EATING OUT: Charge of the White brigade
THE RESTAURANT. Hyde Park Hotel, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1Y 7LA. Tel: 071-235 2000. Open Mon-Fri, lunch, Mon-Sat, dinner; three-course set lunch, £25; three-course set dinner, £65. All major credit cards accepted.
Sunday 11 December 1994
There are two main eating areas on your left, roughly separated by screens, sea grass matting on the floor covered with a few carpets, a pair of sofas over on your right, and immediately next to the door a small reproduction antique table over which your coats are taken and your reservation checked by a black-coated waiter.
The atmosphere is hotel-cosmopolitan. At the table next to ours, a Japanese businessman was having the oriental equivalent of chopsticks trouble, using a fork to hold down his tarte Tatin and sawing at it with the side of his spoon. He was at the same time being entertained by a crew-cut young executive of pugilistic demeanour who leaned in with his face close to his, telling him nudge-nudge Cockney jokes. Otherwise, most of the diners seemed to be American, or to come from the mysterious East, or from the mysterious Middle East.
I had warned my wife against any eccentric response to the food. My friend David Russell, now approaching 80, was having lunch in the same restaurant with a view to holding a promotional lunch there for a big wine company. He complained about the plate for his main course smelling of disinfectant, and got a message back from the kitchens from Superchef Marco Pierre White himself. Would he get out of the restaurant?
One joke out of place, I cautioned, and MP "Big Chalky" White would be out to crack our heads together and hurl us into the traffic.
We therefore absorbed the menu, large and printed on heavy cartridge paper, in thoughtful silence, silently noting that the set three-course dinner cost £65 a head. Some of the starters, like the "terrine of foie gras en terrine" or the "salad of lobster, tomato confit with herbs" carried an £8 surcharge. The "galette of foie gras with elderberries" carried a £12 surcharge.
The head waiter was perfectly affable, a por-tly party with Brylcreemed hair still bearing the comb-marks. He regretted that they were out of snails for the snail ravioli, and could offer langoustine ravioli instead. Anxious to please, my wife said that would be lovely. I asked for the standard pt carrying no surcharge, the parfait of foie gras and chicken livers with truffles.
For our main course we ordered two of the simplest dishes - "braised oxtail `en crepinette' with red wine, turban of pomme pure"; and "grayleg partridge `en cocotte', choucroute garnish, pomme fondant, jus roti" - with a bottle of what was very nearly the cheapest wine on the list, a Chteau Haut Milon from Pauillac costing £29 a bottle.
The wine waiter, an introverted intellectual of a man I had been told was a mine of fascinating information, silently approved my choice and permitted himself a couple of monosyllabic answers to my questions about the vineyard. He may be more forthcoming if you order something more expensive. The wine itself turned out to be very good.
We then sat back to wait for quite a while, not much enjoying the international atmosphere. We had arrived punctually at 8.30 and - apart from a teaser of fried oyster - the food arrived an hour later.
The first disappointment was the langoustine ravioli. The pasta wrapping tasted to me - I hesitate to involve my wife in any future controversy - floury and undercooked, and not a terribly good idea in the first place. My pt was all right.
The menu is embellished with the slightly ambiguous line from the dead gastronome Brillat-Savarin: "To know how to eat well one must first know how to wait''. Sure enough, more time went by and the crew-cut young executive and his Japanese guest were replaced by a gloomy Indonesian family.
Then another waiter, one we hadn't seen before, surprised my wife by saying, "Your mangoes come in jussaminit Mademoiselle.'' This turned out to be "main course'', and it did eventually arrive.
My wife's oxtail was very good indeed. My partridge was really not up to scratch - pale and insipid, albeit served on a bed of perfectly adequate sauerkraut - and was accompanied by thick pieces of fatty bacon. The dish of carrots that came with it was similarly not something you'd cross the world for.
To fill the interval that followed the main course another waiter slipped in two small crme caramels. "To sweep your palate.'' They tasted slightly synthetic.
For pudding we had ordered an "omelette Rothschild" and a "caramelised apple tart, van-illa ice cream, sauce caramel". Just before they came the head waiter swayed past the table asking "Wuz eet sofarsogood?'' and I had a sudden impression of being in a ski resort.
Neither the omelette nor the apple tart was very special.
When the bill came it was for £234. Even at £65 a head for a set dinner this seemed steep, and I saw that they had charged £89 rather than £29 for the wine. Fearing that Big Chalky might still at any moment burst through the service doors, baseball bat raised, I pointed out the discrepancy to the waiter as discreetly as I could, and he swept it away.
He came back a few moments later, highly amused. "Sorry, Sir, the Haut Milon '89. Ha ha ha! They put the year instead of the price!"
I suppose that I should count myself lucky I wasn't charged the full £1,989, though I'm not sure whether the majority of the clientele at The Restaurant would have noticed even that. Only joking, Chalky, everyone makes mistakes, super evening.
The amended bill for two, including £3 for a bottle of water and £12 for a diminutive pot of camomile tea for two, came to £173.
I did not leave a tip.
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