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Decent hospital food? Always a tricky operation

Published 18 September 2005
News Review
636th article

Celeste, Paola and Michael at the London Clinic (Terry O'Neill)

When I say: "Please send a search party to the kitchen to look for my main course," or, irritably: "I asked for ice and lemon on the table and they're still not here!" it's all minuscule compared to what really matters. Good health.

Enter a hospital, even as a visitor, and you think how lucky you are not to be a resident.

So when I went to the London Clinic, arguably London's top private hospital, where Paola was to have a major operation, there was a sense of foreboding. Two experts had said it couldn't be done with keyhole surgery. Then, luckily, we found Tom Ind, a superb young surgeon, who said of course it could and he and his anaesthetist, Matthew Hacking, would do it.

The London Clinic's snooty and brusque receptionist viewed everybody in her life as a total nuisance. "Paola Lombard," I offered helpfully. "Wait there," she said tartly, indicating the crowded lobby. We waited. And waited. Eventually I rose and said: "As we're paying nearly £850 a night for the room, is there a chance we might ever see it?" I was told the admissions staff were busy.

Thirty-five minutes later we arrived at a tiny room facing Marylebone Road. The traffic noise was horrendous. The night before I'd upgraded Paola's Bupa room and been assured it would overlook the central gardens and be quiet. After a blast from me on the phone they admitted someone else had been put in Paola's room by mistake. Things were eventually sorted out. But it wasn't the best way to greet a patient, nervous about their operation.

Paola spent a few nights in the clinic. I got to sample the food. When we were downstairs waiting an old man came over and said: "The food's very good here."

Obviously he didn't have what I had.

The ambitious Saturday lunch menu offered pan-fried supreme of guinea fowl, seafood stew and smoked halibut salad. I chose lightly spiced spinach and chickpea potato cake served with basmati rice, mint yoghurt and mango chutney. Paola had fan of melon sprinkled with mint sugar.

Celeste Goschen (more of her later) thought her salad was crisp and good. Paola described the food in general as: "Not terrible, not great." My quasi-far-east dish was all right considering.

But I understood why, when my mother was in the London Clinic, we had to ferry smoked salmon sandwiches to her daily. I regretted not ordering the fresh berry jelly and whipped cream. My sort of dessert.

More importantly, surgeons and doctors assure me the London Clinic is very well staffed with top nurses, offers thoroughly up-to-date operating rooms and other equipment and has a particularly good intensive care unit. Please God I never have to find out first-hand.

So Paola, Celeste and I will, somewhat generously, give the food a weak seven out of 10, taking into account it's a hospital and not a luxury hotel.

Celeste is Paola's best friend. She came from Suffolk to stay in the room to help her through. Suffolk is so posh even bus drivers are posh. It's so posh I've never dared set foot in it.

Celeste is particularly posh. Her great-great-grandfather, George, was chancellor of the exchequer and first lord of the Admiralty. Beat that! Terry O'Neill, lens supremo, dropped in and took our photo.

The day after Paola left hospital we went to the Ivy. I view, with considerable scepticism, outraged northerners writing about how cheap food is up there compared to the over-rich south. The Ivy Sunday lunch, three courses including roast beef, is £21.50. And it's terrific. We even got a sighting of George Michael and Tracey Emin!

My last three-course meal in the north of England, with a sighting of some of the noisiest, worst-dressed people ever, was at Crabwall Manor near Chester. It was all ghastly beyond belief and the set menu was Pounds 35. Over 50% more than the Ivy!

So don't give me this guff about how cheap the north of England is! Nor how friendly they are. The Crabwall Manor service was surly and appalling. At the Ivy it's first-rate and cheerful.

I was bemused by the Harden's restaurant guide reader survey. This showed the Ivy their second "most favourite". It was also second in the "most disappointing" category. And fifth in the "most overpriced" list!

I also found it odd when another food guide, Zagat, named the French Horn, Sonning, in the five top classic French restaurants.

I greatly admire the French Horn. I order fried scampi and a whole duck roasted on their open fire. I'd have called the cooking typically English.

But then one man's duck is another man's caneton. Or something.

Winner's letters

Lunching at the Electric Brasserie on Portobello Road, I asked if service was included. The waiter replied without a trace of irony: "Service is included but the gratuity isn't." My reply is unprintable.
John Mackay, London

There was a very flattering photo of you (earlier days perhaps?) displayed in the gents at a restaurant in St Lucia. Underneath it read: "If you see this man anywhere in the vicinity of this establishment please advise the management." My wife confirmed there was no such red alert in the ladies. Was that sexism or properly applied sensitivity?
Vic Gamble, Guernsey

I am admiring the photo of you outside Da Romana (Winner's Dinners, September 4). You must be a great singer as you possess the legs of a lark.
Norris Harrington, Cork

At 11am I phoned the Savoy to book lunch in the Grill or the Banquette. I was transferred from restaurant to restaurant and then to reception because, apparently, nobody could take a booking for the same day. I was kept holding for two minutes in silence, gave up and phoned Le Caprice. There my call was answered and I made a booking.
St John Marston, Suffolk

Regarding the Ledbury (Winner's Dinners, September 11), what exactly had Paola been up to that required her to "fix her mascara" at lunchtime?
Shelly Hope, Bognor Regis

Why doesn't Paola write the column? You quote her so much and she's so insightful. Last week she said: "This place is fantastic. We've got comfort and tasty food with no pomp and circumstance." This summarises what I've always looked for when dining out. There's nothing more to say -except if you're in Shropshire, try the Armoury in Shrewsbury.
Mark Challoner, Shropshire

At the Reading Room in Claridge's, a five-star hotel, I was served the worst salad Nicoise I've ever eaten. The lettuce was dark green, bitter and tired. There were no anchovies. The tuna was tough and could have been from a supermarket tin. At £18.50 plus service for a salad it was beneath contempt. Their Californian chardonnay was utterly inferior, also.
Michael Lynn, London

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk