at £3.95. This resembled a modest dip at a bring-your-own-bottle party. I finished off with black cherry and apple strudel. "They'll be very small I'm afraid," said the charming waitress from Newcastle, Wendy Green. They weren't so much small as ghastly. I don't really blame the chef, Ray Evans, a pleasant chap in glasses and a red bandana. Richard Branson should definitely take over the whole thing. But then is he any good at food, I wonder?

If I was disappointed by British Rail I was horrified by Michel Roux's famous Waterside Inn which I went to a few days later. Recently I had a superb meal in their private room for Nico Ladenis's 60th birthday, but this time, oh dear. In order of horrible: dreary bread, a canape of duck rillette that would have been at home on British Airways, a Bellini that tasted of soap and wasn't cold, and then I had to face the empty, dirty glasses for ever until a waiter took one away and left the other for ages more.

The table was so small the plate of the person opposite (very famous but I won't give you the name) nearly touched mine. The freebie starter, tomato bavarois, cucumber and tapenade croutonne, was bland and the sauce tasted of mass-produced ketchup. My first course of salmon was okay, no more, and Vanessa's of eggs in a sauce and pastry was actively nasty, the pastry being soggy and tasteless. My kidneys main course was all right, but my guests had duck which was chewy and the skin was like rubber; not a patch on the unrated French Horn at Sonning which we'd all been to a week earlier. The dessert, millefeuille de nougatine au melon de cavaillon glace vanilla, was just unbelievable! Soggy, over-ripe, odd-tasting melon, between layers of tasteless crisp brown stuff.

In order to have the honour of eating this rubbish I had been instructed not to wear jeans, this for a riverside "pub" lunch on a Sunday! I didn't, but faced fellow diners in jeans, with denim shirts and without jackets. A more drearily dressed lot would be impossible to find.

This is one of only two 3-star Michelin restaurants in England. The menu says "Discover the delights of these exceptional dishes" (always suspect). British Rail serves their stuff moving and government-organised. What's Michel Roux's excuse?



Letters

Having read Winner's Dinners (June 12), I am absolutely incensed. Just exactly what did we get for the ludicrously high figure of £700 referred to? At best about 70 measly worded "mots" on dinner, which reflected Winner's pompous thoughts on filling what appears to be his not inconsiderable frame with yet more lashings of calorie-intensive grub. The rest of the article was just a bumbling ramble on how he expects to be treated and fawned over by the staff. Just as he expects quality treatment, for which I presume I as a purchaser of your paper am paying, then I expect quality articles from what is billed as a quality newspaper. At approximately £10 per relevant word, on the other hand, please let me offer my services to accompany Winner on one of his dinners and do an objective write-up for him. Although I quite agree with his sentiments about striving for quality, does he have to adopt such an ostentatious stance over the matter?
Nick Jones, Watford, Herts

Where does the customer stand when a restaurant makes a mistake with a booking? Last Friday I rang Le Petit Max in Hampton Wick to book an early table for two for Saturday night. I was offered two sittings 7.30pm or 10pm. I said that 10pm was far too late and opted for 7.30. At 4pm on Saturday afternoon my husband got a call from the restaurant, to be told in a fairly offhand manner that we did not have a table at 7.30pm the waiter who had taken my call should not have accepted the booking. We could, however, have a table at 10pm. My husband, slightly taken aback, explained that we had organised our evening, booked a baby sitter and did not want to eat at 10pm. The lady repeated that a mistake had been made. On my return home I rang to speak to one of the owners, who handed me over in a peremptory manner to the lady who had spoken to my husband. I asked how a restaurant with their reputation could make such an error, to be told that "everyone makes mistakes". If we had failed to arrive, for whatever reason, the restaurant could be within its rights to ask for a payment of some kind. But when the restaurant makes a mistake, there is no comeback. We will not be visiting Le Petit Max again perhaps we might have felt less aggrieved had they appeared truly sorry for the error.
Patricia Mattinson, Kingston upon Thames