Published 16 July 1995 Style Magazine 106th article
I had one of the most awful meals of my life at the Connaught hotel restaurant the other Sunday. At the Connaugt I hear people saying, you can't do that to the Connaught. Oh yes I can, even though I've had good experiences there before. The person I blame this time is Jean-Pierre Chevallier, the restaurant manager. I am always careful to the point of tedium when I book. I do not go to restaurants, I go to tables. So I rang a second time and discussed in detail where I would be seated, explaining, of course, I like a bit of space. "I've put you in a corner at a table normally for three people." said Mr Chevallier. On that basis, as far as I'm concerned a "contract" to be honoured, I got myself beautifully dressed in my best suit and tie and set out for the Connaught. When I got there my table was not in a corner at all! It seemed, at first, quite nice. It protruded out a bit, rather close to a service table, but with a good view of the restaurant and the door.
Then things went downhill. As the service table became more and more used it was indescribably over-bustling. The noise level was horrendous, not helped by the two very loud titled people behind me (I know they were titled because he kept referring to "Lady whatever") and a party in front with a man getting increasingly worse for drink. "May I tell you!" he kept repeating. and then: "They were all named after admirals of the fleet." You literally could not hear yourself speak. This was partly because the room is panelled, which bounces sound off, and is also overcrowded, with tables too close together. The staff exuded: "We're at the Connaught and we're superior." When I asked for the tiny water glasses to be replaced with something larger so I could accommodate ice and lemon, the wine waiter gave a look saying it was highly impertinent of me to suggest a change in normal procedures. When Vanessa asked for a roast chicken, which she always gets at Claridge's, the waiter said, as if dealing with a total ignoramus: "A roast chicken will take an hour and 10 minutes." I later discovered Claridge's puts one on the moment I book. "Why not have guinea fowl, it is very similar?" said the waiter. Now I may only be a poor boy from Willesden, but I don't need some snotty waiter at the Connaught telling me guinea fowl is very similar to chicken, because it isn't.
Eventually Vanessa settled on a poussin. "Bread sauce and gravy?" asked the waiter. "Yes please," she replied. And then when he'd finished taking the order. she asked him most sweetly: "Could I have some stuffing?" This threw the waiter into a tantrum of arrogance. "Stuffing and bread sauce," he said, like the bus from Scunthorpe had arrived. "Yes," I said icily. "Madame would like bread sauce and stuffing." Now. why put some young kid down? If she wants ice cream and bread sauce just smile and say: "Of course, Madame." I see nothing wrong with having bread sauce and stuffing at all. They're different textures. I shall now have them every time I order chicken or poussin, and God help the waiter who tries to sniff at me about it.
As for the food: the bread, two types, brown and white only, they don't serve it, you take it from the basket; dreary. My first course of various pates, pompously named prelude gourmand Connaught, was acceptable but uninteresting. Vanessa's feuillete d'oeufs brouilles aux truffes du Perigord bland to the point of extinction. A similar dish at Claridge's the following week was excellent. My roast beef was fine, the Yorkshire pudding the best ever: The pommes puree were soggy and crude. Vanessa left most of the poussin but thought her carrots excellent. My two things from the dessert trolley I remember thinking at the time I would never remember. Vanessa's sherry trifle was totally historic, as in great. Overall, when you add the noise and the service, a ghastly experience. And very overpriced at £37.72 inc coffee and they don't even give you petits fours! The Dorchester is far better value and better food at £24.50 and Claridge's even better at £29. So, on my new-found 1-10 scale for Sunday lunch and adding a few other places I've been to, Claridge's leads at 9, the Dorchester next at 8½, with the French Horn at Sonning equal at 8½, the Connaught 5, the Lanesborough 2, Kartouche 1. This is a real "Sunday saga!" And, believe me, it ain't over yet.
What a pity that Michael Winner's tour of Ireland (May 21 and 28, June 4) did not take him into the North. The standard of culinary ability in Ulster is extremely high and the attentions of the critics is long overdue. Recently I was in Belfast, attending a meeting, with a wheelchair-bound friend. At 5pm we were famished. For ease of parking we plumped for the imposing Europa hotel. The menu was impressive, the staff attentive and the food most appetising. The duty manager, Alan Williamson, thoughtfully took the time to give my disabled companion a guided tour and point out the spectacular views of the city. Perhaps there is no more appropriate symbol for the potential of Belfast than the grand old lady Europa.
S James Wilson, Coleraine, NIreland
Having recently visited the cafe at the Cumberland hotel, London, I'm wondering what Mr Winner would make of the services offered therein. Deciding that a sandwich at over £5 was a trifle OTT, we opted for a salad (cheaper) from the help-yourself bar. As this comprised a boring collection of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, and potato in mayonnaise, we settled for coffee only. One sip of this hellish brew, served in a vacuum jug, was enough to convince us that it had been stewing for heaven knows how long. Making my displeasure known to the cashier, we had our bill reduced by 50%. We both felt so ashamed that such poor stuff (butter and jam came in packets) was offered to tourists as well as us, of course.
Jean Stonebridge, Potters Bar, Herts