Eating out: Club-class dining
Sunday 22 November 1998
28 Berkeley Square, London W1. Tel: 0171 493 7171. Open for lunch Mon-Fri, 12-2.30pm, and for dinner Mon-Sun 7-11.30pm. Two-course lunch, pounds 16.50, three courses pounds 19.50; two-course dinner pounds 26.50, three courses pounds 39.50. Average a la carte price, pounds 50 per person. Credit cards accepted
WHEN I RANG the new Morton's restaurant to book a table for dinner the following evening, the telephone was answered by a young woman with a beguiling French accent. This didn't surprise me. For a long time I have noticed that practically everybody in London is French. Some people don't believe this, but that is because until recently, French people were easily identifiable. They had different clothes and hairstyles from English people, and superior expressions. But now you often can't tell them apart from us, except, of course, when they speak.
Anyway, when I asked for a table at Morton's for the next evening, the voice with the beguiling French accent said: "Why don't you come tonight?" Its manner was so flirtatious that I practically dropped everything and complied. I also loved the freshness of the approach. Grand London restaurants of the sort which Morton's aspires to be never care to admit that they are not completely full. "We will see what we can do," they say. And after an appropriate pause, implying tortured scrutiny of the reservations book, they say: "Yes, I think we may be able to fit you in near the door. Did you say 8.15? Could you please make it 8? We are very busy." But not so at Morton's. Tonight, tomorrow night, the night after that - it's all the same to them. You are very welcome any time, and the sooner the better.
Half an hour after I had made my reservation and given my telephone number (as restaurants now always seem to demand, so fearful are they that their customers won't turn up), the phone rang and a man's voice said: "Hello, this is Angus at Morton's. I see you have booked a table for tomorrow night, and I wondered whether you might be any relation of Anthony Chancellor's." I said that, alas, I didn't think I knew an Anthony Chancellor. "Oh, he was a charming man. Used to come here often. Died recently, I'm afraid. Sorry to have bothered you."
Angus turned out to be Angus Agnew, one of the two managers of the restaurant. The manager in charge on the night I went there was his colleague, Andre Valquez, who had the distinction of not being French nor even, for that matter, Spanish. He was completely British. I suspect that Angus isn't French either, but I was relieved to find that all the rest of the cheerful and attentive staff appeared to be.
These managers were recently poached from the Square, around the corner in Bruton Street, and from the Cafe Royal Grill Room, to start a new public restaurant in the revamped upstairs dining-room of Morton's club, a members- only establishment which used to be a famous haunt of brittle, ambitious glamour girls known as "Mayfair Mercs" - "mercs" being short for "mercenaries", but which could just as well have referred to the Mercedeses in which they were delivered to the door. One old member recalls watching Harold Pinter canoodling there with Lady Antonia Fraser in the 1970s. The club continues, but is now confined to the bar on the ground floor which you pass on the way to the stairs. It is slightly provoking that the first thing you see when you come in is a door marked "Members Only".
However, the upstairs room has always been the building's main attraction because of its fine proportions, high ceiling, and the views through its tall windows onto Berkeley Square. Although the square now has little beauty left in it except for its 30 or so spectacular plane trees, said to have been planted in 1789, it still feels glamorous to me. Whatever survives of the spirit of Mayfair lurks among those trees, as does the mythical nightingale of the famous song. In the 1960s, a man leaving Annabel's night club in the early morning was said to have been so offended by the chirping of a bird that he took a gun from his car and shot it. But it couldn't have been a nightingale he killed, for no nightingale would live in so noisy a place.
It is probably a mistake to go to Morton's for dinner, when the square is in darkness and the view hardly discernible. For without its view, the room feels a little stiff and formal, a bit like the dining-room of an expensive hotel. It has been fashionably redecorated in a creamy beige, with linen curtains and bare floorboards, but the use of a crown motif to brighten up the upholstery adds an unwelcome note of pomposity. The overhead lighting is also, perhaps, a little unkind. But the service on the night I was there was absolutely excellent - assiduous yet unintrusive, and anything but stiff and pompous. And the food, cooked by the renowned chef Gary Hollihead, was also extremely good.
I had a very gamey meal from the pounds 26.50 two-course prix fixe menu, first a salad of rabbit and roast salsify and then Pheasant with Brussels Sprouts, both of which came with girolle mushrooms, and delicious little discs of foie gras. These were so good that I didn't at all mind having them twice. One of my companions started with Watercress and Truffle Soup with Goat's Cheese and Lemon Ravioli, anticipating a lot to eat. But, this being a modern British restaurant, he should have guessed that he would only get a small bowl of delicately flavoured broth with some little ravioli floating in it.
My other companion launched off with Autumn Leaf and Vegetable Salad with Soft Herb Mineral Water Vinaigrette. The idea of a mineral water vinaigrette seemed horrible - possibly a legacy of the Mercs who would have found even olive oil too threatening to their waistlines. But that, too, was much enjoyed, as were all the other courses. The only criticism I could make of Mr Hollihead's dishes is that the finicky elegance of their appearance increased the feeling of formality about the place. At the beginning of the meal we were each given a little cup of tasty curry soup, and between the main course and the dessert a plate of miniature profiteroles.
The soup put me in a friendly mood, but I was irritated by the profiteroles. If I am to be given any-thing before my pudding, I would rather it were something to freshen the mouth, like a sorbet. Talking of which, one of my companions tried to order sorbet for his dessert but wasn't allowed to have it except in combination with a blueberry tart which he took home and fed to his wife for breakfast. It was an expensive meal, coming (with a lot of good wine) to around pounds 70 a head, but its quality could not be faulted.
But the restaurant still awaits an appropriate clientele. Of the six couples dining at Morton's that night, all but one were pairs of males who looked like businessmen on expense accounts. And one of the largest tables was occupied by a group of bored-looking skiing journalists and other people associated with the Daily Mail Ski Show at Olympia. Morton's deserves to succeed, and I am sure it will. For now it needs more fun and laughter and perhaps even a touch of the loucheness which used to characterise the club.
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