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Great food won't stop me hitting the roof

Published 17 September 2006
News Review
687th article

Bjorn van der Horst, left, Michael and staff at La Noisette (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Gordon Ramsay can boast many achievements. He's a chef of supreme delicacy and style, has immense personal charm, uses the F-word more times on television than any person in history and has abolished the ridiculous dress codes that blighted London hotels such as Claridge's, the Savoy, the Connaught and the Berkeley.

You're allowed into Gordon's restaurants in T-shirts, sneakers - and probably nude. Although I haven't tested that.

So why were the words "lounge suits" on his invitation to the opening drinks party for La Noisette on Sloane Street? I own three lounge suits. I wore one for the Queen. I'm certainly not wearing one for a restaurant opening.

We e-mailed and received a missive back saying I could come without a lounge suit.

There was Gordon, rampant in distressed blue jeans. In case your memory doesn't go back to the early 1970s, that's jeans with slits deliberately cut in them as a fashion statement.

The first-floor premises have always been miserable. They still are. Gordon bemoaned the fact he'd lost a million pounds backing the previous chef, Ian Pengelley, who briefly ran a restaurant there named after him. Pengelley, not Ramsay. It was horrible.

Gordon introduced his new chef, Bjorn van der Horst, of Dutch origin but American.

Clean cut. Very pleasant.

Shortly thereafter Geraldine and I visited La Noisette to eat. A girl in the ground-floor lobby said, "Shall I?" I think she meant "Shall I show you up?" but words obviously failed her.

"As you like," I said walking on up the stairs. This energised the girl to come with us. Not A for first impressions, I thought.

As we approached the restaurant Geraldine tripped on a metal bar set in the floor.

I said, "Under law that's called the hidden trap. A danger not announced. If someone broke a leg they could go to one of those accident solicitors advertising on telly and make a few quid."

At the table I thought, again, how ghastly the room was. Gordon has titivated it.

There are new lampshades, different paintings. But it's still low-ceilinged, claustrophobic and gloomy. Not helped by large, dark brown wooden slats on the ceiling, which give the appearance of a failed 1970s provincial airport.

The menu can lightly be described as over the top. Lots of over-explained mini items. There's an "inspirational tasting menu" for £65 plus 12.5% service.

The assistant restaurant manager, Nicolas Mori, came to take our order. "Where's your pad?" I asked.

"I don't need a pad, we don't use a pad," was the answer.

"Then I'm not ordering," I said. "I'll go somewhere else. I've had enough wrong dishes from waiters who don't write things down."

His boss, restaurant manager Robert Signe, explained, "We only use a pad if there are seven or more people." That is, without doubt, the most stupid remark anyone has ever made to me in a restaurant. And I've heard a few.

Eventually they deigned to bring a pad. The whole experience was becoming grossly pretentious. I decided to have the set five-course menu. Plus dessert. I can't remember the price.

I was becoming agitated. The gloom of the ceiling and the ludicrous dialogue from the serving staff were getting me down.

To the credit of the kitchen they produced the food, for me at least, like lightning. Most of it was superb.

We had a freebie starter of artichoke veloute, tomato fondue and tomato granita.

Delicious. Then a tiny bit of chilled gazpacho. Very good. Then a fricassee of crayfish. Excellent. Too much liquid sauce with it, though, and I only got a knife and fork. Perhaps I was meant to lick the plate! Then a watermelon carpaccio with goat's milk feta, black leaf tapenade and rocket. An absolute sensation.

At 9.15pm they dimmed the lights. Big event, that. Then came the main course - rabbit. Perhaps they wanted to disguise it. A big, big, big (note I wrote "big" three times) let down.

It was described as "a saddle of Lancashire rabbit stuffed with its own liver, served with pork belly, crispy squid, giroles and parmesan foam". It all tasted utterly dreary.

After the rabbit an amazing cheese trolley appeared, I had a bit of Geraldine's.

Excellent. The "classic dessert" on my night was cherry and almond clafoutis (whatever that is!) with a kirsch ice cream. It was like a little tart. It was fine.

At the end I said, "I still haven't had a hearty meal."

Geraldine observed, "The other side of the menu was a hearty meal. There was chicken for two or lamb." Hearty? Maybe. I won't go back until they change the ceiling. It frightens me.

Winner's letters

You suggested last week sending the Berkeley hotel doorman to the Ritz for training because he failed to help Princess get luggage and herself into your car. Why not get off your backside and help female passengers yourself?
Jo Nicol-Simpson, Poole

I don't wish to comment unfavourably on your physical appearance or to name expensive restaurants I've been to. Does this mean I don't get published?
Martyn Blacknell, Croydon

As president of the MW Appreciation Society, I'm delighted to inform you we now boast three members. Myself, my wife and a strange little man who drinks copious amounts of cider in our local park.
David Lowe, Sunderland

Last week you wrote of the Dorchester. Eight of us, crushed at a table for six, found the service patronising. Sandwiches come on a tray, and then disappear. They brought insufficient cakes. But Claridge's was divine!
Lesley Lass, 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