Published 28 September 1997 Style Magazine 220th article
Hooked: from left, Stuart Johnson, Michael Winner and a boatman on the Thames near Cliveden
How fresh is fresh? What does "fresh" mean? It is a word much printed on menus and spoken of by restaurateurs. I remember a Hollywood-chic place in Los Angeles. The waiters recited the menu in a French accent, taking so long it was time to leave before they finished. A thespian announced: "the fresh John Dory fish". "Where dos that come from?" I asked. "New Zealand," was the answer.
Los Angeles is not adjacent to New Zealand. I don't think anything travelling that far, removed from the sea heaven knows when, can be described as fresh. To me, fresh means that the fish was caught in the morning and is being served up no later than that evening. Thus the fish at the Harbour Cafe in Whitby is as good as you will find. You can even enjoy a signed photo of me on the wall telling you so.
I am driven to these contemplations following a letter from Stuart P Johnson, general manager of Cliveden, a fine hotel. Stuart's excellent, too. But I think his attempt to influence a review, since published anyway, was unwise. We'd told him Vanessa's fish didn't taste fresh. "I feel it important to come back to you in respect of the sea bass following your comments," wrote Mr J. "The fish is Cornish, which we receive direct from the trawling company, in Cornwall to guarantee freshness. Cornish sea bass provides a meatier texture than that of its Mediterranean counterpart, which may explain Miss Perry's concern."
Vanessa and I have frequently eaten sea bass in the United Kingdom and much of it tasted fresher than it did at Cliveden. I wrote back that nobody had kept a trace on that particular sea bass. We knew not when it was caught, how long it stayed on ice, when it left Cornwall (it's a long drive to Buckinghamshire, anyway), or whether it sat in Cliveden's ice box overnight.
As I proceeded on my daily travellings, the matter of sea bass and its constituent parts wandered occasionally into my mind. Visiting my friend Nico Ladenis, who wasn't in, I called for his chef, Paul Rhodes. Was he aware that sea bass tasted different from one sea to another? "No," he said firmly.
At Claridge's, I asked if the chef, John Williams, would visit my table, where I was experiencing the best value in Britain: set lunch at £29 including Vat, service, petits fours and coffee. Mr Williams was adamant: sea bass was sea bass, and no different area by area. I phoned Wiltons, the best fish restaurant in London. Their chef, Ross Hayden, was called from his culinary moments. He, too, thought there should be no difference.
"How long does it take fish from being caught to you getting it?" I asked. "Three to five days," he said. "That's if they come from big trawlers. If they're caught on day boats, we might get them in London the next day. Of course, sole, if it's fresh, cooks up tough," Ross continued. "It's better five days old." I was learning.
There was one more view I needed. An expert from Cornwall. I telephoned the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation in Newlyn and spoke to Nathan de Rozarieux. The only sea bass he'd heard of that tasted different were cheap French and Spanish imports of farmed sea bass. "We have problems with marketing because of them," he said. "So there's no difference between Cornish sea bass and sea bass caught in the sea elsewhere?" I asked. "No, there shouldn't be. Unless it's from Sellafield," responded Mr R. A wit as well as a fish expert.
After Stuart Johnson listened, silently at the lime, to our little comment on the sea bass, and as Cliveden was filling with invading public, it being a Sunday, he took us to see the hotel residents sheltering in the walled area of the swimming pool. This is where they go for peace and quiet to escape tourists. I was permitted to roam among them.
Thereafter, Stuart took us on what the brochure describes as "a river cruise" on the Suzy Ann. A pleasant trip up the Thames on an Edwardian launch, past some fine scenery and with champagne thrown in for good measure. We saw no sea bass, but then I don't suppose you would in a river.
I was recently asked where the best fish and chip places were in London. From my limited experience of these matters, I recommended Geales in Notting Hill, the Seashell in Lisson Grove, Bibendum, posh and good in Chelsea, Wiltons (of course), the Ivy and Le Caprice in central parts. I find it exceedingly tedious when people ask me for restaurant advice, but I am usually too polite to remain silent.
I was pleased to read Michael Winner's article about Maison Novelli (Style, August 24). His experience of the restaurant was almost identical to ours. I have since written a letter both to the proprietor (which, needless to say, has not been acknowledged) and to Michelin, drawing their attention to our experiences and asking them to reconsider their award. Naturally, we have no intention of returning.
Sally Fowler, London N1
Michael Winner's report on Maison Novelli is a good example of his ego-massaging style. He seems to decide whether restaurants are good or bad by whether they treat him in a sufficiently servile manner when he arrives. The food that is served comes a great deal lower in his scale of values. Surely this is unfair both to your readers - who want an unbiased report on the food - and to the restaurants concerned. Could Mr Winner not be persuaded to forget about himself for a change and instead give a fair and reasoned criticism of the food he eats?
W B Hesmondhalgh, London SW1
Over the years, I have discovered that I am particularly susceptible to hangovers. In an attempt to lessen their effect, I now order a bottle of water to accompany my food and wine whenever I eat out. Recently, however, I have grown increasingly annoyed at the extortionate prices charged by some restaurants for a simple bottle of H2O. Whatever its particular mineral properties, it still comes out of the ground, after all. While I am quite happy to pay a little extra for water that hasn't refreshed four other people before it reaches my lips, to fork out £2 to £3 a bottle strikes me as absurd.
Paul Leyshon, Cardiff