Cooking for a British monarch isn't easy - as Richard Roose discovered in 1532.
Cooking for a British monarch isn't easy - as Richard Roose discovered in 1532. Roose, head chef to the Bishop of Rochester, prepared a little something for King Henry VIII, but it disagreed with the royal duodenum, and Roose was boiled alive. John Vanderbooren must have wondered what the hell he was taking on when he agreed to cook for Queen Elizabeth II.
For a start, she doesn't like garlic. Or long pasta, like spaghetti. And she only ever wants a small portion. Unlike Elizabeth I, who used to make herself vomit with a peacock feather so that she could start dinner all over again. When Vanderbooren cooked for Her Majesty aboard the royal yacht Britannia, he settled, more often than not, on veal. OK, she didn't pull out a peacock feather, but the Queen seemed to approve.
And now that Vanderbooren has set up shop in the Buckinghamshire town of Beaconsfield, the rabble can enjoy his food too. Not that there is much in the way of rabble in Beaconsfield. Just a hat hire shop, and a place that specialises in restringing violins. It's the place that Enid Blyton called home. It's the place where the past is very much the present - in Beaconsfield, they haven't even heard of the gastropub.
The restaurant is in the tap room of The Greyhound, with its eating "space" (thank you, Linda Barker) marked out in terracotta. The eclectic menu runs from "toast Hawaii" (a ham and pineapple toastie, for goodness sake) to Jägersnitzel. But the overall feel is overwhelmingly retro. Think ambient elevator music - or what they now call "loungecore" - playing on an eight-track. Yeah baby!
The cocktail of prawns (£8.75) wasn't ironic or postmodern. Oh no. This was the real deal. The full-on Seventies experience, frozen prawns and all. It tasted fine to me. But I was still thrown by the single-minded dedication to the Seventies theme. The Parmesan came from a pot, the olives came (pre-sliced) from a jar and the butter came from a canteen in pre-packed foil pats. Full marks for attention to detail.
The poor waitress (another Seventies original) was a bit jumpy. She had clearly been damaged by the two-tone klaxon that summoned her to the kitchen whenever food was ready to go. There was also a green lightbulb stuck on to the wall. We never figured out why it was there, or what, spelt out in bold on the menu, were the mysterious "Other Services Offered". Maybe that's why the waitress was jumpy.
In London, portions are laughably small. It's easy to lose sight of your halibut under a boiled potato. But the halibut is the largest of the flatfish. It can weigh in at more than 600lbs and measure more than 12ft long. I'm not suggesting that my halibut was quite that big, but I certainly enjoyed a healthy flank of lean, white, firm-fleshed meat. And the surprisingly delicate flavour wasn't lost in the rich leek sauce.
The sirloin steak (£12.95) was topped with brie. The lamb chops (£11.75) were topped with feta. It was like the entire Eighties - and Rosemary Conley - never happened. I'm ashamed to say, I loved both dishes. But then I love over-cooked spaghetti. And tinned carrots. The meat was well flavoured, and came with a fresh, crisp salad that looked like it had been prepared (how else) with a Ronco Chop-o-matic.
The baked potatoes were in silver foil, and the green beans were wrapped in bacon. The tomatoes were stuffed with breadcrumbs. The whole thing felt like a meal produced by the intermediate domestic science class in Please, Sir! And everything was sprinkled with dried parsley. Clearly, Vanderbooren's time in the great hotels of the world has opened his mind to the unexplored possibilities of food.
I was pleased to see peach melba (£3.95) on the menu. But the warm peaches were tinned. And the strawberry sauce was a chemical spillage. The coup dam blanch - Vanderbooren is Dutch - was nothing more than ice cream and whipped cream. Clearly my Dutch wasn't up to ordering food. The only saving grace of the dessert course was that it came without dried parsley.
To be historically accurate, I wanted to finish off my dinner with an Irish Coffee. Joe Sheridan, a chef at Foynes Airbase in Limerick, first offered the hot, sweet drink to passengers waiting to fly to New York on a wintry day in 1943. But I like it anytime. Although I still call it a "floater". I still remember the childish joy of being able to ask a waiter "Do you sell floaters?". Mother never really understood my glee.
But the kitchen was already closed. John Vanderbooren had gone home at 10.10pm. And the waitress was busily blowing out the candles. Nothing says, "Relax - make yourself at home" more than that. I was planning to take my mother to The Greyhound for a Mother's Day dinner, but even she stays up later than 10.10pm. Besides, where's the fun if we can't share a floater?
SECOND HELPINGS: CROWN JEWELS
By Caroline Stacey
Tony Singh once cooked on the Royal Yacht Britannia, and set up this upscale restaurant and lounge bar. Highlights include paneer fritters and roast venison with savoy cabbage.
33 Castle St, Edinburgh (0131-226 7614)
The White Hart
Trying-to-be-funky bistro/restaurant in an old hotel building. Chris Barber was Prince Charles's chef, and the quality shows. Lamb curry, spicy squid, great fishcakes with chive sauce, and fab chips.
Nettlebed, Oxfordshire (01491 641245)
"I have special affection for the monarchy," wrote Michel Roux, and it seems it's mutual. He cooked selle et carré d'agneau de lait for the Queen's 70th, and she's since been back for more.
Ferry Road, Bray, Berkshire (01628 620691)
The introduction of organic dishes might not be coincidental to the fact that Prince Charles is a regular. Expect to pay a princely sum for an organic smoked salmon starter (£22) and steak Diane (£36).
Piccadilly, London W1 (020-7493 8181)Reuse content