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Heart of oak

Published 19 November 2000
Style Magazine
384th article

Men in black: from left, Gordon Ramsay, Michael Winner, with Robert Reid in between, and Marco Pierre White, back (Georgina Hristova)

I greatly miss Marco Pierre White cooking. Not only was the food utterly exceptional, his presence enlivened the evening. He'd appear from the kitchen sweaty, dishevelled, hair dangling, his apron covered with wiped food. You felt you were in the elegant hall of the mad young professor, yet just adjacent was the overheated asylum of the kitchen. Then Marco took time out from 20 years of slaving over a hot stove and appeared as customer supervisor at restaurants he owned. As 1999 wore on, I said: "Marco, when are you going back in the kitchen?" "October." he said. But he never did. In September last year, he announced he was giving back his three Michelin stars and retiring from cooking.

A few days earlier, Nico Ladenis, London's other three-star chef, had told me he was returning his stars. He was outraged when Marco announced it before him. "Did he know about me?" asked Nico. I thought not. Both of them found charging very high prices, however good the food, when operating in hotels, was not something the public were buying. Both decided to keep their restaurants going with the chef who'd prepared a lot of the food before and to charge much less.

I haven’t been to Nico's "new" place in Park Lane, but I did visit the Oak Room, once Marco's domain and now led by the excellent chef, Robert Reid. I know Mr Reid's work well. When I was between housekeepers he'd send lunch to my house regularly. with a junior chef to supervise. Mr Reid's chefs loved coming to me. We have two beautiful young receptionists who sit in the kitchen. A date or two was made, even though no serious love match resulted.

I remember Marco telling me he was moving to the Oak Room. He was very thrilled to be in such a famous place. I've always found it rather threatening. It needs warming up. The provision of a string quartet in the enormous anteroom would help. You enter first through the bright new-wood lobby of the Meridien Piccadilly. Meridien hotels are well run, but nobody could call them glamorous.

Present at my Oak Room table was Marco himself, Gordon Ramsay (who used to work with him and Robert Reid). Jean-Christophe Novelli and Georgina. The tables are large, the chairs extremely comfortable, you can hear yourself speak with great clarity. Even in these posh surroundings, I noted most men didn't wear jackets. The dinner price is a good value at £38 plus 12 1/2% gratuity. This includes a freebie starter, in our case a sort of fish soup with a shrimp peeking out. "Mariniere of shellfish with basil," corrected Marco.

The only problem with the Oak Room is the lighting. Placed on each table is a tall, far-too-bright electric candelabra with a white stem. It sits at eye level, thus obliterating the person opposite. Marco moved it to the right, but it was so bright that my eye still went to the bulb. "The lights don't dim," said Marco when I complained, "they've got a soft bulb." It didn’t look soft to me. "They're in proportion to the size of the room," said Marco. Maybe, but they're not in proportion to the size of the tables.

The meal, however, was absolutely superb. Robert Reid deserves at least one Michelin star, if not two. I had a salmon starter with a tiny bit of caviar on top. Marco gave rne an oyster on a gelee of champagne and watercress. My main course was pigeon from Bresse with thyme, braised cabbage and a petit pain of foie gras. Dessert was oeuf a la neige with pink praline and creme anglaise. Georgina had thin apple tart. Marco gave me a bit of his pineapple roasted with vanilla and chilli. It was too spicy for me. But it was a meal hard to beat. Marco described the room as "very grown-up". I didn't know what that meant, so I agreed with him in order to be polite. We had a bottle of Chateau Trotanoy 1983, which was £350 on the wine list. "A very small chateau," the wine waiter informed me. The restaurant manager is Nicolas Munier, who's very pleasant.

Contrary to the fervent hopes of most other restaurateurs that Marco and Granada's relationship should end in a bloodbath, Marco recently announced new arrangements, whereby he remains partnered with Granada in some places, including the Oak Room, but is free to expand on his own. Thus, billboards announcing his ownership of the Belvedere recently appeared in my neck of the woods. If only he'd open a really good delicatessen-cafe near me. Marco would elevate to perfect. I'm not holding my breath


If Michael Winner can describe Ruth Rogers of the River Cafe as a "lively old girl" (Style, October 22), I wonder where that leaves him.
Alison Riddell, Ringwood, Hants

Much to my displeasure, on purchasing my newspaper every Sunday I find myself being inextricably drawn to Winner's Dinners. While I do find your articles infuriating, I must congratulate you on your attention to detail, which is so often lacking in restaurants. I relish the few times that I read of a restaurant of note - it is praise indeed coming from yourself. If your scribblings improve the overall quality of our restaurants, then please carry on.
John R Mickerson, West Sussex

The reason that Michael Winner thinks it rare to find both efficiency and charm in "waitress world" (Style, October 22) is that manners and respect are so rare in "customer world". Customers seem to believe that the price of the set menu includes permission to patronise and insult the waitresses.
Helen and Heather McCabe, Nuneaton, Warwickshire

Would Mr Winner like to have a meal in the geriatric ward where my father is a patient? If Mr Winner is lucky, his main course, pudding and cup of tea will all arrive together. The tea goes cold while one eats the main course, but the large soup spoon that is provided is ideal for the little pot of already melting ice cream. The staff do their best, but are let down by the management. The management offers the reassurance that some people like everything served together and don't know why the ice cream melts. Perhaps, to savour the occasion, Mr Winner could come with his right arm strapped out of action and his left arm splintered so it is of limited use.
Stephen Roberts, Tilbury, Essex

Mrs Julie Rothwell of Preston (Style, October 22) has missed the point of dining at The Ivy -- or dining out in general, come to that. Surely it's about pleasure, fun, food, service, company, anecdotes, laughter, memories, friendships, conversation . . . I have visited The Ivy scores of times and I have no idea if the superb food arrives in five or 50 minutes. It has simply never occurred to me to time it. But if "time to get fed" is Mrs Rothwell's priority, I'm sure the Burger King in Leicester Square could have her on her way faster than The Ivy.
Richard McCann, via e-mail

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