Published 29 December 1996 Style Magazine 182nd article
Home, St James's: Michael Winner and Nabil Maatouk (Vanessa Perry)
William James is a lesser-known 18th-century artist who specialised in decorative paintings of Venice. Canaletto worked with him when they were both in London. I was sorry to see his painting of the Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute missing from the wall of Fortnum & Mason's St James's Restaurant. The room is large, pleasantly decorated, and has so many oil paintings on display that the menu carries a resume of them. I photographed their William James years ago. I have the same subject painted by Mr James in my dining room. Another one was recently in a St James's gallery owned by the ebullient art dealer, my old friend and key an adviser to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Mason.
These paintings were done for the noble visitors to Venice. Each one is slightly different. "Look, there are three priests on the steps, but in yours, Michael, there are only two." A spot-the-difference contest. Unfortunately, all the oils in the St James's restaurant have recently been covered with non-reflective glass, which makes them look like giant, framed table mats. The texture of the paint is hard to see. I suppose this is for fear of a loutish customer (are such things allowed in F&M?) doing damage. The paintings have names that actually describe what they are, unlike modern paintings that have names for unsightly blobs, meaning nothing at all.
Thus The Vale of Dedham by Frederic Watts is just that. Charging Bull Elephant by David Shepherd is, well, you know. While I waited for my earl grey I peered over tables of Japanese tourists, to inspect the pictures. I have always considered afternoon tea one of the great achievements of British culture. Here they do it brilliantly. They have Gentleman's Relish, lovely scones and a sight not often seen these days, the English toasted teacake. Crumpets, too. The pastries are not as good as they were in the old days, but what is? I also regretted the departure of Angela Madden, a lovely, maternal Irish lady who lorded over the queues on the fifth floor. She has been replaced by a suave, highly efficient chap, Nabil Maatouk.
I gave up visiting the Fountain Restaurant downstairs after a deeply efficient lady called Monica Broe left. I thought she was headed upwards, so I was pleased to hear she is now food and beverage manager at a hotel near my house. The woman who took over was not so good, but now that they have a new street-level boss, Mr Sunil Sood, I shall return and inspect. Mr Sood may or may not consider that a blessing. Fortnum's retains a considerable deja-vu feel; it has not found it necessary to run with the modern world and is the better for it.
The next day I went for tea at the Four Seasons' Inn on the Park hotel in Hamilton Place. This is panelled in dreary wood, proof that 1970 was neither a high point of panelling nor hotel design. But the staff have always been excellent. I am endeared to the Four Seasons who, after I murdered their Pierre hotel in New York, sent a very nice letter of apology offering me a free stay. The tea area - I will not call it a room - at the Inn On also has valuable paintings on the wall, available from a local dealer. A farmyard scene by John Frederick Herring Jr looks nice, but aficionados know ones by John Frederick Herring Sr are much more valued! A harpist played the Mrs Robinson theme from The Graduate, the other guests looked as if they were bored, passing through and had nothing better to do. Mr Howard Moss took our order. He produced fresh sandwiches, but odd. Grilled tuna and vegetables, stilton and port, pestomarinated lamb and others are not classical English fare. "I can get you the Devonshire tea sandwiches if you prefer," said Mr Moss. The menu should tell you what they are - nice, normal egg and tomato, smoked salmon etc - so happy tea-ers know there is a choice.
The cakes were not so hot. I marked a red berry tart okay, summer pudding okay minus minus, but a fennel seed sorbet in a chocolate cup very good, twice! The teacake was particularly odd: it was not on the menu. I think someone in the kitchen adapted something for me. They should be hot-buttered and these were not. Nor would it have helped much if they had been. I would rate the tea good minus. The setting ghastly minus minus. They should definitely have a serious redecoration at the Inn On - I'll even forgo my free stay at the Pierre to help them pay for it.
My wife and I spent the first night of our married life at Raymond Blanc's Manoir aux Quat' Saisons (or Ray White's place as my now mother-in-law calls it). Naturally, my new wife deserves the best, which, being outrageously expensive, one could expect from the Manoir. We postponed our gourmet meal to the following day, preferring simply to eat the best smoked salmon sandwiches money can buy that evening. Alas, alas, the great Manoir managed to carefully slice the paper label, still attached to the tomato, into strips and leave them mingling hopefully with the salmon. Oh dear, perhaps it should be called Ray White's place after all!
Richard Phillips, Birdingbury, Warwickshire
The People's Palace at the Festival Hall has a name that conjures up memories of those cavernous, bleak, feeding emporia in Moscow and Peking. It caters for a captive audience and is an apt reflection of its eastern namesake. Drab carpets and an insignificant decor are not compensated for by the riverside panorama, and we had bad service and mediocre food. The table was booked for 6pm, the concert began at 7.30pm, and our "greeter" was told of this. The order was taken at 6.10, our choice simple: a rocket, feta and fig salad to start, and roast cod as a main course. We were given bread six times, and the mineral water glass refilled after every sip. But where was the food? We were told three times by three different people that it was on its way. Via Moscow or Peking? I was tempted to ask. It arrived at 6.55, we consumed it rapidly. After all, how long does it take to eat three squares of feta, a fig cut in half, and about eight leaves of rocket? The waiter rushed the plates away, being reminded that we would like to hear the overture. "You will," he promised. The roast cod, sitting on a tablespoonful of mashed potato sprouting four french beans, arrived at 7.16pm. We were offered boiled potatoes which we had not ordered, but which appeared on the bill. We bolted down our food as the gong announcing the concert was sounding. Thoughts of pudding or coffee were abandoned. We rushed out and settled down to Mozart and Gaviscon. A letter of complaint produced the limp excuse that the chef had flu. If that was the case, we should have been warned that there was no prospect of us comfortably arriving for the start of the concert. In which case, we would have happily grazed around the self-service downstairs.
Mr Justice Barrington Black, London NW3
Doreen Crosby (Letters, December 1) may dress up if she wishes, but I walk away from any establishment that insists on my wearing a tie, a jacket or socks. I am paying them for food, drink, ambience and service, not to be asked to dress in some antiquated formal style. However, I draw the line at squealing children, non-smoking restaurants, and baseball caps worn at table. We all have our foibles: let Ms Crosby go where the other guests make her feel comfortable, and I shall do the same.
Ken Lake, Thornton Heath, Surrey