Pass me the circular saw - I've ordered the tender ribs
Published 26 February 2012 News Review 970th article
Michael at the Chicago Rib Shack, scene of his worst meal, with Dinah May (Alex Newman)
People often ask: "What's the worst meal you've ever had?" It used to take me a while to choose. Now I can answer in a second. The worst meal I've ever had by a long way was at the Chicago Rib Shack in Knightsbridge, where I went this month. What a total, unmitigated disaster.
As Geraldine was in Paris, I took - with her permission, of course - my assistant, Dinah May. As you go up the stairs to enter, there's a neon sign that reads: "Wait here I've gone to get help." On the right there's a wall of model pigs with a red neon sign saying "EXHI'PIG'TION". That should tell you everything.
We sat in a red-leather (or fake leather) booth facing a chipped table. Above us was a large plastic lampshade and four bulbs. One bulb wasn't working. The lampshade was dirty with what looked like congealed ketchup. The menu read: "We hope you like our modern take on the iconic Rib Shack."
Our waiter, Henrique, wouldn't give his second name. "Work for the secret service, do you?" I asked jovially. I was capable of joviality, because at that point I hadn't eaten.
There was "the Shack's classic tender baby back ribs". "It's done so it falls off the bone," explained Henrique, "so it's much easier." Then "meaty St Louis cut ribs". "That's taken from the front of the pig," said Henrique. "You get more meat but it's much tougher to eat and it sticks to the bone." Finally there was "beef ribs ... cooked to the Shack's secret recipe to make them fall off the bone".
I ordered the beef ribs, but Henrique firmly suggested I had the classic tender back ribs. "They fall off the bone much easier," he explained. I settled for that.
When my ribs arrived, the meat did not fall off the bone: there didn't seem to be any to fall off. I sawed away with a steak knife. Got an occasional sliver of tough and nasty pork. Totally useless. You'd need a circular saw to get anything off at all.
A lady appeared, probably the manager.
"There's no meat on this and the tiny bit there is doesn't come off," I said.
"Would you like a replacement?" the lady asked.
"No, I can't order twice," I responded.
Prior to this horror, I'd been served another fiasco: potato skins filled with melted cheese and sprinkled with spring onions — "add grilled bacon or jalapeno peppers for no extra charge". These were vastly unpleasant. The skins were soggy, the cheese and whatever not just tasteless but actively nasty. I got the impression they'd hung about in the kitchen far too long. I gave a bit to Dinah. She pulled a face and moved her head from side to side, looking grumpy. "Oh my God. Tastes awful," was her verdict.
Henrique saw my plate of uneaten potato skins. "You're not happy with the skins?" he asked. I just raised my hand in an imperious manner.
"Why not try the vanilla cheesecake?" Dinah suggested. "That sounds as if it could be all right." It was unspeakably awful. Heavy, far too much gelatine in it, also seemed very not fresh. I had difficulty swallowing. Dinah took some and said: "It's absolutely dreadful, and the potato skins were disgusting."
Dinah had smoked salmon, which was okay, and a fillet steak that was overdone. For an 8oz steak, £33.70 including service charge was, to put it mildly, high. Dinah's little cup of blue cheese dressing brought the comment: "If I was blindfolded, I couldn't tell what this was. It's just a creamy nothing."
The bill for this atrocious so-called meal was 2p short of £80. Outrageous. Not surprising that there seemed to be only 12 diners. I never realised that anywhere, let alone in Knightsbridge, such abominable food was being served.
Skye Gyngell is a marvellous chef and a sensible woman. She banned me from her restaurant, the Petersham Nurseries Cafe, but we kissed and made up. I returned to give her a second rave review.
Skye has now left Peter's Kiddies' Cafe, saying when she got a Michelin star it was a curse. Her restaurant offered rickety tables, non-matching chairs and haphazard service, and was part of a greenhouse in a garden centre in Richmond upon Thames. After the Michelin star, the idiot star followers found it beneath their expectations. Complaints Skye-rocketed. It lacked plate decoration, arrogant service and the other nonsense they expected in a Michelin-starred restaurant: portions so small that you search for your steak and find it under a mushroom.
Skye, who served simple food and good produce, isn't brain-damaged. She's simply discovered what all knowledgeable people had already deduced: that the Michelin organisation is like the emperor's new clothes. Its members shroud themselves in pompous expertise but are no more than masters of ignorance.
From Ian Foster: Hymie turns up at the local Ku Klux Klan meeting.
"What are you doing here, Hymie Cohen?" asks the chief wizard.
Hymie replies: "I was hoping to make an appointment with the linen buyer."
Lovely photo of you both together at Cambridge. I look at Geraldine and swear she looks younger and more beautiful than the day you married. Then I look at you and I swear.
Don Roberts, Cheshire
No sooner have we accustomed ourselves to your award-winning garb of nightshirt, pyjama bottoms and carpet slippers than you introduce the muffler. Is this regression to your days of Cambridge cox manque?
Dennis Pallis, Kent
The sight of your shirt hanging out of your trousers every week gives me an overwhelming urge to tuck it in. I do hope I never meet you.
Karyn Wilkes, Suffolk
Goodness, an early dinner in Cambridge followed by another one later. Move over "Two Jags" Prescott; we now have "Two Dinners" Winner.
Sue Eyles, Berkshire
Re undergraduates at Cambridge nicking the silver: I once had a pair of shagreen spoon boxes. The silver plate on top, dated 1797, linked them to Clare College. I contacted the master of the kitchen, who said: "Ah yes. They were stolen in 1847. We still have the spoons." I offered them back for £3,000 but he said they were too dear. So I sold them at Bonhams, where they made £6,500. So undergrads have been nicking since at least early Victorian times. Though it seems they've now refined their taste and go for the silver, not the boxes.
Roy Norman, Suffolk
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST or email email@example.com