It'll be all white on the night
I-THAI AT THE HEMPEL; 31-35 Craven Hill Gardens, London W2 3EA. Tel: 0171 298 9000. Open daily from noon to 2.30pm and from 7 to 11pm. Reservations required until 2 December. Average price per head, pounds 60. Major credit cards accepted
Sunday 10 November 1996
Carved from five white Regency houses in a white Bayswater square with a garden where all the pebbles have been painted white, the Hempel is the creation of Anouska Hempel or, as she is these days known, Lady Weinberg. Her design has been inspired by many things: "igloos, the Great Wall of China, the inside of a shoe box ... sitting in a puddle and staring upwards", and the result is very white indeed. You enter through a white room sporting identical white flowers, and proceed into a vast white foyer where fires flicker on gravel and everything seems to be floating. Tina, who had thought a Hempel was an animal from Doctor Dolittle, burst in in a frenzy of appreciation. "It's wonderful. It's a maximilism of minimalism. I'm going to make my house like this." As Tina enthused about the projection of Greta Garbo on the wall, Tracey warned her about "prisoner's cinema". "It's a syndrome you get if you stare at a white wall for too long."
After staring at our white menus for quite some time and seeing that it was to cost us pounds 15 for soup, that main courses started from pounds 21 and it was pounds 30 for the cheapest bottle of wine, we began to fear that Tracey might be right.
"May I ask why you are writing?" said a waitress in a black suit. "Lady Weinberg does not like people taking notes from our menus."
I explained that far from planning to copy the pad khao neow somtam at home, I was writing notes for a review. "But this is only a soft opening!" (I-Thai doesn't officially open until 2 December.) When I explained that I had booked a table normally, there had been no talk of soft openings then and prices hardly seemed to be - how to put this? - discounted, the suited lady grew cold. "I'm afraid I am going to have to contact Lady Weinberg."
In a frenzy of fear and excitement attempts were made to get Lady Weinberg on the mobile, we passed the time by listening to the enjoyable piped pop music (surely it should have been oriental xylophones?) and trying to remember in which Seventies television series Anouska Hempel first rose to fame. Sapphire and Steele? Jason King? Cluedo? "This is just the sort of conversation Lady Weinberg would not wish us to be having," warned Tracey pointing out the almost megalomaniacal number of H for Hempel on the tableware.
Eventually, an edict came from Lady Weinberg that we were to be allowed to proceed to the restaurant, a long, white room with more of the weird gravel fires and - inspired little touch! - two bright green fire exit signs thrown into dramatic relief. Any residual angst was assuaged by four bottles of free water, arranged with geometric precision, with labels on explaining they had been purified using "naturally porous ceramic earths, three activated carbons, electrolysis, ion exchange and ultra-violet light". By this time we were so star-ving that when our canapes arrived sporting frogs legs and fried locusts, we began to fear that Lady Weinberg had decreed we be punished with the seven plagues of Egypt for presuming to come on the night of her soft opening.
"Who wants the last locust?" said Tracey cheerily. There wasn't much of a rush since the deep-fried creatures tasted like the bits of crispy batter left after fish and chips, but the canapes beneath were delicious. The food at the Hempel - prepared by Michael Hruschka, formerly of the Oriental in Bangkok - is top flight Thai. Its point, however, is not so much taste as design. "It's the most architectural food I've ever eaten," said Tina. What it need-ed was not so much a reviewer as a surveyor.
Consomme of duckling spiced with cinnamon arrived sporting a ring of coconut shell. It tasted complicated and good. Chicken, coconut and goose-liver soup was gorgeous but so spicy that Tina couldn't finish her's and even tasting it made all our noses run so much we had to ask for hankies. It was dressed with bound basil and when the main courses arrived it was clear that we had a pretty major bondage theme on our hands. Tina's stir-fried cellophane noodles with tiger prawns in a black-ink parcel was so pervy looking it was practically serial killer: two black rubber parcels, bound and sitting on a black and green sauce. My green fillet of turbot with green tea noodles was, like the soup, terrifyingly hot. As we dabbed again at our noses we began to suspect this was another of Lady Weinberg's plagues and we would find ourselves in the morning with motions in the shape of H's emerging vengefully from rings of fire.
Not having the budget of a Michael Winner we were getting very edgy about the bill and decided therefore to share a pudding of steamed pandan. A pandan, we were told, is "like a banana leaf only square with a square hole". (The white walls were evidently affecting the staff). "That's not a pudding, it's an exhibit," said Tina as we poked our spoons into a glass box to grab at the last morsels of exotic-style rice pudding. Eventually the bill could be put off no longer. With half a bottle of wine and three Camparis it came to an extraordinary pounds 70 each and, with 15 per cent already added for service, I'm sorry to say there was still a space left blank on the slip for gratuities.
The Hempel is part of a welcome new wind of change in the hotel world, blowing away trouser-presses, carveries, and gilt-framed vegetable prints, and leaving behind a new emphasis on individuality and design. It is a beautiful, fantastical, bold, extraordinary, pretentious, overpriced, ridiculous but wonderful place to visit - as long as you have an absolutely enormous expense account and a hanky. !
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