Just what sort of Place is this Kensington? (1): Reggie Nadelson praises it as London's best restaurant. The food, the people, the buzz . . .
Saturday 12 September 1992
I have turned up at 9pm without a reservation - and a table has been found. I have wandered in at four o'clock in the afternoon and been fed chocolate cake. One evening a friend and I decided to eat a dinner composed entirely of starters - potato salad with black truffles, foie gras and sweetcorn pancakes - and a succession of glasses of champagne. Cheques have been cashed for me, information swapped, recipes produced. I have been there with men and women, with colleagues and friends, and I have rarely met anyone who did not like it.
Much of this is down to table 37. It is, or was, in the window to the right of the revolving front door, on the same level as the bar. (The restaurant is reopening today, and table numbers are expected to change.) This is an excellent look-out post. Through the window you can see the Art Deco bronzes and the snarling china doggies, lit like a stage set, in the windows of the antique shops in Kensington Church Street. You can have your conscience tickled by bag ladies who pass, as if from another play. You can discuss whether or not that is Mark Knopfler descending from some funky vintage car or if the blonde is Princess 'Squidgy' who, it is alleged, has called by.
From table 37, you can also watch the action inside. Is that Michael Palin? John Cleese? Kensington Place is the kind of place where everyone looks like someone, although they are probably just somebody from the BBC. There are couples in black clothes and cowboy boots, tight-lipped, discussing divorce; sleek foreigners, like pampered seals, with quarter- pounder Rolexes; old ladies in hats who are surely famous drama queens, and neighbourhood families with perfect children and maybe a new live-in lover.
What is weird and wonderful about Kensington Place is that for a trendy restaurant, it has a down-home soul. It welcomes suburban couples in shoulder pads; it allows post- yuppies to bray in the bar; it does not care if you drift in for lunch in a terrible pair of jeans.
This is a stylish room, handsome and architecturally correct, which means the chairs are stunning, but uncomfortable. Like all great brasseries since Hemingway was at La Coupole, it is very, very noisy, which is the point. The truth is, anyone can play. Table 37 is usually reserved for the restaurant's star clients. But even I can get it sometimes, because more or less anyone can be a star. All you have to do is smile and show up a lot.
Caveat KP: Some of the folk working your telephones can be prickly and sullen; and this business of offering people weird hours to dine - six or 10 - has got to go. I mean, you would not want anyone who would eat at six in your restaurant, would you? Then there are those who report that, even with reservations, they have still been made to stand in the bar at rush hour.
By way of compensation, there are the waiters. Waiters who are actors, waiters who are singers. Waiters from New Zealand, Australia and France, often in ponytails - both women and men. Waiters who are competent, none the less, and seem to know when to schmooze you and when to leave you to the seduction you are planning. Furthermore, they do not mind when you want to redesign the food.
I have eaten many grilled coquelets (not just any little chickens, but little cocks) at Kensington Place, rivers of fish, fields of french fries, a couple of cows and an entire farm of salads. I like to design my own salads: anchovies in, tapenade out, hold the broccoli - you get the idea.
A friend from the north of England, for years my main eating partner at KP, thinks this is stupid but I think, and KP understands, that no self-respecting New York Jew would ever order food exactly the way it appears on the menu. (Jackie Mason does a great routine - 'Gimme a toasted bagel, but not too toasted, a side of butter but not too soft, not too hard, a schmear of cream cheese, make it big . . .' - well, you get the idea.) Only wusses (as we in New York have taken to calling nerds) eat things as they appear on a menu.
I have never had a bad meal, although I have had a few slow ones. In fact, I could go for a slab of breast of duck right now (not too rare). The food is unfussy and unpretentious; it is not pure anything and does not appear on the plate as from the hand of an interior decorator. My only gripe is that the waiters can never remember what flavour sorbets there are and the ice- cream flavours have often been boring. Improvement is apparently on the way, encouraged by Denise, one of the brilliant managers. 'Mint chocolate chip]' she exclaims. 'Cherry vanilla]]' Denise knows.
The folk who run Kensington Place are all appealingly eccentric: Denise, Graham who can seat the room like a chess player, Simon who is always going off on jaunts, to a ball in Shanghai or was it skiing in Egypt? None of them ever tries to palm off something expensive - a fancy wine, for instance. More often than not, one of them will just say, 'Oh, have the house wine. It's fine.' It always is.
Kensington Place, 201 Kensington Church Street, London W8 (071-727 3184).
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