Published 18 November 2001 Style Magazine 436th article
From left, Lawrence Keogh, Michael Winner and Jason Phillips (Georgina Hristova)
I used to go to Kensington Place a lot. I was very polite about them, even when I received dishes that were not exemplary. They didn't show the same loyalty to me, so you could say there was a falling out. I've had nothing to do with them for eight years. All riffs are best resolved. Thus I was pleased when they asked me to the opening of their new venture, West Street, adjacent to the Ivy. The event was less starry than I'd expected. When I asked the
paparazzi, "Who's here?", they replied, "You." This was not a good sign. Later, Chris Biggins appeared to complete the celebrity line-up.
The canapes were good, the premises difficult to judge as they were packed with standing-up freeloaders eating and drinking. I was happy to meet Simon Slater after many years. He was one of the co-founders of Kensington Place and stayed on after the buyout. He no longer sported a bright red sock on one foot with bright blue on the other. "He's become very adult," I thought. One of my few virtues is that I've never grown up.
I was told the upstairs would be rather posh and downstairs there'd be pizzas and things. But downstairs you couldn't book. "You mean people may come all this way and find they can't sit down and have a pizza?" I exclaimed. "They can wait in the bar," explained Jason Phillips, the deputy general manger. "Who wants to come for a pizza and end up in a bar?" I retorted.
Having read many poor reviews of the upstairs place since then, I decided to try the snackier area, West Street Downstairs. There were only four people in the room and Jason explained they'd abandoned the no-booking policy. Indicating a horrendous spot, he said: "I suggest this table for you."
"You must have gone totally mad, Jason," I told him. Jason and I go back to when he managed the Halcyon restaurant in its good days. I have an extremely high regard for him. Jason is jolly, spirited, welcoming and endearing. All qualities restaurant managers usually lack.
The decor at West Street was disappointing, particularly as Kensington Place remains one of the best-designed restaurants in London. This was minimalist with one bowl of flowers to add colour. Rows of smallish tables stood in unattractive lines. As there was plenty of space, we moved them about so I could sit at right angles to Georgina. "Could we have some freshly squeezed orange-juice?" I asked Jason, making a hand-squeezing move. "Yes," he said. He reappeared with orange liquid. Georgina tasted it and pulled a face. "That's not fresh," she said. "When was it squeezed, Jason?" I asked. "Last night," he replied. That was about 24 hours ago. The word "fresh" no longer entered into it. Jason said he'd go and squeeze some himself.
The pizza menu offered toppings, few of which I found interesting. I ordered provolone because Jason told me it was a sausage. He soon returned and said, "It's Italian cheese." Jason spoke to me while kneeling on his haunches. "There are endless empty chairs and he's kneeling on the floor," I dictated into the tape. "Would you prefer I stand?" he asked. "Just sit on a chair," I suggested.
I got a poached fig for my starter. I thought it was a bit burnt on the outside. Georgina declared it perfect.
Jason said: "All the way from Australia."
"What's all the way from Australia?" I asked.
"The wood-fired oven," replied Jason. The pizzas arrived, large and with a very good base. Georgina enjoyed hers, but my topping was bland. The menu offered none of the spicy, sausagey things I like. It was all too sophisticated. The place was still empty, even though Jason assured me 26 people had booked. Three desserts on the counter were brought over. There was a lemon meringue tart, a fruit tart and something called death by chocolate. They were okay. The base pastry was very hard. I nearly asked for a pneumatic drill to break it up.
Jason came over, smiling broadly. "Someone's just walked by and seen you here alone," he told me. "They said. 'Flash git, he's hired the whole restaurant.' "
Sadly, when I rang later to check a few things. I found Jason had relocated to The Avenue, a pleasing restaurant in St James's owned by the same group. That's a pity. He and I could have sorted out West Street Downstairs. Livened the menu up a bit. Made it more enticing. I could offer some suggestions to Lawrence Keogh, the chef, but I daren't. He was immensely pleasant, but the last thing chefs want to hear are the views of a customer.
If Michael Winner likes eating cheese that's historic (October 21), he can visit my fridge any time.
Gail Renard, by e-mail
As an ardent fan of Michael Winner's pieces, I am getting a little worried about his memory. Some time ago, he told us that he never entertained at home, then a few months later (November 4), he said that, before he took to drinking wine, he noticed guests in his house looking uncomfortable as the meal progressed. Are we getting old together, Michael? I do, however, agree with his comments concerning noisy restaurants, which are getting worse. We frequently find ourselves asking for the music to be turned down and, if granted, people start talking less loudly.
Mike Mogano, by e-mail
Mr Winner seems to have missed a biology lesson or two if he is unaware that frogs' legs contain bones (November 4). Any kind of leg should have a bone in it.
K Patterson, by e-mail
While not recommending that Mr Winner should go out of his way to try it, he may be amused to learn of an item that appears on the beverage list at the Holiday Inn in Riyadh, namely "sparkling grope juice". I thought it might be right up his alley.
Roger Fennings, London
I was delighted that Michael experienced as much pleasure at L'Hotellerie du Bas-Breau, in Barbizon (October 21), as I have. I was about to suggest that Robert Louis Stevenson had written Forest Notes there rather than Treasure Island, but I cannot be sure I am right. The hotel, I think, only claims the former.
Graeme Falconer, by e-mail
I recently paid my first visit to the Ivy, and it was certainly a memorable occasion - we were accused of stealing the crockery. When we had paid the bill, the waiter returned and told us that two plates were missing from our table, so we showed him our handbags (we were an all-female group). On complaining, we were told that we were overreacting. On reflection, I blame Michael. Two of our party had followed his practice and tried each other's puddings. In doing so, they had put small portions of pud onto their underplates. I think that the lack of six clean underplates could have caused the misunderstanding. How do Michael and Georgina deal with this problem?
Valerie Till, by e-mail