Give carving lessons the chop and deal with the veg
Published 23 April 2006 News Review 666th article
Michael with 'master cook' Paul Muddiman and Stuart Bloomfield (Paola Lombard)
In my search for a good English Sunday lunch, unrewarding since the destruction of the Dorchester Grill - and the "upgrading" of other great hotels by dear Mr Ramsay - I took the advice of a mass-market restaurateur and booked Simpson's-in-the Strand.
It's attached to the Savoy hotel and under the same ownership, the principal shareholder being Halifax Bank of Scotland who are entrusted, in one of their Channel Island outposts, with zillions and zillions of my beautifully constructed pound notes. This is not necessarily a catering recommendation.
The room at Simpson's is marvellous. Comfortable booths clothed in Victorian type fabric. Lovely wood panelling. Classy wall candelabra and chandeliers. They have two trolleys, one for beef and one for lamb. The trolleys are the same as when it became a restaurant in 1848. Ladies were not allowed in until 1983.
Disraeli, Gladstone and Charles Dickens dined here when it was a club. They don't have a menu because they're proudly British. They have a "bill of fare". There's no chef, he's a "master cook".
The service, under restaurant manager Stuart Bloomfield, was superb. Everything was on the table in seconds - water (sadly Hildon), ice, slices of lemon.
The bread was moderate at best, the potted shrimps well below moderate. It felt like they'd been hanging about a long time.
Paola had a salad. She described the dressing as "tasteless", adding, "Scalini has the best salad and their dressing is the best."
The master cook, Paul Muddiman, was giving carving lessons in an upstairs room. He eventually came to our table and then sat down. "Bloody liberty!" I thought. "No chef ever plonked himself beside me."
He was very jack-the-lad, telling us where he sourced the meat and generally playing the role of food provider supreme. He said he was from Portsmouth.
"You've got a cockney accent, haven't you?" I observed.
"Portsmouth and London are very similar," responded Paul. I said nothing to that.
It took forever for the main course to arrive as they were making fresh Yorkshire pudding for me. Other places manage it in normal time. The beef and the lamb were absolutely stunning. As good as you could possibly want. Brilliant. The two elderly "trolley men" were a delight.
The vegetables were a total disaster. Paola thought them terribly oily. She had a vegetarian dish and left nearly all of it. "Look," said Princess, "you squeeze the vegetables and oil comes on your hand." She demonstrated this with great skill.
We'd had honey-roasted parsnips and carrots at the Ivy. They were great. At Simpson's they were disgusting. They were using dreadful, cheap oil. Everything was overcooked. The oil taste stayed in your mouth like a disease. My bubble and squeak was actively revolting. The mashed potatoes were ghastly.
The desserts improved things a bit. My treacle pudding was light, excellent, well-made, exemplary texture. The syrup was perfect and there was a lot of it. I asked for cream but got custard. It was very good, anyway. The bread and butter pudding was a joke. It was hard slices of aged toast, greasy and tough, sitting in horrid yellow stuff. At the Ivy they do it brilliantly.
As we left Stuart asked how I'd liked it. "Marvellous meat, superb treacle sponge," I replied diplomatically.
"What about the rest?" asked Stuart. "Vegetables beyond belief disgusting," I said.
Paul Muddiman, master chef in name only, appeared for our photo. "Where do you get your cooking oil from, a service station on the M25?" I asked. Paul looked forlorn. "It was a disgrace," I said.
Paola asked again, "Where's the oil from?" Paul looked to the ground and muttered, "I don't know."
If he didn't know he should be fired. If he did know he should be ashamed to offer up anything cooked in it. Instead of being jack-the-lad teaching carving upstairs he should be in his kitchen teaching the staff how to cook vegetables. That's if he knows, which I doubt.
Paola, deeply displeased with her meal, suggested coffee from Pret a Manger on the Strand, "because they use organic milk". She also bought a chocolate brownie and a sort of health bar.
"Pull over," Paola requested. So I stopped at the side of the Mall by my National Police Memorial and checked all was okay. Our pool was working perfectly. It was properly chemicalised from day one, unlike the Princess Di fiasco. And we came in £400,000 under budget!
Sitting serene in the Bentley, I opened the bag Simpson's had given me and took out a video called The Art of Carving. Carving Made Easy. Never mind carving made easy. They should produce Eating Vegetables Made Easy. Not the nightmare it was.
I'm quite aware you have a keen - even beady - eye for the young ladies. While I don't disapprove of a little harmless philandering in the elderly, I take exception to the fact that last week you were pictured with two very youthful and nubile girls, barely of voting age, under the headline: "Pastries this good are never a piece of cake". Do you mistakenly suppose the term "pastry" to be less offensive than "crumpet"?
Tracey Christiansen, Lincoln
Sandy Lane's Bajan Blue restaurant reminded us of an American fast food joint. The staff were unco-ordinated in their service, but co-ordinated in their ghastly Hawaiian shirts and blouses. The highlight was a fire in a dumb waiter, which was ignored until almost too late. It would have been a blessing!
Katherine Wilkes, Chester
You wrote (Winner's Dinners, April 9) "I assume she'd been reading a little multi-language brochure about me I generously gave her on arrival." While most of us await the inevitable arrival of ID cards, you've gone ahead and printed your own!
Stephen Crawford, Belfast
At Meza in Soho we encountered distinctly average food and the worst service for a long time. Were the staff nipping back to Seville every time we ordered a drink? If Michael wants to shrink his waistband further, an evening here will help his cause!
Andrew Bishop, Fulham
After your visit to Roast (Winner's Dinners, April 2) I expected to read a letter complimenting you on your eyesight. To be able to see St Paul's from the restaurant (short of standing on the roof and using a telescope) is quite a feat! Could it possibly have been Southwark Cathedral you saw from your window?
Nicola Bryant, London
Michael's slimming is a great improvement. He can now try the Fat Duck in Bray without being mistaken for the main course.
Tim Burton, Wokingham
At the Marriott in Preston breakfast guests had to make their own toast, something I'm sure you don't do at Sandy Lane. Obviously they didn't think people liked toast as they only provided one toasting machine. At least the time spent in the queue gave everyone a chance to discuss how terrible the service in the restaurants and bars had been the night before.
Peter Jolly, Inverness-shire