Published 9 July 1995 Style Magazine 105th article
Immaculate service: Willi Elsener and Michael Difiore at the Dorchester. Above, William Brown at Claridge's (George Jaworskj)
I have been sexually harassed leaving the Dorchester Grill. A lady guest, the worse for drink, followed me out, prodded me in the chest and said: "I want to tell you something." Foolishly, I stopped. She muttered and spluttered, I moved on, she prodded me again, even harder.
I fled. Gosh, I thought, if I'd prodded her in the chest it would have meant death from the Female High Command. This would not have happened at Claridge's. I was forsaking their Sunday lunch, not because I am over shocked by my doorman trouble, nor because I was offered a dessert trolley on my last visit that looked like leftovers from a ravenously active bar mitzvah. Why can't they restock, I had thought, particularly as Claridge's has one of the best dessert trolleys in London?
I was at the Dorchester because, when dad was alive, we used to alternate Sunday lunch between home, Claridge's, the Dorchester Grill and the Savoy Grill. I thought I'd check out the Dorchester after the addition of all that gold leaf. I had lunch there once with the lovely Ruby Wax when filming her show, but she was so hyper, much worse than me, I couldn't really judge it. "Where's the food?" she kept saying, when even I didn't expect to see it so soon. Thus, in the calm of my own life, I sauntered into the room, which has not changed at all. Spanish-lunatic, with tapestries and strange red directors' chairs in leather. It still looks good. The bread trolley was remarkable. About 20 loaves on it, rolls and wheat in a floral display. I had stilton cheese bread and Vanessa walnut. Both good, mine better. The dress code was lax to nil. There were people in T-shirts, no jackets, jeans, sneakers, all in this very elegant and immaculately serviced room. The assistant manager, John Wade, looked after me, he's definitely a great pro.
Next to us, two tables were laid for a party of 23. "When are they coming?" I asked John nervously. "Not until 3pm," he said. "It's Jesse Jackson." I decided to compare the Dorchester, amazing value at £24.50 all-in for three courses, coffee and petits fours, with Claridge's, which is first-rate at £29 for the same. Vanessa's smoked salmon was as good, I had Lancashire black pudding and diced apple served on mashed potatoes with a spinach cream sauce, not on the set menu but fine. The roast beef and Yorkshire pudding was not quite as good as Cl, my chair was less comfortable, but the room had a good buzz. Vanessa's chicken breast had a bone sticking out, which frightened her and had to be removed. She thought it far less good than Cl. But the spinach was better. Vanessa's sherry trifle had too many blackcurrants dominating the flavour, I had a tiptop two-tone cream chocolate thing.
The petits fours were historic, far better than Cl, except they don't leave them on the table, which isn't surprising. Fudge, white truffle, soft green mint in chocolate, all to drool over. The Jesse Jackson group hadn't arrived and we were on coffee. "I won't be having lunch," said John the assistant manager. "Or tea," I said, as the party could be seen gathering outside at 2.45. When they came in I thought: "Jesse's aged a bit!" A white-haired man with a stick led a distinguished group of well-dressed black people. Inexplicably, a man in soldier's uniform flash-photographed him on the way in, sitting down and at the table. I decided it wasn't Jesse Jackson at all. "That's what they said when they booked him in from the Cumberland," said John as I was leaving. "Looks more like leaders of an African state," I observed. "They're speaking American," said John. I later found out it was the Rev Dr Bennett W Smith Sr, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc! I never found out if John got to eat.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I give Claridge's 9 (down from 9½ for recent disappointments) and the Dorchester 8½ excellent marks. Soon I'll tell you about the Connaught, and others. But could the Dorchester get its phone-answering together. It is the worst ever. It rings so long you think the hotel's shut down. They answer "Sorry for the delay" all the time now. Perhaps they overspent on gold leaf and can't afford telephonists. Ah well.
We have known and admired Uehli Bleuler and his wife Anne-Marie Staerkle (Winner's Dinners, June 25) since long before Michael Winner's Vanessa was born. They had come to Italy from Switzerland to work for the legendary Mara Scotoni at Tenuta di Ricavo, near Castellina in Chianti. There the Bleulers learned the art of good hotel management how to make guests feel relaxed and cared for. After Mara died, the Bleulers bought their own place, the Villa Sangiovese in Panzano. It is a house of quiet elegance and good taste. Signor Bleuler is a cultured, courteous man who is passionate about Tuscany. He is a professional to the very tips of his finger. If he had occasion to raise his voice against Michael Winner, it could only be that he was provoked far beyond his natural restraint and innate good manners.
Lawrence and Cecily Lowenthal, London, NW8
Michael Winner's glowing review of the San Michele, Fiesole must be attributable more to the inspiration of Michelangelo and the sheer magic of Florence. A recent visit certainly did not leave me in awe of the restaurant service or, indeed, the cuisine. Generally we found the service surly, the portions singularly ungenerous and for some inexplicable reason an order for sea bass appeared as turbot. Perhaps the chef thought that we would not know the difference!
B Cooper, London, W1