Published 8 December 2002 News Review 491st article
New order: Winner with Brealey (seated) and Hell, Hartnett and Lee (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Let it never be said I don't do a thorough job for you. In respect of Gordon Ramsay's takeover of catering at The Connaught I visited for the opening party which included a tour of the kitchens. Then I had two lunches at Menu and one in The Grill. Not all on the same day, of course.
I returned because I liked it. The Connaught hotel and its two restaurants were, until Gordon's appearance, the biggest waste of space in London. If I had a pound for every American who said to me "Why don't they dust the rooms?" I'd be a multi-millionaire. All right, I am anyway. But you get my drift.
The whole place was conducted with an innate, totally uncalled-for snobbery, which was gruesome to behold. The restaurant manager, Jean-Pierre Chevallier, came out with more pompous, unwelcoming claptrap than I've heard from anyone in my entire life. The whole operation has now acquired something extremely rare in what is laughingly known as the hospitality industry: warmth.
It's there in abundance, together with immaculate service and superb food. A few things went wrong on my visits. But overall Gordon's achievements at the Connaught are sizeable, remarkable and immensely welcome. He has also wisely promoted women into all major roles on the food side of things.
Only Anthony Lee, the hotel's general manager, is male. Unlike his predecessor, he's a delight. The chef, Angela Hartnett, is a gracious, lively person and a terrific cook. The two restaurant managers, Helena Hell and Jayne Brealey, are delightfully young. There's no one better anywhere in the world.
By now you may be thinking: "Winner's bewitched! His critical faculties have deserted him." Oh no they haven't.
Let's canter through my visits. The opening party was a massive crush. Anthony Lee helped me through and showed me the kitchen table available for diners. Totally ridiculous. Who wants to see a lot of staff slaving away? I can do that at home. But the canapes were nice and I greatly liked the lightening up of the decor Gordon achieved in both dining rooms.
Menu (totally ridiculous name) is the larger of the two restaurants. The old, restrictive dress code has gone. There were men in leather jackets and men in no jackets. It still looked perfectly elegant to me.
They plonk down a nice selection of ham and salami as a freebie starter and a good selection of bread, including Italian "music" bread, which is thin and crisp.
I was glad Carlos Anaia, number two in the restaurant before the change, was there, now in suit instead of black tie. He seemed a little bemused by the new system but he'll cope: he's a professional.
I started with carpaccio of Gressingham duck (excellent) and went on to oven-roasted cannon of lamb served with polenta cake and nicoise garnish. I didn't like that. It was beautifully prepared, but there were these little round blobs of rare lamb, which I've never taken to. I should have asked about it thoroughly in advance. I prefer good old rack of lamb or lamb cutlets. Angela Hartnett used an exceedingly vulgar word to dismiss these in a magazine article. I do hope she doesn't take after Gordon language-wise.
Geraldine's fish, I think it was sea bass, was overcooked and dry. She left most of it. All the rest, including a lot of little freebies, was magnificent.
On our second Menu visit my spaghetti with tomato sauce and roast pancetta was outstanding. Sadly my sole, cut into four pieces, didn't have the moisture or succulence it deserved. Geraldine asked for rare but not raw tuna. It arrived well done. Angela Hartnett must keep tighter control on the fish situation. Maybe it's still cooking under the plate covers. I don't know. But it let her down. Everything else was startlingly good. The three-course set lunch at £21, excluding coffee, is an incredible bargain.
The Grill room is smaller. I had a fantastic main course - tournedos of beef, which is normally for two, but I paid the extra. It was the best beef I've ever eaten. The red wine sauce and turnip puree were memorable. The Yorkshire pud was okay but my housekeeper's is better.
To start I had white onion veloute with deep fried frog's legs in salsa verde. There were frog's legs in the soup and on a side plate. That was historic.
My dessert was sherry trifle in a delicate glass-stemmed cup. It was nice, but sherry trifle should be scooped out of a large bowl. Then we went for our photo. Mr Lee was missing. "He's doing his hair," said Angela. Whereupon I promptly did mine. Not that you'd notice.
I have some restaurant horror stories of my own: like the time I asked whether the fish was fresh at the Smugglers Haunt, Port Eynon, Gower, and was told: "It's frozen - but you won't be able to tell once it is cooked." On board a P&O Ferry I was advised: "We don't have a very good selection (of desserts) tonight but I can see if we have any left over from lunchtime."
Ross Anderson, Redditch
It grieves me to say it, but I actually enjoyed Michael Winner's article about Compo's fish and chips (November 24). Even the letters, except the one about Harry's bar, Venice, didn't seem to be competing in pomposity.
Alan Horten, South Ascot
I sympathise with Alan Pearson (Winner's Letters, last week) re overcooked meat in Ireland. But, as an Irish expat living in England, I experience the other side of the coin. When I ask for a "well done" steak, it usually appears chargrilled on the outside and virtually raw inside!
Bridget Rosa Peck, Telford
Please worry no longer, Michael. There are plenty of us out here who are still of the opinion that you are an "over-opinionated ignoramus nincompoop" (Winner's Dinners, last week).
Graeme Sutherland, Renfrewshire
On your recommendation we went for Sunday lunch at the Connaught for my father's 53rd birthday. The meal was very good but imagine our surprise when towards the end the waiter brought out a steam iron and proceeded to iron the tablecloth on the neighbouring tables.
Alice Playle, London
The marine biologist (Winner's Letters, last week) doesn't know his bass from his elbow. No such creature as sea bass indeed! Presumably his studies don't extend beyond salt water. If they did he would have found black bass, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass. And delicious they are, too.
Joe Cowley, Erith
We don't eat in posh restaurants, we stay at home for dinner. We may not eat stuffed quail's eggs, but we don't meet Michael Winner.
John Whitcombe, Brentwood