Published 3 January 1999 Style Magazine 286th article
Making waves: Alan Parker and Michael Winner on the Symphony glass bateau
Anybody sane, asked to name the best restaurant in London, will reply: "The Ivy." No 2 is be Caprice - also once owned and now run by Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin - and Assaggi in Notting Hill. So when my restaurant heroes J and C open a new place it's an important event. The trouble with Sheekey's (aka J Sheekey) was always going to be the premises. They are, quite simply, not suitable for eating in. And I care not that this is how they've been used for 100 years.
The best you can say for David Collins's design is that he has not, for once, messed up. Compared to our Dave, Hitler was a great architect. Other than highly inappropriate, ghastly 1960s failed modern glass splodges on period windows in a historic walkway and a period building, the place looks fine. The food is totally superb, a wonderful menu, beautifully cooked, all seafood and puddings. The service is as good as you could get in the history of the world. The general manager, Robert Holland, came from the Ivy; he was always first-rate. Even the treacle tart was better than I remember it at the Ivy. It was a delicious meal. I've never seen Vanessa's plate cleaner than at the end of our main-course grilled mackerel with mustard sauce and celeriac. A great credit to chef Tim Hughes.
I shall return, but there is a problem for us space-lovers. Sheekey's is not so much a restaurant as four separate corridors with tables and chairs. Plus a "crush bar" so narrow that if you put a couple of people in it, you could define "crush" for ever. Another showbiz chap, the lord of song-and-dance, who, like me, slips away to food-write, summed up Sheekey's most accurately as "like a yacht . . . dinky". That's exactly what it is. The tables are so dinky that when a waiter brought the main, course and the veg plates I was in panic. "Let's take away the bread basket . . ."
I had as large a table for two as you can get, but it was still much smaller than my regular spots at the Ivy and Le Caprice. The one I was first offered, on a corner banquette at the back, was so near a young couple I said to Jeremy: "I'd be wife swapping with them in 10 minutes." After settling, I went back to try the corner out. A look of terror came over the couple. "Don't worry, I'm not going to sit here," I said. "Whoever does will be your instant best friend. Maybe." My particular restaurant corridor accommodated 26 people. Part of the pleasure of eating out is to enjoy a group experience. "There's Mitzi Bitzi who nearly got the Oscar . . . look, it's Hymie Schrapnel, thought he was in jail . . . oh, Marjorie is overanimated . . ." It's nice to look up briefly and note people you know and admire, or have heard of, or just a pleasing mix of customers. It's reassuring to see the tall, angular, welcoming figures of Chris and Jeremy working the room. Not much chance of that in Sheekey's. My back was to the wall, then there was the table, then a walkway so narrow that waiters kept bumping into my table, then the table opposite and the wall behind. I grabbed a look at some people walking through to other rooms, but that's not the same as enjoying a mini "happening", which Chris and Jeremy create so well at their other places. Still, they know more than I do; I'm sure Sheekey's will be a success. I certainly hope so.
C and J rightly never like photos taken inside their restaurants. I was permitted to sit on the stairs at the Ivy and hold hands with Chris. Jeremy and I stood on the pavement outside Le Caprice. But at Sheekey's it was too cold for the sidewalk and the stairs are narrow (surprise, surprise) and lead to the lavatories. So the photo displayed is of me and my friend the film director Alan Parker, taken at a dinner on the Symphony glass bateau, when Alan received his lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of Great Britain. It was a well-catered event: crepes filled with poached asparagus, steamed salmon and bearnaise sauce, chocolate roulade. The boat is spectacular, the Thames cruise picturesque. I compered the evening, Madonna handed him the award.
Our guild represents directors in all media and I'm the only council member who has served continuously since it started 15 years a ago. This makes me a trade union official. I always think people should start the year with a piece of information previously denied to them. And while we're about it, please have a jolly good 1999.
I was amazed to read Michael Winner's glowing review of the Churchill Arms (Style, December 27). This was a side of him we have rarely seen before. When was the last time he described soup as "utterly delicious" or deemed his dessert to be "in some pudding stratosphere I have seldom, if ever, encountered"? Is the great man going soft in his old age?
Alex James, London SW6
My wife and I recently ate at the restaurant of the Stakis hotel in Blackpool. We have visited the hotel on numerous occasions over the years and have always found the food and service quite satisfactory. However, on this visit, the quality of the food had deteriorated markedly: the soup was cold, the vegetables coated in cold butter or oil and the desserts so chilled that they lacked any taste. I am becoming increasingly weary of hoteliers who believe that, if they provide a swimming pool, sauna, steam room, etc, the food on offer can be of dubious quality. Perhaps you could pay the Blackpool Stakis a visit when you are next in the area.
A Jones, Rode Heath, Cheshire
About a month ago, a party of 14 of us had a meal at a local restaurant. Just after placing my order, I was aware of a sharp pain on my wrist and, to my horror, discovered I had received three nasty stings from a dozy, wasp-like insect. Following first aid from a waitress, I returned to the table in time for the main course. To add insult to injury, everyone else's meal was correct except for mine, which had to be sent back to be changed. It was quite a memorable evening: I was not only let down, but well and truly "stung" at the same time.
Brenda Love, Wimborne, Dorset