I am meeting Charles Campion - best known as "the man who eats for London!" - for something of a gastro-odyssey. He has just published The London Restaurant Guide and his publisher, Andrew Franklin at Profile Books, suggested it. Mr Franklin, whom some might say should know better, won me in The Independent's Christmas charity auction, bidding £2,570 so that I might interview one of his authors. I don't, actually, understand why some would say he should know better, as I am not only delightful, but also clean and can make really good goblets from Quality Street wrappers. Admittedly, this doesn't impress anyone over three, and isn't foolproof even with those under that age, but it is a great gift nonetheless, and well worth £2,570 of anyone's money.
Anyway, I know of Charles, of course. He's the award-winning writer who has been writing about food in the London Evening Standard for over a decade now, and whose knowledge of London restaurants is said to be unsurpassed (he covers more than 350 in the guide). We agree to a days' food crawl, eating breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner at places from his book, and matching each other mouthful for mouthful, to see who explodes first. I am, initially, pretty certain it won't be me. I am small but very greedy; so greedy I often have breakfast before I go to bed just in case I oversleep in the morning (always a wise precaution). It's a deal, I'm told. Here goes, then.
We meet for breakfast at Roast (page 319, The Floral Hall, Borough Market SE1, 020-7940 1300) described in the guide as "resolutely British food in a stunning, beautiful space". The space is a glazed box overhanging Borough Market, and it is a very beautiful space indeed. Charles has already arrived. He is sitting at a table but, even as I approach, and even though I am very, very greedy, I am thinking I am stuffed.
Charles, 54, is a big man; a very big man. I think I could happily live in one of his trouser legs. He later says he has never encountered any food he couldn't eat. Although, that said: "I'm not too keen on chicken's feet." On a brighter note, though: "I do like duck's tongues." Are you a beer, wine or spirits man? "Yes," he says. He adds that you can often do 80 per cent of a review simply by walking into a restaurant. "A good restaurant is written on the faces of the customers." He further adds that you should never, ever trust internet reviews. "Restaurants watch the sites and if they get a bad review they merely write two or three new ones to push the dodgy one out of sight."
His own guide, he continues, identifies only the London restaurants he considers to be the best. If a place isn't any good, then it simply isn't in. "People will ask: 'Why isn't such-and-such restaurant in it?' Why? Because I don't bloody like it." As for Michelin stars, well. "Why should a French tyre-maker have an opinion on British food?"
We order, at £12 a go, the "Full Borough": streaky bacon, Cumberland sausages, black pudding, tomato, field mushrooms, fried bread (two rounds), scrambled eggs. I think it is only about 67,000 calories. Just something to take the edge off, really. "Really good sausages," remarks Charles. "Lovely creamy egg."
His mother, Meriel, was the most wonderful cook. "My father's favourite dish was kidneys turbigo, which she would make for him, and it's a very advanced dish. She also made wonderful sweetbreads casseroled in a parsley and onion sauce which I still make today." He lives, now, in Worcester with his wife, Sylvia, two teenage children, four chickens, five ducks, two cats and a dog. The teenage children can drive him potty, as teenage children always can. The other evening he made steaks, with spaghetti carbonara as an alternative. What did they do? Sneaked off to make themselves beans on toast, the ungrateful toads.
Anyway, Charles is certainly the cook at home. "I always do a Sunday lunch and there is always a guest, even if it is only granny." He probably has 2,000 cookbooks but his favourites are The Gloucester Catering College Manual and one called Farmhouse Fare. "It's recipes from farmers. Good for black pudding. Take a bucket of pig's blood, wait for it to congeal, remove veins with fingers..." How utterly charming, Charles. Will you forgive me if I just have a quick retch? He is fond, he continues, of slow and double-cooked dishes, the kind that take two or three days to prepare. He always does his own oxtails, tongues and trotters. "Wonderful things, trotters," he exclaims.
After a successful career in advertising - hard work, you know the sort of thing, taking four birds off to the Maldives to shoot a Bounty ad, but someone had to do it - he did, for a few years, run his own hotel/restaurant in Buxton. Alas, though, it was a disaster, and he ended up going bust. It wasn't his food. It won acclaim from critics. It was the customers. "I cooked modern British, which was just too far ahead for the people of Derbyshire. They judge everything on the size and quantity of the chips. Something to do with carbohydrates and feeling the cold. Bit dull, the people of Derbyshire."
We clean our plates, wipe our greasy mouths, pay and walk to the corner for a cab. Charles walks like a lovely big bear wearing a small toupee. It's not a wig, I know, but he does have that ability some men have to make their own hair look like one. "It's good to have a little walk," he says. "It clears the tubes." "What are you?" I ask. "A personal fitness trainer?" "A personal fatness trainer, more like!" He says he does usually go to a gym three times a week, which is a good job, "As otherwise I would be seriously overweight, ha, ha!" We don't have to wait long for a cab, which is excellent, as we have a lunch to get to, and it is bad to skip meals. Anyone who says I have already cheated by hiding a round of fried bread under my napkin doesn't know what they are talking about.
Lunch is at the New Tayyab, (page 170, 83-89 Fieldgate Street E1, 020-7247 6400), which is described as offering: "Straightforward Pakistani fare: good, freshly cooked and served without pretension. More miraculous still, the prices have stayed lower than you would believe possible."
The place is absolutely heaving. A small plate of salady things is put on our table. Always look closely at salady things, says Charles. You can tell a lot by salady things. Do they look fresh? Are the colours good? If they look as if they've been chopped hours ago - have that slightly opaque sheen - then forget it. These salady things, I agree, are as zingy as anything. We must, he advises, start with the lamb chops (£4.80) and chicken tikka (£2.80). The chops are large, splendid, wonderfully spiced. The chicken tikka comes in fat, juicy chunks. Charles loves this place. "Intense flavours, freshly cooked ingredients, stunning value; what more could you want?" he asks. I eat another chop. Something has to keep me going until tea. I think Charles would rather have beer, but I'm not drinking - a personal rule of mine, having always suspected that the one thing that stops me from becoming a full-on bag lady is not drinking during the day - so he politely desists.
Certainly, Charles's father, Geoffrey, liked his beer. "He drank eight pints a day except during August when, to give his liver a rest, he drank eight pints of cider instead." Geoffrey had both his legs blown off during the war and clanked about on tin ones. Charles describes his parents as "wonderfully odd". "In what way?" I ask. "Well, they grew eight varieties of potato." Is that odd? "There was a lot of suspicion about that sort of thing back then." Charles, I say, you are really going to have to do better than that on the odd front. OK, he says, when his father was a salesman travelling round South America, he would send his dirty underwear home in parcels for Meriel to wash. That's how Charles knew which country his father was actually in - by the postmark on his dirty pants.
Geoffrey was, says Charles, a spectacular salesman. He could sell anything (barrels of ginger cider; Danish folding day beds) to anyone. Geoffrey's background, though, was in engineering, and in the late 1950s he invented the first filter that allowed the re-use of machine-tool coolant. Nope, I haven't a clue either, but it was a fantastic innovation, by all accounts, and a terrific success. A factory was built. Money was made, although the Campions always lived well even when they couldn't afford it. "We'd come to London, go to Jermyn Street for father's cigars, go to the Café Royal for lunch, then off somewhere so my mother could see hats being modelled."
But, then, disaster. Geoffrey had to go into hospital, to have "the second half of his right leg off" - lovely - and while away from the business, his partners "Took everything off him, the swines!" His parents managed to hang on in there until Charles finished school, then moved to council accommodation. "It was a nice little bungalow."
We've moved on to our main course - meat pilau (£4.80), tandoori paratha (£1.50) and a vegetable dish made with "bitter gourds" (£4). These gourds are bitter, bitter, bitter, but peculiarly moreish. Charles, it turns out, is very fond of bitter gourds. "The English are very weak on bitter things. We have chicory but that is about it." "Horseradish?" I suggest. "That's alkaline, actually," he says. I think he really knows his stuff. He's appeared a lot on telly: Food and Drink, Masterchef, Hell's Kitchen. He doesn't think most TV cookery programmes amount to a great deal. "You should really come away having learned something about food, but mostly you don't."
He can be brilliantly rude about celebrity chefs. When I say I've always loved Gordon Ramsay's description of Anthony Worrall Thompson ("the squashed Bee Gee") he says: "Oh, I've always thought of him more as an angry ferret looking though a hedge."
We pay the modest bill, and walk to the corner for a cab. It is good to walk to corners for cabs. It clears the tubes.
It is on to tea at The Wolseley (page 117, 160 Piccadilly W1, 020-7499 6996), which is possibly one of the most sublime places ever. Gorgeous, gorgeous room, gloriously dramatic, with high ceilings, vast chandeliers, black lacquer Chinoiserie. Paparazzi loiter outside. Apparently, Patsy Kensit is in today with her new fella. Charles is woefully ignorant in such matters. "Who is Patsy Whatsit?" he asks. Charles, if only you would put down Farmhouse Fare and take up Heat every now and then, you wouldn't show yourself up in this way. "But who is she?" She's in Emmerdale. "What's that?"
Inside, it is packed. We order the full-on afternoon tea (£18): scones, sandwiches, dainty little dolls'-house cakes. The scones are warm, the cream is the proper clotted stuff. The sandwiches (cucumber, smoked salmon, egg) and little cakes slip down as if I hadn't eaten for 10 minutes, which I haven't. Charles says they used to give you your own little egg-timer here, to measure the brewing time of the tea, "but everyone stole them. Shame."
Charles was educated at Blundell's, a public school in Devon. After school he was supposed to go up to Cambridge, but he got waylaid during his gap year, and ended up in advertising. "Advertising was marvellous fun, offering all the things you don't get in public school, like girls." Charles was, by the sound of it, a brilliant advertising man. He did Whiskas and Harvey's Bristol Cream and the first ever McDonald's TV commercial in the UK.
He says there was no more fun to be had than in advertising in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "So much so, I didn't even take a holiday for six years." The money was amazing, too, "and I spent it like a drunken sailor". But, come the late 1980s, it all changed, and he hated it. "It was now all research, focus groups, nervousness." You couldn't just have an idea and chase it.
So one day he went back to his house in Hammersmith and said to Sylvia, "What we should do is open a hotel/ restaurant. And she, amazingly, said 'OK'." So they sold Hammersmith and their other home in Devon and put everything into a property in Buxton. The project, he can now see, had disaster written all over it from the word go. "We even exchanged contracts on Black Wednesday." They stuttered on for three years, but then went bankrupt. "We ended up, all of us, living in my mother-in-law's back bedroom in Kidderminster. We owed the bank £90,000." How did he turn things around? He took whatever work he could, he says, wrote a book, reinvented himself as a food writer and "blagged my way on to the Evening Standard".
We leave. I didn't see Patsy, I say. "Neither did I," he says. Oh well, I say, I can't have missed her then. Anyone who says I hid two cucumber sandwiches down my socks doesn't know what they are talking about. Anyone who further says that I would undo a second button but am frightened my trousers might fall down, so revealing aforementioned sandwiches, also doesn't know what they are talking about.
Dinner is at Richard Corrigan at Lindsay House (page 141, 21 Romilly Street W1, 020-7439 0450), which is Michelin-starred. We opt for the £64-a-head tasting menu. It's a light bite - a snack, really - of six courses: smoked eel and foie gras terrine with sour apple; scallop with spiced chick pea; butter-poached turbot with lightly curried cockles and mussels; loin of venison with braised haunch, creamed salsify and hispi cabbage (won't eat cabbage unless it's hispi, obviously); banyuls soaked in Crozier blue; chocolate plate (pithier, fig and marscarpone, hazelnut bavarois, walnut gazpacho). Stuffed and unbuttoned as I am, I eat everything. It's all so, so delicious. Maybe those French tyre-makers do know something.
"Contrast the sweetness of the scallop against the nuttiness of the chick peas," says Charles ecstatically. "Contrast and balance is everything in cooking, everything." We drink a fair bit of wine, pay up and emerge on to the street late at night. I'm not sure I can even walk to the corner to clear the tubes, though I know that's very important. "Tell you what," says Charles: "I know a place that does wonderful razor clams and is open until 3am. Fancy it?" Charles, I say, will you forgive me if I actually vomit? "Bye then," he says. I don't think I was defeated as such, but I didn't have a breakfast before I went to bed. I couldn't even face the sandwiches I found in my socks.
The next day, Charles calls to confess that "I also had a basket of toast while I was waiting for you at Roast". But that's not winning. That's just cheating. He should be jolly ashamed of himself.
'The London Restaurant Guide' is published by Profile Books (£8.99). To order a copy, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content