A trencherman's day out
Breakfast at Simpsons, lunch at the Dorchester, tea at Claridges - and Alka Seltzer at home
Saturday 22 March 1997
If I did have friends who wanted something authentically British, I'd certainly send them to Sweetings, an elegant fish restaurant in the City which has somehow escaped the ravages of tourism. This time round, however, I tried three alternative and equally long-established venues: Simpson's- in-the-Strand for breakfast, the Dorchester Grill for lunch, and Claridges for tea. (For supper it was prunes and Alka Seltzer, Chez Moi.)
Simpson's (jacket and tie preferred but not absolutely required), though founded in 1828, has only been serving breakfast since 1994. I assumed the innovation was laid on for tourists, but here I was wrong: the people around me were mainly businessmen in early morning meetings. Breakfast is served in the Ground Floor Room - a large, wood-panelled hall with a dark, port-coloured carpet, large chandeliers, and still larger lace curtains.
Simpson's serves up a traditional version of early-morning trucker, without a slice of fresh-fruit or a bowl of yoghurt in sight. For pounds 11.50, the "Great British Breakfast" brings you coffee, orange juice and croissants, porridge, sausage, egg, bacon, black puddings, mushrooms and tomatoes; pay pounds 2 more for lamb's kidneys, lamb's liver, bubble and squeak and baked beans. Alternatives include grilled sirloin steak with mushroom and tomato, and pig's nose with parsley and onion sauce. I went for kippers, which were good and fleshy, not too salty, and, I think, undyed. My companion had the "Great British Breakfast" and, lifting his old school tie from his scrambled eggs, let me sample it. The portions were generous, the Cumberland-style sausage "swollen and succulent", and the eggs moist.
I had never been to the Grill Room at the Dorchester before and now can't think why not. Preserved much as it was in the 1930s, it is a banqueting hall built in the Moorish style, with more waiters than I have ever seen in a single room. On a weekday lunch, the place was humming with a cosmopolitan crowd of the men and women who own the banks, which the breakfasters at Simpson's manage. Yet if at first it all feels rather exotic, the food will be familiar to anyone who has been to an English school. They like meals on wheels at the Dorchester; there are carts for bread, salad, smoked salmon, roast beef, cheese and dessert. Old favourites from the menu include cock-a-leekie soup and Cornish dressed crab; roast Aylesbury duck and braised oxtail; sherry trifle and - regardless of the season - strawberries and cream. One can measure one's week by the daily specials - it was fish pie, so we knew it was Friday.
There is little doubt that you can eat well at the Dorchester if you order intelligently, which we did not. Our first course - a green salad with Stilton dressing, and Morecambe Bay potted shrimps - went without a hitch. The warm shrimps, which came in a deliciously buttery reduction, were especially good. The main courses that followed, though, were less so. My companion's steak and mushroom pie was short on mushrooms, and generally lacklustre. I went for a fish pie which consisted of... well, let's be generous and say 95 per cent mashed potato and 5 per cent fish. (I don't count the accompanying boiled potatoes!) It was small consolation that the mashed potato was good and creamy. The rice pudding (served cold) struck me as fairly dour, but then perhaps that's how it's meant to be. I remembered a remark of Angela Carter, about, "a certain kind of upper-class British cookery representing the staff's revenge upon its masters".
The things to go for, of course, are the grills: for a fool-proof formula, try smoked salmon and duck soup, followed by Dover sole or a fillet steak. You could round this off with crepes suzette or peppered peaches, both torched at the table. The Grill Room is wildly expensive (my fish pie cost pounds 17) and the mark-ups on the claret-centred wine-list are so outrageous as to be almost courageous. In our case, they kindly forgot to charge for dessert, but with that and half a bottle of cheap claret, our bill would have been over pounds 100. Still, if you go when your richest relative next comes to town, you'll have a memorable time.
Although no longer famous for its kitchens, Claridges is still about the most elegant hotel in London. Tea here is a traditional but pleasantly unselfconscious affair. (It is also popular, so book ahead). The trick is to start with tea and quickly move on to sherry or, better still, Madeira. Drinks aside, though, there is not much room for manoeuvre. Our set tea (pounds 16.50) began with finger sandwiches which had been sitting for a little too long in a fridge (incidentally, the way to make proper finger sandwiches is to butter the bread on the end of a loaf and only then slice it and remove the crust). These were followed by raisin scones with jam and cream, then a selection of cakes and sweets. We particularly enjoyed the miniature creme-brulees, which, once finished, left little traces of vanilla seed on the bottom of their ramekins. This I found a strangely moving sight, and I suddenly felt like crying. It was time to go home to bed
Simpson's-in-the-Strand, 100 Strand, WC2 (0171-836 9112). Breakfast 7am- noon; Dorchester, 54 Park Lane, W1 (0171-317 6336); Claridges, Brook St, W1 (0171-629 8860); tea served 3-5.15. All take major credit cards and offer wheel chair access
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