The Milky Bar Kid is back

Ken Livingstone returns to County Hall - even if it's only to reveal what he'd do for a bar of white chocolate. By Tracey MacLeod; Blair apparatchiks take note - the spectre of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London could evaporate with an investment in white chocolate mousse Photographs by Morley von Sternberg

Short of taking Dr Crippen to Pharmacy, or Elvis to a Burger King, it's hard to imagine a more poignant combination of guest and lunch-spot than Ken Livingstone and the new restaurant at County Hall. Since the GLC was abolished in 1986, its fiery last leader has seen his former headquarters fall to the enemy forces of international capitalism, sold off by the Conservative government to a Japanese corporation.

And now, to add insult to injury, he must eat an expensive meal in the new five-star Marriott Hotel, while outside the windows, the terrace is prepared for a Peter Andre concert. The same terrace from which Ken once hung a banner carrying the latest unemployment figures will be capered on that very night by the one man in showbusiness most of us would fervently wish to see unemployed.

But if the weight of history was pressing heavily on the shoulders of the MP for Brent East, he wasn't letting on. "I'm just happy to be taken out for a free lunch in a nice restaurant," he said cheerily, as he waved aside my suggestion that we order a half-bottle of wine, saying he could easily manage an afternoon of paperwork after sharing a full bottle.

Meeting for a Friday lunch in the week after the hotel opened, Ken and I were the only customers in the grand, oak-panelled dining room, and therefore landed a plum table, with a view of the Houses of Parliament.

I'd worried that we would get the red-carpet treatment as soon as Ken was spotted, but none of the super-polite waiting team seemed to be British, so his presence initially passed unremarked. In fact, our waiter seemed bemused by Ken's absorbed perusal of the potted history of County Hall printed on the cover of the menu, and indulgently asked him if he'd like to keep it. "Yeees, I'm going to have a good chuckle at this," Ken replied mischievously, and the waiter went away, looking a bit concerned.

The lunch menu is surprisingly traditional, given that it was constructed in consultation with rising Irish super-chef Richard Corrigan. There's a bias towards club food, such as fillet of Scottish beef and grilled Dover sole, and a good selection of seafood, plus a few more eclectic dishes, including cold fennel and almond soup, to lure any politicians of the Granita persuasion.

Ken set about his starter of langoustine mayonnaise with gusto, dissecting his spiny victims with the doggedness and precision that have characterised his Blair-baiting mayoral campaign. My own grilled sardines came mounted on a slightly dry cake of apricot-studded tabouleh, and surrounded by a multi-coloured swirl of oils. "I have no objection to all that," said Ken, as he examined the effect.

Transgressing the unwritten code of restaurant reviewing, I inadvertently ordered the same main course as my guest, who has himself established an unexpected subsidiary career as a restaurant writer. But as it happened, Ken offered no opinion on our choice - corn-fed chicken with tagliolini and roast onions - other than to say: "I've stopped drinking my wine, so the food must be good." The chicken was milkily tender, and flavoured with fresh tarragon and nuggets of bacon, but I found the pasta over-salted, although I couldn't persuade Ken to agree.

In fact, for someone so flamboyantly definite in his political opinions, Ken proved frustratingly reticent as a reviewing companion. Peppering his conversation with put-downs of his opponents, who were either "ghastly" or "vile", he declined to engage in any detailed critique of the food.

When it came to our surroundings, too, he was non-committal, refusing to express disappointment at the fate of County Hall. I did, however, manage to provoke a certain amount of abuse from him about the aquarium downstairs. "Tacky ... a rip-off ... purely a tourist attraction," he fumedThe pudding list shows a more experimental bent than the rest of the menu - zanily so, in the case of dishes such as lemon rice pudding with tomato sorbet and basil sauce. My won ton with lemon curd, papaya and mango was a delicate layering of crisp pastry sheets, fruit and zabaglione, while Ken was blissfully happy with his white chocolate mousse. "I'm a white chocolate addict," he explained. "I wouldn't need to be tortured - they'd just have to dangle a bar of white chocolate in front of me and I'd tell them anything." Tony Blair's apparatchiks take note - the spectre of Livingstone as Mayor of London could evaporate with a judicious investment in the appropriate confectionery.

His afternoon of paperwork seemingly abandoned, Ken ordered a cognac, and I gamely kept pace with a Frangelico, a sticky Italian liqueur which tasted like a melted hazelnut choc-ice. In a final desperate attempt to prod him off the fence, I asked whether he would ever bring a guest to County Hall for lunch. "I don't know," he hedged, elusive to the last. "I'll see what the bill is." As it turned out, it was close to pounds 100, including our pounds 32 bottle of Pouilly Fume, but we discovered that it had quietly been settled by the Marriott's general manager, Michael O'Dwyer. Alerted to Ken's presence by the snapping of the photographer, he apologised for not having welcomed his historic guest earlier, and offered to show us around the rest of the hotel.

There followed a surreal - and from my point of view slightly blurry - tour of corridors and conference rooms. Into the Leader's Bar we trouped, to examine a framed photograph of Ken in a sailor's cap, then on through the Horace Cutler and Herbert Morrison suites, and into the humming, hi- tech business centre. "That's a coincidence - this is where the photocopier used to be," said Ken jovially. Even when told that a room in the hotel cost pounds 235 per night, he didn't bat an eyelid.

As we said our goodbyes on the terrace, surrounded by Peter Andre's amplifiers, a town crier appeared in full scarlet regalia, and he and Ken greeted each other warmly. The only surviving employee of the old GLC, the crier had been retained by County Hall's new owners to attract punters to the Aquarium, and he and Ken passed several minutes in happy reminiscence. He was the only person we met that day who didn't ask Ken whether it felt strange to be back. But I suspect he already knew the answer

The County Hall Restaurant, The London Marriott, County Hall, London SE1 (0171-902 8000). Breakfast 6.30am-10.30am (Mon-Fri); 7am-11am, (Sat & Sun). Lunch 12pm-3pm. Pre- theatre 3pm-6pm. Dinner 6pm-11pm (Mon-Sat); 6pm-10.30pm (Sun). All cards. Limited disabled access.

Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

    Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape