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Russian roulette

Published 26 May 2002
Style Magazine
463rd article



On the front roe: from left, William Cooper, Stephane Vohl and Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)

I'm sure you'll remember Vanessa Perry, my lovely previous girlfriend who graced this column for many years. Vanessa has settled with a nice young man and has a beautiful baby boy called Marlon. We keep in touch and stay friends, but haven't broken bread together since we parted.

With the kind permission of Georgina, I acquiesced in Vanessa's suggestion that we had lunch. She chose Kaspia, an elegant, Russian-style restaurant in Mayfair which specialises in caviar. I was first taken there by Michael Caine. It always seems to be empty. When I first returned, it was more or less empty. I was shown to a lousy table. I said: "The reason this place is empty is that you show people to rotten tables, even when good tables are available."

On my Vanessa visit, the table was fine, but the place was still largely denuded of diners. The chef had changed once again. They had a very fierce lady who screamed at her staff from their shop area one afternoon when I was buying takeaway caviar. They also sell pate and vodka. Now the chef is William. Cooper.

The managing director used to be the particularly pleasant Gavin Rankin. He now runs all Mark Birley's restaurants. His mother, Lady Bayliss, baked home-made chocolate cake for Kaspia and kindly sold some to me. She still makes chocolate cakes, purely in her private capacity. They're almost indescribably good. Second only to the ones at Harry's Bar in Venice. Sadly, Lady Bayliss no longer makes them for Kaspia, which has a charming new managing director, Stephane Vohl.

I've been trying to avoid writing about the food, but I suppose I must. We started with two 50g portions of Royal Beluga at £202.40 each, including service. They were well presented with large, pancake-like blinis. One was underneath, the other on top, so you got a caviar sandwich. We ordered grilled dover sole with beurre noisette of shrimps, capers and pommes parmentier. It came on the dreaded bed of spinach, the most boring vegetable ever, which was not mentioned on the menu. There were also small potato cubes. They were uninteresting. The shrimps were tiny, dried-up things of no use whatsoever. The sole was small, tough and tasteless. "I think it's all too messy," said Vanessa. At £27 per portion, it was practically an insult. By ten past two, we were the only diners there.

I always have on the table still water, a bowl of ice and slices of lemon. I noticed, after I'd finished my main course and was waiting for my dessert, that the water was still on the table - but they'd taken the ice and lemon away. "It's as if I'm only allowed to drink water up to the end of the main course," I observed, before asking for the ice and lemon back.

The desserts were dreary. Vanessa had, rightly, been very disappointed with her main course. She was trying to be polite, but it showed on her face. She was now looking forward to her raspberry sorbet. "It's terrible," she said, after sampling two tiny spoons. It was sickly and creamy, not like a real sorbet. I found it horrific.

"It's a different type of sorbet," explained Michel Leppeley, the restaurant manager. He admitted it should be watery. They'd got it from a restaurant supplier called La Maison des Sorbets. "William normally makes the sorbet," explained Michel. "But the ice machine blew up three weeks ago."

That means they've had three weeks to replace or repair it, but they didn't bother. they just got this stuff in from La Maison des Sorbets, I thought. My rhubarb crumble tartlet with vanilla mascarpone was bland. It had no taste or texture of any quality at all. I wasn't surprised there were no other customers in the restaurant.

A disappointing lunch, with no alcohol except one buck's fizz, cost £500. The trouble with many restaurants is they try to be too clever. Kaspia is in the heart of the West End. I'll bet The Square, a few yards away had, deservedly, plenty of lunch-time customers. So did Hush, just at the back. Soon the splendid Nico Ladenis will open his new place close by.

I wondered if Kaspia was a front. Was it a secret spy centre for Ukrainian undercover operatives? "Who owns this business?" I asked Stephane Vohl. "A Swiss lady," he answered. Swiss spies in the middle of Mayfair? Unlikely. But this is no way to run a restaurant. There must be another reason for it.

I felt sorry for Vanessa. She'd had high hopes for our lunch. "Let me choose next time," I advised. Still, I was there for the company. All was not lost.



Letters

I read with interest about Mr Winner's horrible experience at the Four Seasons. Bad service has become endemic in London, and the fact that its restaurant prices are among the highest in the world makes the situation all the more difficult to accept. High-profile exposure by someone like Michael Winner is probably the best thing that could have happened to the Four Seasons. Now, if only we could do something about cigarette smoking. On the rare occasion I've had a decent meal with good service, it has often been ruined by some disgusting individual at the next table firing one up. This is one area where the Americans got it right.
RBA, Kensington

I was (pleasantly) surprised to read of Mr Winner's visit to Bagelmania (May 5) and agree with his recommendation of bagels and bagel sandwiches. We regularly have orders of these treats delivered to our office for meetings, as they are such a delicious alternative to boring granary sandwiches. And their service is fantastic - a rarity in London sandwich shops. I am concerned, however, that bagels will gain a reputation as posh sandwiches now that they have Mr Winner's approval.
Capitol Films, Holland Park

I was sorry to read about the horrible tea at the Four Seasons hotel (May 5), but excited by the description of lunch at the Ivy. "The Ivy," I said to my husband, "that sounds great. When can we go?" He told me that it was only for the A list and celebrities (such as Mr Winner). I am 33 years old with a lumpy figure. My husband is short. Do you think we stand a chance? Perhaps I should add that we have more than the mere £19 paid out by Mr Winner. We have £25 per head. Will this help?
Paula Williamson, by e-mail

How exactly was the Ritz intending to prevent Derek R Waterhouse from taking his photographs (Letters, May 5)? I would have taken my photos anyway - probably more than I had intended to.
Christopher Davies, London W9

At last, it's official, I can now 'fess up to my love of bananas plastered with peanut butter, thanks to Marco Pierre White and Michael Winner, of course (May 5). I was introduced to this wonderful combination in the 1970s, by an American, naturally, who called it Roof of Your Mouth, for obvious reasons. At the Sahid Hotel in Makassar, Indonesia, it is served with mango jam and a heavy sprinkling of grated cheese - also weirdly delicious.
Wendy Watson, by e-mail

Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk