Published 16 December 2001 Style Magazine 440th article
Cheffing and blinding: Gordon Ramsay and Michael Winner (Georgina Hristova)
I'm an immense fan of Gordon Ramsay. He's one of the greatest chefs in the world. By comparison, our other three-Michelin-star cook, The Waterside Inn's Michel Roux, is fit only for motorway cafes. Gordon also possesses, in abundance, something M Roux does not: charm. He's enormously likeable, direct and warm.
I've been a fan of Claridge's for 60 years. But the marriage of Ramsay and the hotel worried me. I liked Claridge's restaurant as it was under John Williams. It was simple. The staff were delightful and straightforward. I had some superlative meals there. However, life progresses.
As the Claridge's doorman opened the Bentley door, he said: "Look, Mr Winner, it's buzzing." Through the entrance doors, I saw a new Claridge's. They'd previously redecorated the lobby and the downstairs lounges; now they'd changed the restaurant and, above all, brought in Gordon. The American owners should give him a major bonus. It's become a crowded, invigorated, exciting place. Little bars here, groups sitting at tables on the way to the restaurant. It's no longer a delightfully eccentric, cavernous club for elderly Establishment personae.
After inspecting the chef's table in the kitchen - which is not for me - I settled into the restaurant alcove where I'd sat so many times. The Gordon Ramsay room is glamorous and excellently designed, although I greatly missed the windows, now obscured by a wall. Low-hanging lantern chandeliers provide pleasant perspective. The colouring, carpets and ambience are fine. The immaculately dressed mingle with the tieless. One man wore a black jumper and no jacket. My guests were David and Wendy, who decline to exhibit their surnames. They're married. He's in business, she's in television.
We got many superb freebies. "A sort of aubergine mush," I dictated. Also cream cheese with white truffle. The menu offered "Roast canon of lamb served with shoulder of lamb (cooked for eight hours), white bean puree, baby leeks, rosemary jus". Georgina asked to have the eight-hour lamb, not the other. The restaurant director, Dominic Corolleur, froze. "But canon of lamb is delicious," he said. He tried again and again to persuade Georgina (and he called her "Georgina", which was overfamiliar) to have both. "She's told him what she wants," I thought. "Why not give it to her?"
Dominic became offensively snooty. "I'll have to discuss it with the chef," he said, as if dealing with a total moron. I remembered the critic for The Independent writing of this restaurant: "My waiter was typical of French waiters, who know the customer is never right. His smile evaporated quicker than chloroform once he had taken my order. He then used the same script on the next table, like some double-glazing salesman working from a call centre in Cardiff"
After the debate with the chef, Georgina was graciously permitted to have only the eight-hour lamb. She liked it. So did Wendy, who had the full monty. My first course was superb - haddock and quails' eggs with a vichyssoise of leek and potato soup. But I became saturated with the profusion of freebie mini courses. They fill you up and make you less ready for the main events. Nothing, however, could have made me ready for my main course.
I used to love the chicken pie at Claridge's. Either Gordon or his chef, Mark Sargeant, had made some. It was the worst chicken pie I've ever eaten. I left most of it. Strangely, the only other awful chicken pie I ever ate was at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Bruges, De Karmeliet. But this was worse. The chicken was in cloying cubes. There was no gravy or succulent taste, as with the old Claridge's pie. The pastry was white and abysmal. My friend David hated it too. He finished his. Then he went to the toilet. On returning, David ordered a Fernet-Branca. I understand why. The pie lay heavily on your stomach. "Lidgate, my local butcher, does a much better chicken pie," I observed. "Marks & Spencer's are good," added Wendy.
After that, the dessert freebies were exceptional, but the bread-and-butter pudding, made with brioche, was too sweet even for me.
There's a saying: "No good turn goes unpunished." Gordon had kindly made both the chicken pie and some pommes souflees for me. Pommes souflees are blown-up fried potatoes. They were not as good as under the previous chef. Gordon should stick to what he knows. The restaurant is lovely. Most of the food is good. It's "event eating", served with great pomposity and utterly lacking the old restaurant's understated charm. Gordon should be knighted for services to the nation. But for a treat, I'll keep going to his place in Chelsea. There, every mouthful is historic.
Having read every one of Michael Winner's pieces, I had still to make up my mind as to his seriousness or otherwise when it came to food and drink. Now - eureka! - he has confirmed this for me. Both he and the lovely Georgina drink red wine with fish (December 2), as does any non-snobbish drinker. Keep up the good work.
Mike Mogano, Solihull.
Michael Winner is to be congratulated. It appears from his photograph (December 2) that, having vented all his spleen and vitriol through his reviews, he has now attained the benevolent cosiness of a mildly helpful dinner lady who is just about to give someone an overlarge portion of semolina that they don't really want.
Mini Grey, by e-mail.
Obviously Michael's fame gets him a different level of service. The old Zaika in Fulham was superb. The new Zaika in Kensington (November 25) is awful. On joining my wife and her friend there, I was ignored and had to go to the bar to ask for a drink. I had to accost a member of staff to be given some menus, and again when we were ready to order. The food was disappointing, way below the Fulham standards. And the venue is not "buzzy and attractive" - it is simply noisy and depressing.
Rod Baker, Dorking, Surrey.
What an arrogant letter from the Russells about Sandy Lane (November 25). Did they actually stay there, I wonder, or just visit? Having just returned from a fantastic stay, we can confirm that virtually all the past staff are still there. Sandy Lane has the best staff in the world, and it is they - not bricks and mortar - that are the heart and soul of Barbados.
Jim and June Burgess, by e-mail.
I recently experienced a case of gastronomic political correctness that I feel compelled to share. I found myself staying at an Innkeeper's Lodge, with attached Toby Carvery, on the outskirts of Birmingham, where the restaurant offered a choice of roasts (good value at £6.45). A party of ladies was in front of me in the queue, and the chef, a personable young man, pointed at the sage and onion stuffing and inquired whether they would like seasoning. I remarked that, in Sussex, we call seasoning "stuffing". "So do we, sir," said the chef, "but we are not allowed to ask diners if they want stuffing."
Peter Goodman, Brighton
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