Eating Out: A mournful hymn to middle America

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The Independent Culture
The Lanesborough hotel is a monument to the Thatcher Age, having been constructed on the site and behind the facade of the former St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner. The developers, sensitive to the spiritual presence of the old Duke of Wellington opposite at Apsley House, have chosen what could loosely be called a middle American Om-peer style.

The walls of the dining room are a vivid red, studded with golden Napoleonic bees, the curtains a slightly different red with a gold Regency stripe and the panelling is in raspberry-raw liver. The underlit ceiling is a very pale grey, and patterned with air-conditioning inlets. If it were not for the occasional glimpse of a double-decker bus going by outside the treble-glazed windows, you could be in Detroit.

When the doorman is off trying to hail taxis on the busiest bend of Hyde Park Corner, which he was when we arrived and when we left, the narrow main entrance is deserted. Through a doorway on your right waiters in a variety of uniforms can be seen standing with their backs to you. Visitors are left to find their way along a narrow passage, paved with black-and-white marble, past a flaring imitation-coal gas fire to a discreetly furnished reception area.

Here, someone to do with the hotel may or may not be behind one of two green, leather- topped tables in an alcove. Continue along this passage and turn right, and you will come to The Conservatory, which serves 'international cuisine all the day including afternoon tea' in what is reputed to have been the hospital's morgue.

When we looked in two ladies were sitting at a table and a melancholy pianist was getting up from a grand piano which, rather surprisingly, continued to play without him.

Finding our way back through the reception area, we were directed back to the Dining Room, where the waiters now turned round and saw us, leading us through a roomful of middle Americans ecstatically greeting each other.

The food is based on English cuisine, but the menu is a little disconcerting to a native. After several audible cries of 'Eugh]' from my wife, we decided to risk starting with one Caesar salad with smoked duckling, artichoke, mushroom and a tart of caramelised sweatbreads with white chicory. Our waiter, a very nice Moroccan, praised our choice extravagantly. Then the wine list arrived - nothing much under pounds 25, and rising to pounds 750 a bottle - and we incurred a chilly nod for ordering the house red, Pinot Noir Cuvee The Lanesborough, at pounds 17.50 a bottle. It was not very nice. Meanwhile, a minstrel with a huge black moustache - my wife claimed that it lifted slightly for a moment at one corner when he leered at her - was picking 'The Shadow of Your Smile' on a guitar by way of live Muzak. Another waiter arrived with a little silver dome which he snatched off with a theatrical flourish to reveal a pat of butter, and an earnest young English trainee waiter wheeled up a trolley covered with huge mis-shapen loaves to 'explain the breads'.

He used an odd hand gesture I have only seen before in amateur theatricals, extending his right hand with the fingers flat and the thumb upwards, and indicated each bread in turn. There was, he said, a fairly crispy French Dauphinoise bread, Lanesborough bread made of white and brown flour, wholemeal bread, sour bread, tomato and herb bread, and various other kinds of bread. Then, as a coup de theatre, he ducked down behind the trolley and produced a basket of very small rolls. We had a little roll with poppy seeds and a piece of the tomato and herb bread. Neither was very nice, and the latter was indigestible. Then a hot plate arrived unexpectedly, 'an aperitif with the compliments of the chef'. A small piece of black pudding on a small circular dab of mashed potato, covered with a dribble of gravy. Mine was a bit gristly, but my wife ate hers quite happily, only complaining about the gravy and saying, 'That would do for a meal.'

I persuaded her to stay, drawing her attention to a humorous scene at the next table, where a middle American family was carrying on like a barely animated New Yorker cartoon. The family consisted of a placid, plump elderly man in glasses and a loose grey suit, his thin, white- haired wife, an austere crippled female relative, two equally austere daughters and a distressing son-in-law, as Italianate as they were Protestant. He was very short, had a moustache with a life of its own, and was wearing a well-made English blazer that came down practically to his knees. He seemed to have been drinking.

In an attempt to cheer themselves up while the guitarist took a break, the family was quietly singing hymns. When his wife opened her mouth to sing, the moustache quipped: 'She's only doin' that ta show off her noo teeth]' His father-in-law told him to shut up.

Meanwhile the Caesar salad had arrived, garnished with pale yellow slices of fried bread and in a salty dressing. The sweetbreads gleamed under what tasted like the same brown gravy that had been dribbled over the black pudding.

After that we had fillet of turbot with young leeks, citrus and cardamom chutney, and roast rack of lamb cooked in hay with garden herbs. The lamb arrived in a rough clay bowl full of cooked hay, and turned out to be three flavourless lamb cutlets garnished with an emerald-green knob of broccoli, a few spindles of carrot and a square block of layered carrot, parsnip and potato. The turbot tasted as though someone had emptied a container of mixed spice over it. It floated in a mush of something like raw marmalade - and a gravy strangely reminiscent of those that had come with the black pudding and the sweetbreads.

The puddings were better, with quite a reasonable small prune souffle and a plate with two scoops of creme fraiche, some lemon curd and a strawberry. I was not surprised when the Moroccan waiter asked us if we'd like fish coffee. It turned out he meant fresh coffee. The bill, including service, came to pounds 96.80 for two.

'We have,' it said on the menu, 'a fine selection of Havana cigars which, for the benefit of those guests who wish to smoke, can be served with your coffee in the Withdrawing Room.' But by this time the tiny Italianate son-in-law had tried discreetly to bite his sister-in-law's ear and was up on his feet, performing a flamenco, and singing 'Rock of ages cleft for me'.

I thought we would skip the Withdrawing Room and withdraw through the front door back into England. -


1 Lanesborough Place, London SW1 X71A. Tel: 071-259 5599. Open Monday-Friday.

Lunch: two-course menu pounds 19.50, three-course pounds 24 including coffee, service and VAT. Dinner:

three-course menu pounds 29.50. Dress code: smart. Major cards accepted.