Ah, this tastes familiar: it's the Tang of disappointment
Published 29 July 2012 News Review 992nd article
Geraldine and Dinah May at China Tang (Arnold Crust)
I've always found the staff at China Tang in the Dorchester hotel to be surly, unwelcoming and a total pain. So, before my recent visit, I emailed the owner, Sir David Tang, and asked if he'd give them a good bollocking. Whatever he did had no effect. They were as dreadful as ever.
The restaurant itself is exceedingly handsome: decorative glass pillars, wall paintings of fish and an alcove done as a library full of Chinese books. Majestic though the room is, at lunchtime it lacked customers. Other than our table - Geraldine, my assistant Dinah and me - there seemed to be no more than 10 people.
This made the experience rather sombre, exacerbated by the gloom and doom of the staff, headed by the restaurant manager, Peter Horton. Not a sign of warmth or decent welcome. Odd, really, because Sir David is full of charm, smiles and vivacity. None of which he has managed to imbue his staff with.
The food was good to superb. The ladies thought it the best Chinese food they'd ever eaten. I was disappointed the restaurant didn’t have fried seaweed or prawn crackers, two of my favourites. I started with dim sum: fine but not historic. Geraldine had the biggest tiger prawn I've ever seen; Dinah had soft-shell crab. They were ecstatic about them and the rest of their food.
I thought my sweet-and-sour pork was legendary and the chicken in black bean whatever was particularly good. The crispy duck wasn't crispy enough. I’ve had better in many other Chinese restaurants, including previously at China Tang.
The boiled whale was very tasty. Whale is becoming an exceedingly popular dish. Only the other day, Her Majesty the Queen said: "Charlie, darling, you are my son and hair." (Geddit? Hair, not heir - little joke there.) "Nip down to the Thames at Runnymede and catch Mumsy a nice whale for lunch."
So the son and hair took his little net, the one he used on family holidays in Bridlington, put on his waders, went down to the Thames with six lackeys and - lo and behold - came back with an enormous whale.
"Goody, goody," exclaimed Her Maj. "Put this in the fridge and we'll have it for a few days."
"It's too big for the fridge, Mumsy," said Charlie.
"Buy another fridge," ordered Her Maj.
"You know," said Charles, "as the whale is a protected species, do you really think you should be eating one?"
"Nonsense, Charles," said Her Maj. "There are 12,000 whales in the ocean - I know because Philip checked it on the internet. Twelve thousand is quite enough whales. Any more and they'll take over the world."
Back at China Tang, the ladies were still cooing over how great the food was. I said to the surly waiter: "Order me a toffee apple: it'll be ready by the time the ladies have finished." It wasn't.
I waited and waited. I got every pathetic excuse. "It's on its way."
"Where from, Australia?" I asked.
"It'll be with you in seconds." It wasn't.
"It's only a toffee apple," I said incredulously. "How can anyone spin that out to a 20-minute wait?"
PS: We didn't really eat whale. That was just a bad-taste joke.
After I'd formed my miserable opinion of Peter Horton, I was talking to Jeremy King.
Apparently, Horton went to Brasserie Zedel, Jeremy's new restaurant, just after it opened, when things are always a bit dodgy. Afterwards he composed a total slagging-off of Brasserie Zédel and posted it on TripAdvisor, a website where the public give their views. That seems unprofessional and naff to me. Why would one restaurateur slag off another restaurant, particularly on an early visit?
It would have benefited sneaky Mr Horton to learn something about hospitality from the staff at Brasserie Zedel. All Jeremy King's staff are warm and welcoming, as is Jeremy himself.
For someone to whom gracious restaurant management is totally alien, a bit of humility would be no bad thing.
Hymie is concerned whether sex on the Jewish Shabbat is a sin.
He asks a minister, who informs him that because sex is work it is not permitted on a Saturday.
Not satisfied with that answer, Hymie seeks out a man with a thousand years of tradition and knowledge - his local rabbi.
The rabbi declares that sex is definitely play. Hymie is delighted and asks the rabbi how he can be certain of this.
The rabbi replies: "If sex were work, my wife would have the maid do it."
It seems the Cipriani hotel is run by the staff for the staff. A bit like our civil service, really.
Don Roberts, Cheshire
"I'll look into it", the phrase used by the Cipriani manager, is one you shouldn't knock. I bet you use it every time the bank manager calls to say there's a gaping hole where your balance used to be.
Nick Jones, La Drome, France
Ask Geraldine if I could borrow the scarecrow photographed with her every week. We have a scarecrow competition in the village. Afterwards they're put along the road to slow down cars. I'm sure hers would bring traffic to a halt.
Dr NF Stedman, Wiltshire
I just read your book Winner's Dinners. If only it were possible to read what restaurateurs felt about you. I note the book was published in 2009. So it's taken three years to reach my local car-boot sale. Quite an achievement. Some well known authors make it in two weeks.
Eddie Ryan, Belfast
Do you recall sweets from 1941? They were rationed but some were wonderful. How about Squirrel's Cherry Lips? Even more addictive were Nelson's Gelatine Lozenges. They could no longer be found even in the 1960s, but their memory is still powerful.
Josephine Howard, Rugby