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Fab food - but they need a tip on top-ups

Published 29 July 2007
News Review
732nd article

Michael with Theo Randall, left, and staff at the InterContinental hotel in Mayfair (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I've always had a soft spot for the InterContinental hotel in Hamilton Place, Mayfair. It used to have (and still may) a marvellous coffee bar which served very good snack food. That overlooks the bus lane at the bottom of Park Lane, which is the bus lane you're most likely to get caught in, if you use it. As I used to.

There was also a jolly day some years ago when I was filming in the lobby of the InterContinental with Michael Caine, Roger Moore and assorted thespians.

The hotel manager suddenly appeared and barked, "Get out at once. You're disturbing our guests!"

"Excuse me," I said, drawing myself up to my full 5ft 9½in. "We have a legally binding contract signed by your in-house public relations lady which permits us to film all day. Any attempt to have us removed will result in a High Court writ for substantial damages, running into many hundreds of thousands of pounds, for loss of today and having to re-organise to shoot elsewhere."

At that the manager turned on his heel, beckoned to the lady PR standing next to him, and vanished in the direction of the coffee shop. I doubt he was buying her a cup of tea and a bun. We continued filming. Hotel guests greatly enjoyed the show.

The hotel has since had a makeover. The lobby didn't look that different to me. Pleasant in a practical, hotel sort of way. Turn right for the main restaurant called Theo Randall. Theo was chef, for 17 years, at the River Cafe, one of my all time favourite places. A few months ago he left to set up on his own at the InterContinental.

When I first entered the room I quite liked it. Perspectives with pillars. But it soon began to depress me greatly. Everything seemed to be dark brown. The walls, the pillars, the furniture. There's a low ceiling and it's in the basement. I began to think I was in a coffin.

Since I've been a millimetre from death five times this year, I didn't fancy being in a coffin, particularly at lunch time. In the brown gloom (Count Dracula would love it) there's seating for 120 people. I reckoned there were only 16 diners for Sunday lunch.

During the meal something very strange happened. The wine waiter, Guy, had an open-necked shirt. Far be it for me to complain, but everyone else, from restaurant manager Simon King, up and down, looked very formal.

I was drinking Evian water. It's the job of the wine waiter, or sommelier if you want to be posh, to see diners' glasses are topped up. This happens everywhere I go.

Guy came over to pour more rose for Geraldine, but failed to notice my water glass was empty. I poured some myself.

Guy walked by later when I was finishing that re-fill, failed to notice, and carried on walking. I mean come on, Guy, you only had seven tables to watch over.

Then I finished the bottle of Evian completely. A waitress turned up and placed a glass of iced water on the table.

"Is that Evian?" I asked. The waitress looked as if she was expected to explain the theory of relativity.

"Evian?" she repeated in some foreign accent.

"Yes," I said. "That's what I'm drinking. You can see the empty bottle on the table, clearly labelled."

She picked up her glass of what I presume was tap water and departed. If I was Theo Randall I'd politely point to the door marked "Exit" and suggest Guy walk through it. This is front of house service at zero. Which is a pity, because the food was very good indeed.

My starter of scallops with chilli, parsley, capers, Swiss chard and lentils was piquant and delicious. My main course of Anjou pigeon, with the crispiest of bacon, was good as I've ever eaten. The fried zucchini had a perfect light batter. Memorable.

Geraldine's fish stew was sensational. For dessert she had chocolate cake without flour, I had Amalfi lemon tart. Both were totally superb.

Theo Randall himself is a delight. "You'd expect someone like him would be able to find something like a bistro with an awning coming down," said Geraldine.

She's right. The River Cafe, a lesson in simple, friendly design, undoubtedly cost a mini-fraction of what some twit spent decorating Theo's restaurant.

Theo's room was so awful I made a major artistic decision to take our photo in the kitchen. At least that was light and bright.

Save up for the awning will you, Theo. Then I'll become a regular. Is that a threat, I wonder, or a promise?

Winner's letters

I recently found myself defending Michael to some friends who hated him. The reason they hate you and I love you is because you are what you say you are: a true snob. You should get it tattooed on your forehead. Please print this letter, otherwise I will sulk forever. I'm sure even you have a heart.
Ruth Halfpenny, Hertfordshire

Seeing the photo of Michael last week with David Mellor at Bibendum in the Michelin building, I realised that Mellor's anagram is Dim Lad Lover while Michael's is We Ran Michelin. I always thought he was the power behind the throne.
Tim Burton, Wokingham

Surely the stunning meal at Bibendum was had by the battered cod. Here in southwest France I promise you'd find a similar lunch for around £12, unlimited wine included. I think you talk a lot of sense (well, sometimes).
James Munro, Aneres, France

Why do restaurants keep a customer's wine as far away from him as possible? I like to drink at my pace, not the waiter's. In Amsterdam I asked the waiter to leave the wine at the table. He refused, saying "because we have standards". In England waiters have usually obliged. Maybe we Brits lack standards.
A B Shellin, Hertfordshire

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