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Set the standard

Published 21 June 1998
Style Magazine
258th article



Still going strong: Lorenzo and Mara Berni with Michael Winner at San Lorenzo (Vanessa Perry)

The letters adorning this page are a delight, even the ones that slag me off. Not all can be printed, for lack of space. But I was impressed with one from Paul Trisk of Pinner, Middlesex, concerning set menus. He had been twice to the Waterside Inn in Bray for lunch and ordered from the Menu Gastronomique, as they call it. On each occasion he was not pleased.

Mr Trisk wrote to Michel Roux saying the standard was "not up to expectations . . . we were disappointed . . . the quality lacked imagination . . . it was adequate rather than spectacular". He declared himself a "less than satisfied client".

Mr Trisk was surprised by Roux's response, which he described to me as saying "if you choose the set lunch, you will enjoy all the trappings of a three-star restaurant apart from the food". Roux had written: "To see the true skills and talent of a three-star Michelin chef, then one should turn to the a la carte menu."

I like set menus. I feel they represent the most recent ideas of the chef, likely to be fresher in food and thought than the a la carte. Another three-star chef, Marco Pierre White, told me: "We move things from the main menu to the set menu." He would be quite happy to be judged on his Menu Gourmand. "It's a collection of our specialities." Gordon Ramsay, a brilliant two-star chef at Aubergine, was with him at the time. "Is that true of you, Gordon?" I asked. "Yes," he replied.

Jeremy King at The Ivy said: "We take as much trouble with our set menus as the a la carte. The dishes get put up to us for tasting without us being told which is the set menu and which is the it la cane. I'm as proud of the food on my set menu as on my a la carte menu." I'm glad he felt that way. I'd just eaten a Bakewell tart from the set menu that, while not looking or tasting like any Bakewell tart I'd ever had, was a memorable and delicious experience.

So I guess you choose your restaurant and, according to the modus operandi of the chef, you either get a set menu as good as anything else or, in the case of the Waterside Inn, one that is not as good. It's fairly well known that I consider the it la carte there to be pretty terrible, so what Mr Trisk had to put up with I hate to think.

The set menu at Marco Pierre White's newly opened Mirabelle restaurant in London's Mayfair is staggeringly good and great value: three courses, including roast beef, for £17.95 plus service. And the a la carte meal I had in the garden was one of the best ever. My omelette Arnold Bennett, with smoked haddock and mornay sauce, I shall remember for ever. Then I had veal Holstein, which wasn't as thinly sliced as usual, but tiptop none the less. For dessert, I had fruit jelly, tasted some creme brulee and a caramel souffle - all terrific.

It's an odd place when first you enter. There is no doorman, so it appears to be closed. You come into a small lobby that's like the entrance to a plastics factory in the Midlands on the skids, go down some stairs of equal dreariness and arrive at an only slightly better lobby with a desk in it. But once you get into the main restaurant and bar it has a lovely 1950s look, with bookcases painted on the walls and funny chairs.

A couple of days later I was lunching at San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge. I noticed they didn't have a set menu. "We never thought it was right," said the legendary Mara. "We change our menu every day, anyway." San Lorenzo, one of the great survivors of the restaurant world, sometimes gets a bad press. I had sensational broad beans and artichokes with calamari, followed by wild sea bass and then home-made coconut ice cream. Lovely. I ended with coffee and amaretti al cioccolato, pure chocolate and bitter chocolate in what could be biscuit or meringue. I thought it good beyond belief. They sell them in the shop next door. Lorenzo apparently saw a grandmother, mother and daughter wrapping them in Alessandria, Italy, and signed them up.

I definitely approve of San Lorenzo. I find the service excellent, although I sat one night with Arnold Schwarzenegger and he got three dishes he didn't order. For a man used to the fawning attention of Hollywood, this didn't go down too well. He kindly declined to blow the place to bits, thus displaying far greater patience than I could have mustered. But Austrians have always been very well mannered.



Letters

For once, I heartily agree with Michael Winner concerning Reid's Hotel in Madeira (Style, June 14). I am a frequent visitor to the island and four years ago decided to stay at Reid's. I found the management arrogant and the food dull and overpriced. I also disliked the apparent policy of replacing Madeirans with imported personnel. Contrast this with the Hotel Savoy, half a mile away. Here, the friendly staff and management are almost 100% Madeiran, and the food is good and reasonably priced. Over the years, I have met many guests at the Savoy who describe themselves as fugitives from Reid's. What more can one say?
J A Hall, St Albans, Herts

Michael Winner, in his present preoccupation with terminating hotel managers, waiters and pool attendants, may care to reflect on the hubris of Shaka, an early Zulu king. Ever one to impress, this gross and horrendous tyrant delighted in random and summary terminations of innocents. Eventually, miffed relatives skewered him with assegais, no doubt enjoying the hearty barbecue that followed.
Robert Ledsom, London W9

You can rattle on about Sandy Lane all you like, but you ain't seen nothin' yet. The most sublime dining experience is to be had at Harmony Hall in the Caribbean, with its idyllic situation and its indescribably good cuisine. Here's the sting, Winner. I am not going to tell you where it is. They can well do without your brand of napkin-waving.
Kevin J Coyne, Aughton, Lancs