Food and Drink: Gastropod

SHAUN THOMSON, the dynamic young chef at White's, the oldest gentlemen's club in St James's, has been much in the news this week. He has had his name misspelled by the London Evening Standard and his photograph wrongly identified in the Daily Telegraph. It is all because of an action brought against him for unfair dismissal by a sous-chef who had worked at the club for 20 years, but left within days of Mr Thomson's arrival in January, following an altercation over scrambled eggs. But the disagreements went deeper than that. As the sous-chef Stephen Harris told the industrial tribunal, 'We had always used tinned vegetables, but Mr Thomson insisted on using fresh.'

Mr Thomson, a protege of Anton Mosimann and passionate about food, was recruited to White's to raise the culinary standards of that most august establishment, which had been a bastion of school dinner-style cooking. Without substantially changing the menu - it still serves scotch woodcock and shepherd's pie - he has introduced such radical ideas as fresh ingredients and cooking dishes to order.

The shock of the new has been too much for some customers as well as staff. Not content with a three-course meal for the set price of pounds 12, which might comprise half a dozen oysters, roast grouse and free range of the cheeseboard, some of them insist on traditional nursery delights. One member orders Heinz beans with every meal and no other brand, never mind freshly baked beans, will do. Another complained there were no sardines, so Mr Thomson bought some nice fresh ones and soused them for him. He then complained the sardines were not tinned: Mr Thomson served up decent Spanish sardines in olive oil. Still not right. The member wanted sardines of the Portuguese variety, tinned in tomato sauce.

Of course, as a member of one of Britain's most privileged private clubs, the gentleman has a right to demand whatever he wants, but one cannot help but wonder how long it will be before Mr Thomson is once again cooking for a more discriminating public.

WE MAY be in the midst of recession, but one restaurateur's misfortune is another's opportunity. It seems that as soon as restaurants go out of business in London these days - and they do quite a lot lately - they are snapped up by speculative operators. At least a dozen new places have opened, or are on the point of opening, several at familiar addresses.

Keats (071-435 3544) in Hampstead was once run by Herbert Berger (now at the Cafe Royal) in conjunction with Roy Ackerman's Restaurant Partnership, but it did not take enough money to pay for a major refurbishment. Then it was transformed into the Hungry Hussar, an offshoot of the Gay Hussar in Soho, but there evidently were not enough Magyars roaming around Hampstead to make it profitable. So now it has reverted to the name of Keats, with Adam Seviour cooking a reasonably priced menu of old favourites such as smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, cod and chips, lamb and ratatouille, with hot or cold bortsch kept on as a memento of the previous regime.

Martin Saxon, a veteran front man who was most recently at The Square in St James, has opened The Lexington (071-434 3401) on the former site of Sutherlands in Soho, the Michelin-starred establishment that bit the dust a couple of months back. It has been converted into what Mr Saxon calls a 'cool, cream, contemporary environment lined with dark green banquette seating' and has a young chef called Ian Loynes cooking a cute, modish menu with a strong Italian influence.

Mogens (the g is silent) Tholstrup, the Danish proprietor of Est in Frith Street, has purchased Daphne's, the Sloane Rangers' hangout in Draycott Avenue, from the receivers and plans to 'Mediterranean-ise' the menu and modernise the look of the place. Meanwhile, possibly the most eagerly anticipated restaurant opening of the millennium - Marco Pierre White's new venture in partnership with Michael Caine, to be called Harvey's Canteen - will not occur until November, despite having been praised for its 'loud, fun atmosphere' in the current edition of Tatler.

THE Queenstown Road Dining Rooms (071-720 6960), an up-market caff in Battersea, south London, opened a few months ago as Hackett's, but has been persuaded by the gentlemen's outfitters of that name to change its moniker (though not the style of its menu). 'Hackett is my maiden name, so they could hardly claim we were copying them,' says Susan Searing, proprietor of the Dining Rooms, 'but in the end they offered us a substantial sum, so we gave in gracefully.'

A SERIES of special gastronomic events is to be staged at venues across the country by members of The Master Chefs of Great Britain in conjunction with the Rioja Wine Exporters Group. Each evening will feature a tasting of fine oak-aged Gran Reserva Riojas and a dinner prepared by top regional chefs.

The first such evening will be held on Monday night at the Wordsworth Hotel at Grasmere in Cumbria (053 943 5592), where Peter Dixon of White Moss House, Reg Gifford of Michael's Nook, and Francis Coulson of Sharrow Bay at Ullswater will join Bernard Warne in the kitchen to cook a six-course menu featuring scallops, wild mushrooms and partridge for pounds 37.50 per head.

THE Gastropod does not possess a penguin suit and so did not attend the Restaurateurs' Dinner held last week at the Cafe Royal, where Sophie Grigson, who is to join the Independent as our food writer, was awarded the title of Restaurateurs' Food Writer of the Year. The dress code did not deter Ms Grigson's husband, fishmonger William Black, however. 'He was the only man in the room not wearing a black tie and dinner jacket,' said Ms Grigson, 'but at least he'd changed out of his customary wellies and overalls into a fairly respectable lounge suit.'

Billed as the 'Amazing Graze', the event was catered for by a diverse selection of half a dozen leading restaurants, including Amberley Castle, the Blue Elephant, and Now & Zen, but not including Bibendum, which won the title of Restaurateurs' Restaurant of the Year. Sophie Grigson received a trophy for her win plus a cheque for pounds 800. Enough cash, one would think, to buy her beloved a decent outfit for formal occasions. Perhaps he could share it with The Gastropod; we could then take it in turns to appear properly attired.

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