Food: Cool for fat cats
It may not be Frank's Cafe in Greenwich, but Jools Holland finds that Claridge's still offers value at pounds 340 for four. Photographs by Morle y von Sternberg
Saturday 13 February 1999
So it was inevitable that when I threw him a casual invitation to accompany me on a restaurant review, the evening should develop (over the months it took to pin him down) into a high-stepping night on the town in one of London's most famous (and famously expensive) restaurants.
Jools had firm ideas about the venue. "None of those modern places where they serve roast cod in salsa sauce," he stipulated. His idea of a perfect restaurant is somewhere Terry-Thomas might have taken a friend for dinner. Two favourites - Frank's Cafe in Greenwich and Le Caprice - already meet most of his dining needs, but he's always on the look-out for a good, traditional restaurant - preferably one that hasn't changed since before the war.
Claridge's fits the bill. The dining room of this Mayfair centenarian, haunt of statesmen, plutocrats and Mrs Thatcher, is a listed example of Art Deco, and has apparently escaped the hand of corporate standardisation. In the adjoining lounge, a Palm Court trio plays old-fashioned tinkly music, which drifts soothingly into the restaurant. "That's the kind of music you hear in films set in wartime Germany," said a newly bearded Jools as we settled in. "The only thing that usually stops it is a machine gun."
Our party, which also included Jools's partner Christabel and her brother Adam, was seated in a recessed alcove, at what the maitre d' assured us was "ze best table in ze room". Jools had taken the precaution of bringing a spare tie for Adam, who, being an artist, wasn't equipped to satisfy Claridge's strict jacket-and-tie dress code. As he tugged the borrowed neckwear into place, the maitre d' sidled back to say: "I'm glad you did that, sir - some of our older diners do tend to complain."
The older diner was very much in evidence in the high-ceilinged dining room, which is apricot-toned and dimly enough lit to flatter the more mature complexion. Most seemed to be either well-heeled foreigners, or the kind of antique London socialites who will surely qualify soon for their very own preservation order. A klatch of meringue-haired Barbara Cartland lookalikes were reminiscing about the glory days of Annabel's at the next table, and dotted around were a few clubbable old gents, dining alone.
The well-preserved state of both the surroundings and our fellow diners immediately made Jools feel at home. "It's a very good sign that there are old people here," he commented approvingly. "After all, who has the most experience of eating - old people or young people?"
The lengthy menu offers something for both. There's tradition in the form of Dover sole and rack of lamb, but also contemporary leanings, with lemon blinis and oriental spicings, and as Jools was happy to note, no sign of a salsa.
With main courses averaging pounds 30, and starters at around pounds 17, I immediately realised that our expedition was destined to head way over budget, and went straight for the pounds 39 set menu. Unfortunately, no one else followed my lead, and soon Jools was consulting with the wine waiter and ordering a succession of mystery wines from a list whose top end, I was disturbed to note, extended well into the low thousands.
Our starters arrived under four silver domes, which the well-drilled waiters removed with an impressive simultaneous flourish. Jools's choice was simply and elegantly presented - a plain, butter-rich risotto topped with a sumptuous heap of wild mushrooms. My seared scallops and king prawns came with a broad bean risotto and crispy shreds of fried ginger, and every element sung with its own flavour.
Christabel went for Charlotte of Asparagus, which sounded like an entry from the Belgian edition of Debrett's, but proved to be a vertical arrangement of tender young spears, encircling avocado, tomato and other good, summery things. Equally summery was Adam's salad of Cornish lobster and lime-dressed crab, though the pool of green asperala cream sauce that accompanied it looked and tasted rather too much like Timotei cream conditioner for comfort.
With the appearance of our main courses, we seemed to be outnumbered two-to-one by the waiters, who swarmed around with silent efficiency, like airport workers guiding a Jumbo to the gate. One of them darted forward to throw a disguising napkin over a drop of wine spilled by Jools, and I waited for another to throw a tablecloth over his head, saying, "I'm sorry, sir, but we've had a complaint about your beard."
Adam's Barbary duck involved not just a tender breast, but also a smoky rissole affair, featuring an alarming vertically protruding leg-bone. His painterly eye was pleased by the arrangement of the accompanying Savoy cabbage into a vivid green sphere, like a snooker ball. Jools pronounced "top class" his tender tournedos of Aberdeen Angus, which was served on a medallion of rosti potatoes, under a herb crust. "Herb Crust - sounds like someone you might introduce on Later," I suggested.
Christabel's black-leg chicken with puy lentils and truffle juice went down equally well, though she was distracted by a gentleman at an adjoining table, who chose to summon a waiter by clapping his hands loudly together, then sitting back expectantly. My own selection, roast loin of veal from the carving trolley, was picked purely for the table-side theatre it would involve, and I immediately felt bad about it. "It's crate ... I mean, great," I murmured guiltily.
All of us were impressed with Claridge's achievement in offering confident, stylish cooking in a classic old-world setting. Jools's only quibble was with the pudding menu, which he felt was a bit too directional. "I can't see anything sensible - a nice pie or a custard dish," he complained. His creme brulee was buried beneath a wealth of superfluous fruits and sorbets, and its crunchy lid had been arranged at right angles to the creme, thereby depriving him of any pleasurable excavating duties.
Adam's crepes suzette were prepared beside our table in an obviously well-rehearsed performance, which enveloped us in wonderful smells, from the caramelising of the sugar to the alcoholic cloud released when Grand Marnier was added to the foaming pan. A safety wall of waiters interposed themselves as the pan was ignited with a whump, and Adam worked hard to hide his disappointment with the result, which looked, as he pointed out, like an old newspaper left in the gutter. It tasted, if anything, too alcoholic and he would have been glad to be offered something creamy to temper its acidity.
I was thinking of emollients myself, as I contemplated a bill which, at pounds 340 including service, I knew was going to take some serious explaining. Still, at least it had been a splendid evening. "I'd definitely come back here," Jools concluded. "It's right in the middle of the West End, but it's very gloomy and quiet, which I approve of. After all, if you wanted hubbub, you could go to one of those heaving places where you have to queue up to be insulted."
And Claridge's seemed equally pleased with Jools. As we were waiting for our coats I glanced at the maitre d's list of reservations, and noticed that, over our booking, he had added "BBC personalities", in a proud, spidery hand.
Claridge's, Brook Street, London W1 (0171-629 8860). Lunch and dinner daily, 12.30pm to 3pm; 7pm to 11.30pm. Disabled access. All cards.
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