Published 1 January 1998 Style Magazine 234th article
East meets west: Michael Winner at Nobu with some Japanese diners
Nicholas Rettie is a hotelier supreme. On the night I went to Nobu he was attending the relaunch of the restaurant at his superb Halkin Hotel, now renamed after its chef, Stefano Cavallini. Been there, loved it. Mr Rettie is also general manager of the Metropolitan, a new hotel in Park Lane, attached to which is the "in" Japanese restaurant, Nobu. It is an enormous success. I have read nothing but praise for it. I spent, without doubt, the most awful evening of my life there. It was horrific. Ghastly beyond belief. A total nightmare. And, believe me, that's being kind.
The room itself is like a corridor. Even Nobu's admirers admit the tables are small and too close together. I was led, arrogantly, to a table I wouldn't sit at. The assistant manager (the place is full of assistants - nobody seems to be in charge) stood at the table. I remained some distance away. Eventually, and grudgingly, I was shown to a corner table, not larger but better positioned.
A young lady, later revealed as Kelly from Cheshire, said: "Would you like something to drink?" Vanessa said she'd like mineral water, whereupon Kelly walked off. "Excuse me," I said, halting her in midflight. "There are two people at this table. I would like . . ."
Thereafter things went downhill - steeply. I asked Kelly if we could see the wine waiter. "I do everything," she announced. She slopped wine on the table, then poured water onto it and Vanessa without so much as a "Sorry".
The menu is vastly confusing to ordinary folk. Vanessa said she didn't eat meat or shellfish, ordered one item, baked aubergine, and we left the rest to Kelly. "I don't think they're very welcoming," I said as she left. "I don't think they want you here at all," Vanessa replied. "You're not chic enough."
We were then given 12 - yes 12 - courses before dessert, which we didn't have, anyway. The first was a little starter of beans that you shelled yourself. Perfectly pleasant.
A long wait. A man in a white V-necked sweater, no shirt, blue jeans, was kissing a large group opposite. Some interesting-looking Japanese people sat next to us. "They're talking about you using a spoon and fork," said Vanessa. "That's all right," I replied. "I'm talking about their hairstyles."
The second course was immensely hot sauce on pieces of white fish. Vanessa couldn't eat it. I tried it. It was full of chilli, the sort of thing you should ask if people like before offering it.
Then came the baked aubergine. Okay, not spectacular. Fourth course was sashimi salad with a lot of raw fish. I quite liked that. Vanessa hated it, pulled a face and drank some water to get rid of the taste. The room was wearing me down. Overcrowded, overactive, it reminded me of the 1948 movie The Snake Pit, where poor Olivia de Havilland was trapped in a lunatic asylum.
Fifth course was very garlic-laden squid pasta. Kelly kept trying to make me use my dirty fork for every course. I declined. The sixth course was marinated cod in a leaf. This was the best offering. We were getting overstuffed. These courses are not small.
For the seventh course, Vanessa had a small dorade fish, complete with fins, tail, head, and set in a slight wriggle. It looked like an ornament. She found it uneatable. I had rock-shrimp tempura. No cutlery arrived, so I started eating with my ﬁngers. Vanessa went to the ladies' room. Kelly came and took her napkin from the banquette, folded it into a design and put it back on the table.
There followed, in very slow succession, vegetables steaming on a plate, then two chicken dishes. "But I asked for no meat," said Vanessa. Kelly looked as if this was highly impertinent.
The 10th course was a vegetable tempura, the 11th was soup. I am a pig, but by now even I couldn't face any more. The worst was yet to come. A large bowl arrived. Six bits of sushi, eight bits of fish, two enormous black rolls and some other stuff. "I think she's taking the mickey," said Vanessa. "It's not a main course: sushi is always served last," said Kelly haughtily.
I may only be a poor boy from Willesden, but I don't need some snotty girl telling me it's "in" to serve a plate of food that would satisfy three people as a main dish 2½ hours after dinner has started.
"Do you want anything else?" asked Kelly. "I'd like to go," I replied. I'd also like to be lobotomised, so the evening in Nobu is removed from my memory. That isn't likely. I'll just have to live with it.
Why is it that certain smart London restaurants have suddenly started dictating to diners when we should arrive and, even more annoying, what time we should surrender our tables? When trying to book a table, the conversation usually goes like this. "Hello, I'd like to make a reservation for 8pm on Thursday." To which I will generally be told: "Could you come at 7.30pm - and we'll need the table back by 9pm, okay?" I have recently received this treatment from Moro in Exmouth Market, Joe Allen in Covent Garden, and Bradley's, a rather fine fish restaurant in Hampstead. One of the above bossily told us we had to arrive at 8.15pm rather than 8pm, and that we'd have to leave by 10pm. This is flagrant greed on the part of restaurateurs who are trying to squeeze two sittings into one evening. It's enough to bring on a case of severe indigestion - especially if, like me, you are a very slow eater.
M Kaplan, London NW3
How erroneous restaurant and hotel guides can be. On a recent trip to Dorset, my husband and I were disappointed with both The Priory Hotel in Wareham, which was given a good review in both the Which? Hotel Guide and Egon Ronay's Hotel and Restaurant Guide, and Perry's Restaurant in Weymouth, which also appears in the Egon Ronay guide. At Perry's, for instance, the room was drab, the food unremarkable and the waiter surly and discourteous. Perhaps personal experience is the only reliable recommendation.
Wendy Rooney, Swindon, Wilts