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The right person in the wrong place at the wrong time

Published 1 January 2006
News Review
650th article

Vanessa Perry, Michael and Michael DiFiore at the Park Terrace (Zuzana Paranacovi)

When we last met towards the end of 2005 I was bemoaning the collapse of standards at the Dorchester Grill.

Their superb, deposed restaurant manager, Michael DiFiore, wrote to me explaining he could be found at the Park Terrace of the Royal Garden hotel in Kensington. I think they're lucky to have him. Whether he's lucky to have them is another matter.

On the plus side it's an income. On the minus side the Royal Garden is functional rather than special and is most certainly not known for its great food. Mind you, nor is the Dorchester Grill now known for great food.

But the Dorchester still has other qualities. The lobby, somewhat absurdly named the Promenade, looks good and is improved by the bar being put at the back with a pianist. It offers all day dining under chef Henry Brosi who did so well in the Grill Room that the manager, Christopher Cowdray, replaced him with someone of infinitely less skill.

In the Dorchester basement is China Tang, David Tang's newish, vastly popular and attractive Chinese restaurant.

The Royal Garden hotel offers no such pleasures. It is doggedly second rate in design and decor. But practical and quite buzzy.

Michael was waiting at the top of some stairs on the right of the main lobby.

These led to a room furnished like a school, with wooden chairs and tables, but a nice view over the park.

I went with my delightful ex-girlfriend Vanessa Perry who figured in this column for years and was also our photographer. Maybe I should have married her.

She's now firmly off the market with a nice young man in financial services and a four-year-old son called Marlon. He's named after my friend Brando who was very fond of Vanessa. He wrote her nice letters, one of which she rightly has framed.

She was I noticed, being vastly observant, pregnant again. She's insatiable.

The Park Terrace is the sort of meaningless room that should have a buffet. There was one specially set up for a big group sitting at one end. But not for common folk like me. "Those are booked," explained Michael indicating the two enormous tables. "It'll add a bit of atmosphere. Add a bit of noise."

"I don't want noise, Michael," I said. "Tell them to shut up."

There's a very large menu, including English specialities such as slow-roasted pork belly with a sweet glaze and apple mash. Then a lot of eastern stuff sweet and sour prawns, et cetera.

The menu reads well. That means nothing until you eat the food. Then it all collapses. Nothing we ate was any good at all. I just don't know how a hotel with pretensions of grandeur can dish up stuff like this.

Vanessa had the best of the day with her starter of roasted beetroot salad with parmesan shavings. It wasn't good but it wasn't ghastly. My marinated salmon was tasteless. It had probably been in the deep freeze too long.

Vanessa's main course of vegetarian wellington with chilli beans was a pastry filled with mushrooms, red pepper and rice. She tried, unsuccessfully, to find the chilli beans.

I called Michael over. "See if you can find any chilli beans in Vanessa's main course," I requested.

"I'm going to take it away and spend all afternoon analysing it," said Michael.

"You can spend the next year and a half analysing it. You still won't find any chilli beans!" I retorted.

My lamb stew was totally tasteless. Could have been cardboard. The mashed potatoes, which Michael assured me were real and not from a packet, were heavy and far from pleasant. We both left most of our main courses. "We're not getting a big meal are we, Vanessa?" I observed.

There followed a lull with nobody offering to take our dessert order. I considered waving my napkin but I couldn't see any staff who'd even notice. So I rose to go into the kitchen and find someone. Michael caught me on the way.

I eventually got a spice pear crumble which was railway buffet standard. Vanessa ordered apple and blackberry pie, which, we were told, "takes 20 minutes". It could have come in two minutes. It wasn't freshly made, for sure. The pastry was abominable. It was horrid. I tried a bit. Vanessa left most of it.

Then my chauffeur, Jim, drove her to Berkhamsted in my Rolls Phantom V to pick up Marlon at his school. There's another life. One I never sampled. "Would I have liked it?" I wondered.

  • PS: I declined to wish you a happy Christmas, although I hope you had one. I now wish you a healthy and wonderful 2006.

    Winner's letters

    I wonder if the Dorchester (Winner's Dinners, December 18) paid Michael Winner to be so scathing about its Grill Room? Was it part of a publicity ploy? The restaurant was so busy I could only get a table on my third attempt. It was teeming with diners presumably wanting to see how dreadful it could be. My dining experience was highly enjoyable. The service and food were all first rate. There was no sign of the soon-to-be-shot hotel manager. I suppose he was in his office creating another home-made card for Mr Winner. This time to say: "Thank you for making my restaurant one of the busiest in London."
    Joe Habbab, Winchester

    I loved your piece on the Dorchester Grill. My husband and I dined there with friends. It was the worst dinner we've ever had - including the most expensive plate of smoked salmon in London. The service was both snooty and amateur and the room was migraine-inducing. Never again.
    Judith le Fleming, Chiswick

    How dare you criticise such a talented man as the Dorchester's general manager, Christopher Cowdray! Clearly the Grill was not to your taste, but then are your ties or manners our taste? Why do you have to be so unkind? You went completely over the top.
    Gemma Levine, London

    I've been a regular customer of the Dorchester Grill for 10 years. Your observations on the decorative changes were far too kind. The new horrendous red attacks you like a horror movie. The Grill used to offer a marvellous ambience and amazingly good quality food at sensible prices. You are a cad and a bounder for writing a review that falls far short of the criticism that should be levelled at the changes. The restaurant has lost me as a customer forever. One of the great pleasures of my life has gone.
    Paul Duffy, London

    Congratulations! At last someone with the nerve to write a dreadful, but true, review of the destruction of a great British institution, the Grill Room at the Dorchester. By the way, love your jacket! I'm the same size as you, for my sins. So can I please have it when you've finished with it? Free, of course.
    B R J Simpson, Hampshire

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