Published 30 September 2007 News Review 741st article
I undertake arduous journeys beset with danger so you can read my tales of restaurant life.
I intended to go to St John in EC1, who won an award or two and sounded interesting. But St John was closed. Obviously in EC1 they don't go out for lunch on Sundays.
So instead we went to its poor companion, rated three stars for cooking in the Good Food Guide (as opposed to six for St John) St John Bread and Wine in Commercial Street E1, the heart of the East End.
I'd spoken twice to the lady manager. Once to book a table and secondly to ask if it could please not be a small table.
We were met on arrival by a ferocious woman. A smile to her would have been like a silver cross to a vampire.
"Do you have a reservation?" she asked coldly. No sense of greeting or hospitality.
"I've spoken to you twice this morning already," I stuttered. This impressed Mrs Dracula not at all.
"Do you have a reservation?" she repeated.
"Yes, my name's Michael Winner," I said, desperate to get to a table.
Now let this be clear: I care not one jot whether the manager, Esther Harding, recognised me. I look in the mirror and frequently don't recognise myself. But I do think any customer (we are, after all, paying her wages) is entitled to some warmth of greeting.
Keeping an eye on Mrs Dracula throughout my stay, I noticed her lack of welcoming smile was habitual. Everyone was greeted with a po-faced, charmless attitude.
This was particularly odd because all the other staff were cheerful, smiling, and pleasant. Our waitress, a delightful girl named Kate Mullinger, greeted me with, "We've only got Hildon water. You don't like Hildon do you, darling?"
"I hate it," I replied. "Would you like eau du tap?" suggested Kate. I put up with Hildon.
It's a very pleasant canteen-like place. There's a printed menu and a blackboard, which had written on it beetroot with nettle soup, braised Lowestoft kippers, langoustines and mayonnaise and greengage crumble.
Kate pointed out they had only a few servings of blackboard items.
"Keep me a greengage crumble," I said speedily. She also advised there were only three portions of langoustines. "We'll both have langoustines as a starter," I announced.
"I'll go now to the kitchen to reserve them," said Kate.
When she returned I added, "I don't want them in their shells, I can't do all that work, getting them out."
"I'll do that for you," offered Geraldine generously. I decided to have old spot and chicory pork belly as my main course. Geraldine chose puff ball bacon and watercress and some large mushroom, I also asked for a small cup of beetroot soup. And a green salad, because it looked so good on the next table.
Everything was absolutely superb. Congratulations to the duty sous-chef, Lee Kiernan.
There was a long delay between the first and second course. Geraldine suggested, "Let's try and be sociable by discussing books and theatre." Boy, did she have a wrong number.
I don't know why they've got wonderful places like this in the East End, whereas in elegant areas such as Holland Park, High Street Kensington and their environs there are the biggest load of useless, naff eating places you could imagine.
Why can't Fergus Henderson, owner of this and St John, open up where I live? Much as I admire him, I can't be bothered with that horrid drive eastwards.
Now to the highly important matter of those ghastly Lord Linley chandeliers in the elegant dining room of the Goring hotel, Victoria.
I wrote they looked like left-over Christmas decorations from a bad day at B&Q. Alex Duff, "product PR adviser to B&Q", sent me samples of B&Q's "new Christmas collection", beautifully presented in a posh box with a ribbon. They were awful.
Furthermore they'd not been individually wrapped and so a number of them arrived shattered into little pieces. If I were boss of B&Q I'd ask the duff Mr (or Ms?) Duff why send out broken, ridiculously packed items when he/she is paid to glorify the efficiency of B&Q? But then everyone knows the idiot of the family goes into public relations.
Last week I commented on the forthcoming departure of Mark Hix, long-time executive chef of the Ivy group. Now I read Alberico Penati, super-chef of London's most "in" place, Harry's Bar in Mayfair (recently sold by Mark Birley), is also quitting.
The excellent new owner of these establishments, Richard Caring, needn't worry. I'm ready and able to step in with my unrivalled ability to grill steaks and produce jacket potatoes.