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Get prepared for the worst meal of my life

Published 1 July 2007
News Review
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Michael with Rika Altmanns at Damask restaurant in the Athenaeum hotel (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

One of my dear friends was the actor Robert Mitchum. Whenever he came to London we got together. He was making a television mini-series. The company put him up at the Athenaeum hotel on Piccadilly.

Bob rang me one Sunday, about 3 o'clock. "How do you get laid in this town?" he asked.

"Go to the hotel bookstall and get What's On magazine," I suggested helpfully. "They have call girl ads galore."

"I'll do it now," said Bob.

I rang back at 7 o'clock. "I want a full report, Bob," I said.

"All I got was a recorded message," replied Bob in that world-weary voice of his.

I, too, drew a total dud at the Athenaeum recently. Lunch. The worst ever. It was a Sunday. An extremely courteous doorman opened the door and an extremely courteous lady (equal opportunities please note for the "extremely courteous") named Rika Altmanns, a "senior supervisor", greeted me inside to lead me to the hotel's restaurant, named Damask.

The lobby is airy and okay. The restaurant was a cacophony of colours and irrelevancies. Like a kitsch airport lounge gone wrong.

The menu offered three courses for £20, including coffee and bitter chocolate truffles. There was no "discretionary" service charge added. That appeared to be a good deal.

After I'd eaten bits of the most awful meal ever presented to me, it seemed vastly overpriced.

Geraldine had a glass of Tattinger Brut reserve non-vintage, £14.50. Some annoying man was wailing at me from loudspeakers.

"Would you like me to change the music?" asked Rika. "They don't normally have piped music in good restaurants," I said. "Would you like it quieter?" asked Rika. "Preferably turn it off," I responded. It was duly suppressed. As the only other diners were an American family of four, there wasn't exactly a riot demanding its return.

Rika assured me there was a restaurant manager somewhere. Maybe she's having lunch in a better place, I thought.

The bread was freezing cold, soggy and clammy. "No point in offering that," I said to Geraldine after a small taste. In a bread-baking competition this bread would be 2,446 out of 50 entries.

My starter was pan-fried fishcake with caper butter and seasonal leaves. If this mound of pathetic, tired mashed potato had been within six million miles of a fish, I'd be surprised. It was tasteless, horrid muck. I left three-quarters of it.

Geraldine had Scottish smoked salmon with celeriac and horseradish sauce. She liked the smoked salmon. She said, "That's the first time I've tasted celeriac that's tasteless." She left it. It was 1.30pm and the four Americans left. We were now the only people there. "It's romantic," explained Geraldine, ever little Mary Sunshine, bless her.

I said to Rika, "Do you have customers in this restaurant? Have you ever had any?"

Rika said, "It's a bit quiet because it's Sunday."

I said, "It's not quiet in the Wolseley, it's not quiet in the Ivy and it's not quiet in Le Caprice." Damask is an absolute non-atmosphere restaurant. If you tried really hard for a hundred years you couldn't have a restaurant designed to give less sense of atmosphere.

Geraldine had peppered seared tuna steak with baby squash ratatouille and anchovies. The chef, and that's vastly stretching the use of the word, didn't know what seared meant. Her tuna was overdone, grey and ghastly. She described the so-called ratatouille as one green vegetable with some sort of tomato paste. She left nearly everything.

Mine was McDuff rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce, roast potatoes and summer vegetables. The beef was extremely stringy. The summer vegetables were cold and utterly tasteless. The roast potatoes were British rail circa 1950. The Yorkshire pudding was adequate. I left nearly all of everything. It was beyond belief.

The final insult came with my so-called chocolate and orange pudding with vanilla ice cream. I took one tiny taste and reeled in horror. It had no taste of chocolate. It could have been in the deep freeze for a year. How can anyone serve stuff like this?

Geraldine had vanilla creme brulee, took one taste and said, "Ugh, this is not creme brulee. Look how thick it is. It's got flour in it."

She thought the chocolate truffles looked rather flat. I said, "We'll get them blown up for you." Then she ate one. I asked, "What do you think?" She said, "Heavy."

Geraldine ordered an espresso, took one sip, said, "That's not coffee," and pulled a face. Thus ended the most disastrous meal in the history of my life. The owners of the Athenaeum should be thoroughly ashamed. Who says British food is getting better? It certainly isn't at the Athenaeum.

Winner's letters

It must have been the ultimate snub to you last week at La Trompette when your lime sorbet refused to speak to you. Case of one pudding refusing to talk to another pudding? Surely that takes the biscuit. Or maybe it did speak, but you being of advanced years might be a trifle deaf. Never mind, food is for eating, not conversing with!
Surendra Andar, Stanmore, Middesex

I'd like to join the debate on toilets, and not just in hotels or eateries. When chairman of a large group of companies, my first port of call when visiting one of them was the toilet. Invariably the state of it had a direct correlation to that company's balance sheet.
Richard Evans, Somerset

I note from last week's photo at last a restaurateur has fought back. The meat axe buried in the back of Michael's head doesn't seem to have stopped him smiling. Though, since we couldn't see her right hand, it might just have been placed there by the attractive Diner May . . . sorry, Dinah May.
Tim Burton, Wokingham

Buying Dinah wine by the glass, paying £80 for an £81 meal, carry on like this and we'll have to make the Willesden Boy an honorary Yorkshireman!
Bob Mitchell, Yorkshire