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Dinner, delicious - but spoilt by the din

Opposite us were seven men in shirtsleeves and jeans, sweating, yelling, laughing loudly - impossible to enjoy food with that row going on

Published 22 May 2011
News Review
931st article

Michael at Dinner in the Mandarin Oriental hotel with the chef Ashley Palmer-Watts (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I had a horrible evening at Dinner, Heston Blumenthal's restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Knightsbridge, which harbours the grandly named chef Ashley Palmer-Watts.

We were given a table by the window, which didn't mean much as it was dark outside and Hyde Park wasn't lit. The staff brought the best virgin mojito ever. Then total collapse. Opposite was a table of seven men in shirtsleeves and jeans, sweating, yelling, laughing loudly. The din was horrific. Impossible to enjoy food with that row going on.

Our first course was mandarin jelly round foie gras. Described on the menu as "meat fruit - mandarin, chicken liver parfait and grilled bread circa 1500". Superb. But soured by the increasing din from the baying twits opposite. Protected from this noise by glass, Palmer-Watts and his merry men worked away in the kitchen.

I said to the charming restaurant manager, Josephine Stead, "This noise is impossible." She offered us a "better" table in the main dining area. Beyond belief catastrophic. We now faced two tables, some eight men at each, obviously part of the same group, making enough noise to drown out a pub full of drunken rowdies.

I said to Geraldine, "The noise here is a problem."

She responded, "The noise is what?" She was inches away and couldn't hear me. One of the stupid group started imitating a chicken, waving his elbows up and down and making loud clucking sounds. His fellow dimwits howled with laughter. When I complained, Josephine said it was a corporate booking.

"You shouldn't accept corporate bookings," I said.

"You think I should throw them out?" asked Josephine. "I can't if you're here."

"If you did, you'd be my heroine," I assured her. But Josephine just wandered around looking elegant as if everything was in order. It wasn't.

Restaurant management is not just grinning and greeting. You have to control the room. Leadership is essential. It's no good being a seven-furlong horse in an eight-furlong race. Why didn't Josephine, if necessary accompanied by her male managers, say to these louts, "If you can't keep the noise down we won't be able to serve you"? To let a raucous group dominate the restaurant and spoil the ambience for other diners is unacceptable.

Geraldine said, "I bet if this restaurant wasn't in a hotel it would be full of very smart people." It's not a charabanc stop.

There's a long waiting list. It doesn't need to take block bookings.

The general manager of the Mandarin Oriental, Anthony McHale, can't evade responsibility for what happens in his restaurants. I congratulate him on getting two first-class places, Dinner and Bar Boulud, into what had been a culinary desert. But getting them in and running them properly are different things entirely.

Forgetting (which I can't) the horror of the evening, I can commend the food. It is absolutely superb. Ashley-Smashley is one of the best chefs in the country. Rice and flesh circa 1390 was followed by spiced pigeon with artichokes circa 1780. Geraldine got roast pork chop, Robert sauce circa 1860, based on Careme's residency in London. The descriptions were twee; the chips, best ever. I finished with tipsy cake circa 1859 with a roast pineapple on the side. The roast pineapple, unnecessary; the cake, brilliant.

This should have been a great evening. It was a nightmare. I've been going to sophisticated restaurants for decades. This experience was, as my friend the actor Bruce Dern would say, "Bottom five, world."

  • People used to say to me in restaurants, the street, the ladies' loo at Victoria station, either, "Always read your column," or, "Like your movies." Now it's, "Love the Hymie jokes." The chairman of one of our most famous public companies said, "I was in France and the hotel went out to get The Sunday Times so I could read your joke for the week."

    Three publishers have offered me deals for a Hymie joke book. Your letters are dominated by Hymie jokes. Sometimes the same joke comes from 20 readers. I appreciate that. But could I please ask for more letters about restaurant problems? This column was originally called Restaurant Watch, the idea being to give you a window to air your grievances about poor food, service, hat stands, tablecloths, whatever. Hymie joins me in thanking you for your appreciation of his stories. But per-lease: restaurant letters too.

  • Hymie is on holiday in Israel when his wife, Becky, suddenly has a heart attack and dies. The Israeli undertaker says, "I can bury her here for £1,500 or I can fly her to England and my associate firm will bury her. That, including the flight, will cost £6,000." Hymie thinks for a minute. "Just have her shipped home," he says. The undertaker asks, "Why spend extra money when Becky can be buried here in the Jewish homeland for so much less?" Hymie replies, "Long ago a man died and was buried here. Three days later he rose from the dead. I just can't take that chance."

    Michael's missives

    I suggest as a companion to the Rich List, The Sunday Times compiles a Poor List. Given your level of indebtedness you would surely feature on the cover, doubtless wearing your latest charity shop outfit.
    Howard Broadwell, Nottingham

    I must defend the Beverly Hills Grill on the Alley from your off-putting remarks. My wife and I enjoyed a wonderful meal. We were told many A-list celebrities eat there. In a nearby booth was Clint Eastwood. Could it be your presence didn't warrant A-list attendance?
    Ken Mather, Yorkshire

    You commended Il Piccolino for having a B-list celebrity at every table. What about your table? Such modesty ill becomes you.
    Stuart Ross, Hesdin, France

    As you haven't taken a super-injunction out against anyone, should I continue to read your column? Please advise.
    John Finegan, Bailieborough, Ireland

    A nasty habit is creeping into restaurants in Ireland. If you order a dessert and coffee, the coffee is delivered to the table before the dessert. Recently I'd finished my coffee before the dessert even arrived. Does this happen in England?
    Peter Langley, Co Cork, Ireland

    So the great opponent of piped music in restaurants admits to having piped (sorry "background") music in his office. Could Michael explain the subtle difference to us?
    JD Morgan, Buckinghamshire

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk