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A lunch that's too pricey - even for me

Published 16 March 2008
News Review
765th article



Alain Ducasse is a famous three Michelin starred chef with his main restaurant at the hotel Plaza Athenee in Paris. Like many acclaimed chefs, running one kitchen is not enough. They feel the need to increase income by spreading their name to the winds. So it settles on establishments all over the place, run by their pupils, acolytes, disciples or passing garbage collectors who feel like having a go with a mixing bowl.

Thus Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, its full name as printed on my bill, charged £252 for a three-course lunch for two, the only alcoholic drink being a bucks fizz. I don't normally care about bills, even though I pay them myself without reimbursement. But this one had me reeling, and writhing.

I went with my delightful friend Adam Kenwright who owns London's second largest theatre advertising agency. I'm sure he'll overtake the number one spot currently held by Dewynters. He deserves to.

The Ducasse room has been widely criticised, as has its food. I found the premises very pleasant. The private "room", a kind of white, sparkling tent, annoyed some people. I liked it. But not much else.

They offered dreadful Tufa water from Somerset. "You're a French restaurant, why can't you do Evian?" I asked. So they produced Evian.

Adam drank some Tufa and said, "It tastes like tap water." Of the Evian he said, "That's different altogether." He was right. All this baloney about how marvellous it is to drink tap water is rubbish. It was rightly condemned by a real expert, the food guru Egon Ronay.

We got a freebie of tiny choux pastry with Swiss and parmesan cheese. Not interesting. Then came pumpkin fried ravioli. That was terrific. The bread was boring.

I said to the waiter, "I'd like to order. Do you have a notebook?"

He said haughtily, "I don't need a notebook."

I responded, "You do. Because I won't order until you have one." We were served, in a crockery egg, "royal of broccoli, crunchy raw vegetables and a black olive condiment".

A waste of time. For our real starter we both had "steamed langoustines, artichokes, truffled parmentier jus".

Adam said, "Wonderful, very good." He left most of his sauce. The langoustines were fine. The sauces throughout were utterly tasteless. When Gordon Ramsay is cooking (if he ever does now) the sauces are all meaningful and historic.

"They've taken my ice bucket away. What's wrong with these people?" I moaned, "I asked for ice and lemon on the table, not somewhere in the kitchen, not halfway down Park Lane. On the table."

The waiter, referring to the first course, asked, "How was it?"

"You'll have to read about it," I replied. "We're sworn by professional etiquette to secrecy." That was a load of codswallop. I just felt like saying it.

My main course was "Dover sole fillets Florentine style, shrimps with Paris mushrooms, Chateau Chalon sauce". It was five little pieces of fish, shrimps and bits of veg. What looked like curly cheese straws appeared, but they were potatoes. The whole lot tasted of total zero. Useless, all of it.

Adam had "fillet of beef with seared foie gras, rossini, sacristain potatoes, perigeux sauce". He asked for green vegetables. As he was finishing, a tiny bowl of overcooked vegetables arrived for an extra charge of Pounds 10. Adam liked the foie gras, said the beef was "nothing special. And the potatoes have no taste at all".

There were many empty tables. At the prices they charge for tasteless twaddle, the word is obviously out. I was advised to try the "rum baba like in Monte Carlo". I've never had it in Monte Carlo, but their London version was very good indeed.

Adam had "apple composition" - a slow-baked apple, green apple sorbet with meringue and a soft almond cake filled with green apple jelly. He liked his dessert. He said, "Yours is just rum pudding."

"That's what it's meant to be, dear," I told him. The after dessert was "Devon cream sorbet on top of fresh and dried grapefruit with a fresh orange infused in Grenadine". Awful. Some petits fours arrived but I was too exhausted to dictate more into my tape. None of it meant much.

A disgruntled Dorchester former employee (there are lots of those) said scathingly of the general manager, Christopher Cowdray, "He's turning it into a cash cow." Oh yes? I hear the kitchen he put in for Ducasse cost around £1m. At £5.80 it would have been a waste of money.

PS: I look nuttier than usual in our photo because I'm windblown and telling the excellent doorman not to keep putting his finger over the flash.



Michael's letters

You wrote last week about the Irish turning up on time. In Tipperary, my daughter, finding a chemist shop closed, asked a local when it opened. "They're opened when they're open," was the reply. "What time is that?" she asked. "When they get there of course," was the friendly response.
David Blackburn, Prestbury

My wife and I, like you, visited the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin. We asked a local the way to a restaurant nearby. His reply was, "Well, I wouldn't start from here."
Adam Osborn, Malaga, Spain

You let your true identity slip on your visit to Dublin by admitting to the chauffeur something we'd already guessed, "I'm 110 years old." On top of which you borrowed money from him and drank stout. Is Ena Sharples alive and residing in Holland Park?
Christine Swann, Essex

I was horrified to read that in Dublin you and the delightful Geraldine lunched for a paltry £28.32. Until then I'd assumed my own impecuniosity was an insurance against our sharing an eating experience. I'll have to move further downmarket.
Howard Lewis, Edinburgh

If you spent as much time and energy on feeding your soul as you do on feeding your stomach you would certainly have Ascended by now.
Valerie Williams, Surrey

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk