Published 28 July 1996 Style Magazine 160th article
Follow my loader: Robert Summer, Susan Kasen Summer and Michael Winner at The Avenue (Steve Fischman)
You read this page because of Robert Summer and his wife, Susan Kasen Summer. Without them, I would never have become a food-life writer. Bob and Sue are marvellously eager-beaver New Yorkers who know far more about London restaurants than I do. They produce volumetric three-dimensional displays. I saw a V3-D in its early days, when Susan showed it to me in her bedroom at the Dorchester. A man pottered about with a box and there appeared in midair, moving about, a perfectly three-dimensional can of Coca-Cola! The effect was awe-inspiring in a minor key.
Bob and Sue take me to many London restaurants I would never have gone to, thinking they were largely for tourists. Thus I got to clear plates at Le Gavroche, waited endlessly for a main course at the Dorchester's Oriental Restaurant and had the most horrible meal at Le Pont de la Tour, where everything went wrong. When I wrote to Terence Conran, he snarled: "Thank you for your film script. We will investigate..." He's a wag, old Terry, isn't he? So, when a Sunday Times editor said: "Have you got anything you'd care to write about?" I said: "Yes, I want revenge on Terence Conran. I'll say how awful his restaurant was." Thus this column started, based solely on an impeccable desire for retribution.
Bob and Sue recently took me to The Avenue in St James's, another place I would normally have stayed away from. Not because it's touristy, quite the contrary - it was full to overflowing with young semi-trendies, all enjoying themselves greatly and making a lot of noise in the process. It's a typical mid-1990s, cavernous, sheer-surfaced, minimalist room with hard chairs and a white tiled floor. Lights of various colours play on the walls. Bob had booked, so The Avenue didn't know it was getting me. When I saw the table offered for five people, they did. I pointed to something much larger. After a hurried whisper, we were allowed to sit there. Our other two people were Sue's daughter Wendy and her fiance, Steve, who owns a popular Beverly Hills car wash. I sensed service would not be fast (boy, was I right!). so I ordered a Coca-Cola with a lot of ice and lemon in a voice that brooked no delay. I find if you knock back a few Coca-Colas a wait for the food becomes more tolerable.
After Bob observed they had a list of only five red wines, the oldest being 1992, we got to order. I pointed out The Avenue was for young people who created a nice buzz, not the superwine-drinking crowd. The other wine problems: for some reason Bob didn't get any for a long time after everyone else. And when he'd finished his wine, Steve noted: "They don't refill." I was on my third Coca-Cola, so none of this bothered me at all! My first course eventually arrived: bruschetta of sardines with wilted dandelion leaves and pancetta. This was good, old-fashioned sardines on toast (which I always liked), with some horrid, stringy things that I took to be the dandelion leaves. Bob observed he was eating "a real risotto".
My next course was vegetarian spring roll with chilli plum sauce. I decided not to eat it. I tried a Couple of fried veggies and some champ potatoes, which were fine. Then we voted on the main course. Susan gave her veal chop 8 out of 10. Steve's guinea fowl also got an 8: Wendy brought us down to earth. She had the same as me and gave it a derisory 3. Bob bad chicken confit. He said: "A bistro 7." He repeated the word "bistro". The puds were reasonable. My mascarpone ice cream, rhubarb compote, ginger syrup was adequate. People gave me bits of theirs, which I thought were much better.
I'd left my camera at home, and Wendy's camera had a ﬂat battery, so all we got was the classic portrait above. You may think that Susan Kasen Summer is a dwarf. Sorry, a little person. She is not. She just ducked too low when I said: "Come down a bit, Sue." On the morning after this photo was taken, Sue was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Art in Kensington.
PS: I was deeply put out when I phoned to get the name of a young lady behind the bar I wanted to commend for doing her job with admirable charm. A woman put her hand over the phone and, talking to her, said of me: "I think he's safe." Me! Safe?! I've never been so insulted in my life! Miss Charm's name is Vanessa de Souza Lage. It really is! That's a giggle, isn't it?
Michael Winner's light-hearted Restaurant Watch is always fascinating and controversial, although I must disclose an interest in that he is an old friend and not nearly such a big, bad wolf as he tries to make out. However, his visit to the South of France and his totally unjustified remark (July 14) about arguably the world's best hotel, the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes, which he describes as "ghastly", cannot go unchallenged. Having been a happy visitor there many times since 1950 and probably having had as much time as MW staying in hotels worldwide, I wonder what's biting him? I find it hard to believe Michael's ever been there, and I hope he's not just becoming a grumpy old man. He should ask any of his host of friends in the movie business alone who frequent the hotel, not to mention some of the world's celebrities in other fields, what they think. I've seen Kirk (and Michael) Douglas, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, Bill Cosby, Richard Zanuck, Marvin Davis and a host of very particular people, all really enjoying themselves at the Hotel du Cap. Managed superbly by M Jean-Claude Irondelle (awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his contribution to French tourism) and his staff, the hotel is a treat in every way. The finest location in the South of France, the bedrooms and their views and the Eden Roc restaurant, managed to the highest standard by M Colombo, equal any other in the world. (Mind you, Michael, it's no ice cream parlour or fish and chip shop.) Under no circumstances does Michael's gratuitous and insulting remark "ghastly" apply to this superior spot, and if he doesn't watch it, a visitors' Death Wish '96 will be on his tail! Meantime, let's have one of his charming apologies to a wonderful group of people.
Lord Hanson, House of Lords, London SW1
It is rare that the level of service from a London restaurant prompts me to pick up pen and paper, but on this occasion I feel duty bound to do so. Two weeks ago, it was my father's birthday. As we are frequently at loggerheads on the standard of London restaurants (my opinion is favourable, his feet are firmly set in the other camp), I thought a trip to Bibendum was just the reliable tonic to prove my point. On phoning the restaurant to determine whether they produced some sort of voucher, I was told that unfortunately they did not, but that if I did want to present my father with something tangible on his birthday, would a menu suffice? When the package from the restaurant arrived the same day, not only did I find a menu for the restaurant, but the assistant manager, Simon Hatcher, had also included several packets of matches, a book on the history of the Michelin building and a Michelin ashtray. In a world that increasingly lives by the code "you get what you pay for", it's nice to think some London restaurants are still breaking the rules! Congratulations to both Simon Hatcher and the owners for their excellent service, before they had so much as a sniff of the plastic!
Sian Currie, London N1