A tale of cold food and, who knows, maybe a hot date
Published 8 January 2006 News Review 651st article
Michael with chef Jason Atherton at Gordon Ramsay's Maze (Anna Brown)
The telephone directories you phone up are pathetic.
I use the 118 888 service. I don't know why. You ask for a number, have to repeat the request endlessly and many times they can't find it. They couldn't even locate the number of Gordon Ramsay's newest restaurant, Maze, in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair.
So I rang the kitchen of Angela Hartnett in the Connaught. They gave me the number of the kitchen at Maze. There I spoke to James Durrant, the head chef.
At least if you phone the kitchen you speak to polite people.
More than can be said for most receptionists.
"Is Jason in on Sundays?" I asked. Jason Atherton is the top chef at Maze. "Not usually," said James. "Well, he is tomorrow," I suggested. I've known Jason since he worked in High Street Kensington. Then he went to Dubai for Gordon. Now he's running Maze. Nice person. Very unassuming. Like me.
I went for Sunday lunch with Anna. "Who's Anna?" I hear you ask. I decline to answer. The room is actively hideous. Wooden tables, no cloths, low ceiling, usual dreary spotlights. It was full of people who looked like they'd got off a tour bus.
In this sort of room I expect to eat baked beans on toast with fried egg and sausage. My type of meal. I wish they did serve that. Instead their "chef's menu" is five courses for £33 or seven courses for £43.50. I don't want five courses, thank you. And certainly not seven.
The waitress said: "I'd like a minute of your time to take you through the menu."
"Don't run me through the menu, dear. We can read," I said. The waitress seemed disappointed.
As the waitress left I remarked to Anna: "I hate people telling me what's on the menu. I can read. I went to school! I went to Cambridge University! This menu is splendidly clear both in the print and the food descriptions. I don't need some budding actress practising her speech on me."
They offered "aged beef". The restaurant manager explained it had been hung for 28 days. It was filet mignon. We ordered two of those, medium rare. To start I chose risotto of carnaroli (a type of rice) with peas, broad beans, wood sole (I think that's what it said) and grated truffle.
Anna had marinated beetroot, sairass cheese, pine nut and cabernet sauvignon dressing.
"Ask Jason if he can do pommes souffle," I said to the restaurant manager. "That'll wake him up," I thought. They're fried, blown up potato balloons. Very tricky.
The new non-genius chef at the Dorchester Grill can't do them even though his predecessor could. The restaurant manager returned grinning from ear to ear to tell me Jason couldn't do them either.
I ordered roast potatoes instead. We got a freebie starter of pumpkin veloute with chopped truffle and chanterelle mushrooms. It was absolutely exquisite. Even the room was growing on me. Canteen-like, but at least not pretentious.
"It's quite garlicky," Anna said of the pumpkin soup. "As long as we both have it we're fine."
"I'm not expecting an intimate moment today so it doesn't matter much," I responded rather ungraciously.
My risotto was very tasty but ridiculously tepid. By the time I got near the end, it was cold. And I eat very quickly.
"The plate's not hot," explained Anna, adding: "It was a pretty colour." It was lime to pea green. Colourful but cold.
The main course took a long time to arrive and that was pretty cold too. Four slices of beef, beautifully laid out in a mound with a slice of pan fried foie gras and some vegetables.
Once again the plate was cold.
I don't know why Jason lets food out of the kitchen on cold plates at this low, depressing temperature. He really must stop saving on gas.
Jason's a marvellous chef. If his food was 30% hotter it would have been almost historic. The roast potatoes, in a separate copper pan, were very hot. So was a bowl of vegetables. But the main items - ridiculous!
As things had not been speedy I said to the waiter who gave me the dessert menu: "I've got to order quickly." Whereupon he walked away! I could make a dessert choice in 10 seconds.
Why did I then have to call him back?
As the desserts were meant to be cold, we did very well. My chocolate millefeuille and pear ice cream was terrific, so was Anna's mango parfait with orange and anis jelly coriander shoots.
A pleasant outing. I still won't tell you who Anna is. She's got red hair and green eyes. That's quite enough for you.
Recent letters have debated whether you should have a facelift. With medical technology now making face transplants possible, why not go the whole way? Your celebrity friends could help. Michael Caine and Roger Moore have film star looks, Chris Rea is a pop star. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber would be an improvement.
Scott Dickinson, Edinburgh
You were ruminating last week on whether you'd have been happier had you settled down with any of your many girlfriends - highly unlikely given your short attention span. Just think of all the alimony you've saved. Not to mention a whole lot of unhappiness all round.
Dennis Pallis, Kent
So you found the Dorchester Grill Room's crisp pig's ears "sickly" (Winner's Dinners, December 18). Hugo, my chocolate labrador, says they're best eaten with a few dry dog biscuits. We buy his pig's ears from the pet stall in Norwich market at 50p each. I bet you paid more for yours!
John Ward, Norwich
I felt the same outrage you expressed about the ruination of the Dorchester Grill when the restaurant of the Park hotel, Cardiff was "modernised" into a works canteen. The previously elegant room now has bare tables, no ambience and waitresses in pinnies instead of formally dressed waiters.
Margery Giones Mid Glamorgan
You rightly blasted the Dorchester bunglers for destroying the Grill Room, although I had a very nice tea in the lobby. Please now vent your spleen on the idiots who closed the River Room in the Savoy except for breakfast. It's one of the loveliest dining rooms in the world. I look forward to going for lunch and dinner once you've bared your teeth.
Andrew Bainbridge, London
At the Connaught hotel we asked for a table at 8.30pm and were told to arrive at 8.45pm. The table wasn't ready but they did give us a drink at the bar. We finally reached our table at 9.20pm. Our first course didn't arrive until 10.15pm as we stood up to leave! My normally gentle husband irately told the head waiter not to put a service charge on our bill. We finally left just before midnight. The food was fairly indifferent. Our 39th anniversary dinner was spoiled.
Patricia Froomberg, London
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