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Stay on the right road, Gary, and keep it simple

Published 9 September 2007
News Review
738th article

Michael at Rhodes W1 Brasserie with Anna Kowalczyk, left, and Hannah Boddington (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I like Gary Rhodes, his haircut and his attitude. I warm to the fact that he looks like an overgrown version of the Bisto kid from those old adverts. You never saw them? Too bad.

I also can't remember Gary ever saying anything stupid to the press, which makes him practically unique among chefs. Even Gordon Ramsay, whom I greatly like and admire, comes out with more drivel when he knows he's being quoted than almost anyone else I can think of. Except, possibly, me.

I find it extraordinary that a man who created himself as television's foul-mouthed, cretinous buffoon, can cook with such brilliant delicacy and refined skill. Meals at his Chelsea restaurant when Gordon's in the kitchen (is he ever there now?) remain fixed as the greatest of my culinary experiences.

But let us return to Gary. He has a place in the City called Rhodes 24 which gets a mere two rosettes out of five from the AA restaurant guide. Even if it got 124 rosettes out of five that wouldn't get me into the City. Ghastly place.

Instead, on a recent Saturday I ventured to Rhodes W1 Brasserie at the Cumberland hotel on Oxford Street where Gary recently also took over the dining room.

"We don't see him very much," explained the duty restaurant manager, Anna Kowalczyk.

"I only met him once for a few seconds in the Ivy," I responded.

Anna was in charge that day at Gary's glossy cafeteria.

"The fine dining room is closed for Saturday lunch," she explained. "Would you like to see it?" If there's one thing I hate (and believe me, there's more than one) it's the phrase "fine dining". What a pretentious, suburban, pathetic grouping of words that is. It implies stupid, tiny portions, interminably served and not worth eating anyway.

I declined to see the posh dining room and settled in the very spacious, practical in the best way, eating place for lesser mortals. As a poor boy from Willesden that certainly includes me.

The first arrival, on a shiny table with no cloth, was the bread. It was warm and wonderful. The brown granary bread with seeds was spectacularly good. I was shaken but not stirred.

They also had Evian water, which is classy. If the Rhodes W1 Brasserie can have Evian, why can't the far more elegant Goring hotel have it instead of the dreadful Blenheim brand?

Geraldine started with pressed duck foie gras served with chicory and pear salad and apple jelly. She loved it. I tried some, it was excellent. Made even better because I'd persuaded them to turn off the horrific piped music.

I had lightly smoked mackerel rillette on soft potato with cucumber and dill, spring onion and radish salad. Very acceptable.

Then I had deep fried breadcrumbed fillets of plaice with a superb shallot and caper mayonnaise and some rather disappointing home-made chunky cut chips. If you're going to serve home-made chips, Gary, get someone who knows how to do them. These were soggy on the inside and chewy on the outside as if they'd been kept in a heater too long.

My rocket and Parmesan salad was fine and the fried fish definitely good, although not historic as it was the other day at Bibendum.

Geraldine had a "perfectly cooked" piece of tuna. Her view of the chips was more favourable than mine.

My almond cake dessert with steeped blackberries and apple sorbet was absolutely historic. Then I tried iced orange and espresso parfait with coffee syrup. This was also superb, well above what you'd expect in a glorified canteen.

I have few virtues, one of them being I am the only food writer to praise superb waiters or waitresses by name, Our waitress, Hannah Boddington, was as good as anyone could possibly be. She kept my ice fresh, she filled up my water glass, she brought fresh Evian as soon as she saw it was needed. She produced the food efficiently and speedily.

Compare her to that show-off, inept sommelier Guy ("I'm the only staff member without a tie, I'm jack-the-lad, aren't I?") at Theo Randall's esteemed restaurant in the grander InterContinental hotel down the road, and there's no contest. Hannah was charm and professionalism supreme.

I was also impressed when Anna sped off when I said neither Geraldine nor I could read the menu as we'd left our reading glasses behind, and re-appeared with some for us. It's lovely to see kids like this totally outclassing the average slouch who calls himself a waiter.

Gary, I don't know what your fine dining is like. But your simple shopper's lunch menu is a triumph.

Winner's letters

At last a redeeming feature in your report on Awana. I totally agree that to serve hot food on cold plates is bordering on philistine. So thank you, Michael, for this pearl of wisdom. Never thought you'd be a soul mate.
Wilf Wood, Beraut, France

The Goring hotel, reviewed last week, must indeed be unique. Where else could you eat slices of "old, slightly chipped trolley" as good as you've ever eaten, which produced such delicious gravy, too? I must rush there before the whole trolley is consumed.
Mairwen Evans, Staffordshire

Forget going on about the chandeliers at the Goring. Provided they don't fall on one's head, and give suitable illumination, they are, dare I say it, fit for purpose!
Iain MacMaster, London

Delighted you loved the Goring, specially since Jeremy Goring was trained in food and beverage at the Lanesborough, your least favourite London hotel.
Michael Matthews, Tucson, Arizona, USA

You said that staff and clientele at the Goring were "old school in the best sense of the expression". Michael, help keep it that way by not going there.
Dennis Pallis, Kent

Was your smug grin last week down to the three pud-courses and the touch of weight you're getting back? I'm glad. I never trust a scrawny food critic.
Dr Richard Evans, Merseyside