I approached it on foot, avoiding cars that had taken a turn round the building and were bumping down a ramp to the underground car park. My medical friend who had dressed quite smartly for our evening out persuaded his taxi to stop directly outside, in or on the street, and had to vault over the elaborate cast-iron railings to be greeted by the doorman and bowed in through the double doors.
Having got through these double doors you can only gape. Multi-lingual hotel staff in terrifyingly well-made uniforms - the atmosphere from the outset is High Frankfurt with a touch of Chicago - stand ready to counsel guests overawed by the grandeur. There is a relatively conventional marble- floored High Frankfurt reception area, a flight of marble steps, and then a dizzyingly lofty atrium. Seventy-foot palm-trees, kitschily underlit, soar up towards the remote glass roof, whole sides of buildings are caught in the dim Thirties glare, and the guests wander about, crick-necked and flabbergasted. The restaurant is on the left, through more marble.
At first sight I did not think I was going to like the Dining Room. My medical friend was held up on more important work, and I had a chance to look around. It is very big and very high with white-panelled walls picked out in gold, a bouncy carpet in oatmeal with a gold pattern and big armchairs with gold backs that look as though they might have been salvaged from the set of Quo Vadis. It is the kind of pale, matt gold that Danny La Rue might choose to paint his eyelids, and a harpist was playing snatches from classical opera interspersed with bits of Fiddler on the Roof.
A discreet and correct German waiter asked me if I would care for an aperitif before my meal. I had a glass of dry sherry, he brought me the menu, and I mused on the bright green palms, the large parties of slightly uneasy, black-clad revellers and the young executives discussing business.
Then my medical friend arrived, shedding bags and coats that were collected by the waiters as he made his way into the room, the sleeves of his blazer blowing back over bare forearms, and the matt gold faded in the glow of his enthusiasm to get at the food and talk.
The menu is in two sections, a wide double sheet attributed to the chef, Georg Heise, and a narrow folded strip in the middle, bound in with gold cord, offering food created by Ken Hom. It was on crackly wax paper, and my medical friend wondered whether we were meant to eat it. The combination in any event is a mixture of Italian and Far Eastern food, celebrated in Mr Hom's east-meets-west vegetarian fried rice with ginger vegetable stew. Some of the orientalism appears in Georg Heise's main menu. There is tom yum goong, a hot and sour soup, Chinese egg noodles and vegetable ribbons with chilli and coriander among the more conventional pasta, fillet of beef coated with Vietnamese curry paste and iced tomato, and baked salmon in nori seaweed and filo pastry with a mango curry sauce.
Similarly Ken Hom's menu is not entirely oriental - the crispy chicken spring rolls contain sun-dried tomatoes, and though there is orange-duck Peking-style and wok-roasted tuna fish, the puddings are ginger creme brule or a warm berry compote accompanied with basil and vanilla ice cream.
We thought about it, and chose from both menus. My medical friend asked for steamed asparagus and smoked salmon with citrus dressing followed by the wok-roasted tuna fish with spiced confetti - red and green peppers cut up unto little bits. I ordered champagne risotto as a starter and after that the bouillabaisse of king scallops, crab and lobster claws. I had had time to make a considered examination of the wine list, which offered a discreet but comprehensive selection from France, Italy, Chile, South Africa, California, Australian and New Zealand. Being a creature of habit I ordered one of the cheapest, a bottle of Croze Hermitage at pounds 19. It was very good.
After that we got down to stories of my friend's trip as manager of a young doctors' rugger tour. Better aware than most of us of health risks, the young doctors had gone bungee jumping, inducing a violent rush of blood to the head, and rounded things off with mock trials in which the penalty was to drink five measures of neat gin at a gulp. The waiters in the emergent African country said they had seen nothing like it since Independence.
Then the food arrived, carried on enormous trays with a flower arrangement. I would not have thought of eating smoked salmon with asparagus, but my friend wolfed it with glee. I was surprised to find tiny carrots with the mushrooms in my risotto, but they were very tender and delicate, and the mixture of flavours and textures was light and delicious.
Similarly with our main course: he raved about the wok-roasted tuna, and my scallops and lobster claw were as good as you can imagine. For pudding he had Mr Hom's berries with vanilla ice cream, and I had macerated cherries with amaretto ice cream and biscuits.
With our pre-dinner drinks, a bottle of mineral water, and two cappuccinos, the bill came to pounds 103.20 plus the tip, but we bounded out through the palm court, down the marble steps and vaulted over the railings, renewed and reinvigorated, eager for bungee jumping.Reuse content