Published 26 September 2010 News Review 897th article
Geraldine and Michael in Time & Space at The Royal Institution (Cleris Cruz)
I seldom have a truly awful meal in horrific surroundings. But my visit to the pretentiously named Time & Space in the magnificent porticoed building housing the Royal Institution of Great Britain was a nightmare.
It's part of "digby trout Restaurants". Its website claims it creates "bespoke environments that integrate on every level with the style and character of your venue". So inside a beautiful period exterior it's plonked garish purple lampshades that look like a 1950s pub gone wrong; the room is further cheapened by tacky black chairs, black tables, dark brown carpet. Only two period fireplaces provide distinction.
The staff - led by the restaurant manager, Cleris Cruz - were all charming. The bread was unspeakable, like chewing gum. My first course of duck's egg on boudin noir was bland to the point of oblivion. My main course, "Newquay witch sole, brown shrimps, lemon & parsley potatoes", was beyond belief. The fish was dry, flaky. The potatoes, deeply unpleasant.
Geraldine tapped her sea bass and said, "This is overcooked, too." The brown shrimps were actively horrible. Geraldine said, "It seems like it's been kept too long, or put in the fridge and then taken out and reheated."
For dessert my "apple tart tatin and vanilla ice cream" was not the famous upside-down tarte (with an e) tatin I'm familiar with. It was half a baked apple surrounded by pastry unlike any I've ever eaten. It fell away from the apple. Tough, clumsy, ridiculous.
The apple, okay; the ice cream, weak rubbish. By now the fish and brown shrimps were leaving an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth. A man, dressed like Cleris but with a tie, came over and muttered at a speed hard to understand, "Did you enjoy your meal?" Since we'd left nearly all of our main courses this seemed a ridiculous question.
"My ice cream was kind of crystalline; it was awful," I observed to Geraldine. "Then why did you eat it?" she asked. "Because I'm a pig," I replied. Geraldine turned to my Brioni jacket. "It's shiny," she said. "It's not," I responded. "Put your glasses on," said Geraldine. "I've put my glasses on; it looks less shiny now," I stated.
"It's probably raw silk," said Geraldine, "like the dressing gown in your bathroom." "Given to me by the Oriental hotel, Bangkok," I explained. "It's the same sort of silk," said Geraldine with finality.
We entered Time & Space at 1pm. There were only five other diners. No one else arrived during our two-hour stay. Nearby places such as the Wolseley and Scott's would have been full to overflowing.
The locals in Mayfair seem to know when rubbish is among them. The Royal Institution is part-funded by the lottery and other grants. Some of that money goes to a waste of space like its restaurant.
Since 1966 I've paid American Express promptly, for years about £300,000 annually.
Yet my card was declined when offered to Nimax Theatres for £198.
I called Raymond Joabar, the American managing director of Amex's British operation.
"What's going on?" I asked. The card was reinstated a few hours after an email blast to Raymond.
His response: "We were trying to prevent fraud. We look for patterns of fraudulent behaviour."
"So someone ran through the Amex office screaming, 'Winner's card is being used by a conman'?" I suggested.
"We have to protect our customers," intoned Raymond.
"Then why did you pass my card four hours earlier for tickets at the National Theatre?" I asked.
Raymond's answers became increasingly bizarre. He mentioned using a vendor I'd not used before.
"Does that mean every time I go somewhere new you decline the card?" I asked.
Apparently not. He said I'd just spent £70,000 in three weeks.
"You should be delighted," I responded.
"You told me I had unlimited credit."
"You do," said Raymond.
"It was limited when I wanted to spend £198," I said.
"Would you like to cancel your card?" suggested Raymond ominously.
"So if a customer with a 44-year impeccable credit record, who's spent millions with Amex, dares to complain you threaten to cancel his card?" I said.
"I didn't say that," said Raymond.
"Sounded like it to me," I responded.
Mastercard doesn't behave like this. Things were never so nutty under Raymond's British predecessors.
If you're worried about fraud, Raymond, let my payments through, then phone me. If it's okay, do nothing.
If by any chance it's not, withhold payment.
In the meantime, folks, if you're thinking of joining Amex: think again.
I don't read much, but I've just finished Michael Caine's new autobiography, The Elephant to Hollywood. Greatly entertaining.
He writes that I can be difficult. Must have been thinking of someone else.
The ever-charming MW can be seen next Sunday in person. My movie West 11 screens at the Portobello Pop Up cinema, 3 Acklam Road, London W10 at 7.45pm, followed at 9.15pm by lovely, adorable me.
Very funny I'll be, I promise.
Pay what you like; £4 suggested.
Glad to hear you had hand-cut chips at Pierre Koffmann's. When I ordered them at the Pheasant hotel in Norfolk, I questioned the obviously frozen chips that were served. An arrogant waiter said, "Well, they were hand-cut somewhere, weren't they!" My letter of complaint remains unanswered.
Linda Miller, Norfolk
I would not consider whether my car was parked at the front of the Berkeley or at the rear. Is this another of your preposterous stipulations when visiting a restaurant?
Josephine Bones, Essex
I read with excitement that you need a venue for your 75th birthday. I'm partner in a 300-seat restaurant in Changchun, northeast China. The head chef has prepared a special menu for you. I'll also invite the mayor.
Gareth Jones, by email
Sorry to read Hymie was killed by an elephant. Last winter, while skiing in the Alps, Hymie left the hotel at 8am and had not returned by 5pm. The alarmed manager alerted the Red Cross. They searched the slopes, eventually spotting a solitary figure skiing down an adjacent mountain. They called out, "Are you Hymie?" A voice replied, "Yes, who are you?" The team leader responded, "The Red Cross." Hymie yelled, "I gave already."
Bernard Russell, Devon
First cannibal: I don't like your mother-in-law. Second cannibal: Never mind, just eat the vegetables.
Dennis Pallis, Kent
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email email@example.com