Published 27 November 1994 Style Magazine 74th article
Hiroko manager Mohamed Ibrahim (Arnold Crust)
All Japanese restaurants look the same to me. They have a sparse, slightly wooden feel, with white walls and little china bowls. The one I go to most is the Hiroko in the London Kensington Hilton. I made a reservation and wandered in the other evening. The manager appeared; he's the one in evening dress as opposed to the girls in national costume with little rolled up silk back-packs. "Yes?" said the manager. "I've booked," I volunteered. "How many are you?" he asked. I looked around in case Vanessa had skipped to a more handsome escort. "Two," I said.
The manager indicated a table for two on my left. "Er, I'd like to sit there," I said, pointing on my right to a large booth for four, or even six. It had one of those little metal, triangular, stand-up "Reserved" signs on it. "It's reserved," said the manager, "one of our regulars. A party of four." This annoyed me. I did something I have never knowingly done before, but which people who parody this column claim I do all the time. I drew myself up to my full 5ft 9½in. "Do you know who I am?" I asked with as much pomposity as I could muster. The manager was thrown completely. He looked absolutely bemused. "No," he said.
This was a problem. If I had to tell him who I was, how could it possibly have any effect? What should I say? "I'm a famous international film director and restaurant critic." Obviously to him I wasn't famous at all. Oh dear. We stood facing each other in the space between one lot of tables and another. Desperately grasping for any reason why he should know who I was, the manager finally broke the silence. "Have you been here before?" he asked. That was my chance! I was unleashed! "Yes," I said firmly. "Many times, long before you arrived, and always," I spun round to face the large booth, "I sit at that table!" Either the brilliance of my response did it, or perhaps it was because the manager had got fed up with standing staring at me. Either way, he whipped the Reserved sign off the booth and let us sit down. After that little adventure, the meal was rather tame.
I am always reminded, when ordering in oriental restaurants, of the joke about the American pilot shot down in Vietnam who is sentenced to death. "This is your last dinner," they say on his final evening alive. They bring him a solitary bowl of rice. "But just a minute," says the American, "You said I could have anything I liked." "Ah, yes," say his captors, "If there were six of you, you could have had the sweet and sour chicken, the prawn crackers, the Peking duck... But as you're only one..." Thus I studied my menu at Hiroko, gave up and settled for the set dinner. The tempura was excellent, bits of fried fish all succulent with a light batter. The soup was good, too.
But the main course, strips of beef you cooked yourself in boiling water, was less exciting and the veg, which you also dunked, was okay but no more. There was a second soup at this stage, which was quite ghastly. And the tea with the dessert was a bit iffy. On the whole, an acceptable meal. "But," I thought to myself, "next time I order a lot of tempura, and not much else."
As I left I noticed a millionaire friend of mine with a party of four at a rather small table. I wondered if he was the person who had booked the booth where I'd been. If he was, quite honestly I didn't care.
In case there is anybody who doubts that my presence is vastly beneficial to any establishment, I offer this little tale of life in Marco Pierre White's The Restaurant. Marco came forth into the dining area the other evening and was immediately accosted by an irate lady customer. "Mr White, I've waited 20 minutes for my main course!" she complained. "Please madame, you think you've got problems," said Marco. "I've got Michael Winner on table nine." "You poor man," said the lady, "I quite understand."