The Weasel

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Much favoured by the political superstars of New Labour, the Michelin- starred River Cafe in Hammersmith boasts a menu which combines the peasant cuisine of Tuscany with inventively stratospheric prices. For example, a bowlful of the classic soup pappa al pomodoro, which combines such exorbitant ingredients as tomatoes, olive oil, water and stale bread, will set you back the wrong side of pounds 8. Fortunately, the rest of us can enjoy the same dishes at more modest cost thanks to the two best-selling cook books written by the restaurant's guvnors, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.

In the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveller, Ms Gray describes how she turns stroppy with people who gripe that they can't find the ingredients. "I reply, `Well, you must make it your mission to find them. If I can do it, you can.' I could do it anywhere. It's just a matter of time and effort." Quite right, too. If I put my mind to it, I'm pretty sure I could track down a fair amount of stale bread in Weasel Villas. However, other ingredients present more of a problem. It was the distinguished culinary writer Arabella Boxer who noted that some recipes in River Cafe Cook Book Two require no less than a kilo of rocket. She calculated that if you were to buy this tasty leaf from the supermarket in 30g packets at 79p each, it would cost around pounds 26 for six servings of rocket and potato soup.

But even rocket is a snip compared to the white truffle. In the magazine article, Rose Gray revealed how she obtains this gastronomic holy of holies. "Just last week, three men - Italians in yellow cashmere sweaters - turned up at the kitchen door with about pounds 15,000 worth of white truffles," she said. "I bought about one-and-a-half kilos from them and offered to write a cheque, but they said they'd come back for cash. I haven't seen them since." It is unclear whether Ms Gray retained possession of the white truffles. At pounds 36 per ounce (a price I was quoted by Camisa & Son of Old Compton Street), the River Cafe recipe for white truffle risotto, which requires 5-6 ounces of this subterranean rarity for six servings, involves an outlay of around 200 quid. However, you could probably get it a bit cheaper. Just keep a look-out for yellow cashmere jerseys.

I am also obliged to Conde Nast Traveller for the news that Philippe Starck - whose pounds 1,061 (plus VAT) lavatory I cruelly dissuaded Mrs W from buying last week - has got more on his mind than U-bends. It seems that the Gallic genius is currently designing a 150-room, five-star hotel for a site near the home of this newspaper in Canary Wharf. Going by the slightly unfortunate name of The Canary Riverside (it sounds like a drowned budgie), these fancy lodgings are due to open in 1999. This came as a surprise to me because the swarthy visionary has announced that he will shortly be putting away his drawing board for good.

In his eponymous manifesto, Starck (Taschen, pounds 24.95), le maitre unambiguously declares: "In precisely two years, I will halt my material activities in order to throw myself into other activities which I do not yet know myself ... If the strategy of immateriality is successful - my belief in it is absolute - this implies my eventual disappearance." Monsieur Starck made this statement in an interview dated April 1996. Blimey. Does this mean that The Canary Riverside will be the world's first immaterial five- star accommodation? If so, it will make even The Hempel, Anouska Hempel's famously minimalist hotel, look a bit on the cluttered side.

Perhaps, in reaction to its notable absence within the walls of Weasel Villas, minimalism has become a recurring preoccupation of this column. A while ago, a reader kindly me sent a 1933 cartoon from Punch, which revealed that the vogue for uncomfortable purity is nothing new. It shows an early victim of minimalism displaying her fashionably Spartan drawing room, empty except for a single modernistic item of furniture, to a speccy aesthete. "But, my dear," the visitor asks, "why the table?"

The twitchily authoritarian designers who recently appeared on an excellent BBC2 film about minimalism were reminiscent of Professor Otto Silenus, the modern architect in Evelyn Waugh's 1928 masterpiece, Decline and Fall: "I suppose there ought to be a staircase. Why can't the creatures stay in one place? Do dynamos require staircases? Do monkeys require houses?"

John Prescott is not alone in having trouble with local politics. Much to my surprise, an attempt was made to gag this column by Bromley council this week. Well, it won't work. The Weasel will squeak, sorry, speak out. It all came about when I was returning home the other night. A voice startled me from the darkness: "Are you coming to the meeting about the high street?" It turned out to be my friend from the bookshop. "Come on, we need some local residents," he said, urging me into the church hall opposite Weasel Villas. A dozen people, mainly shopkeepers, were there to discuss ways of enhancing the town's exhaust-choked thoroughfare. "This is Mr Weasel," my chum announced. "He's a journalist." Ignoring this embarrassing tag, I started chatting with the chap from the dry-cleaners. Eventually, the meeting got underway. I was jolted from my light doze when I realised that the first contribution, volunteered by a plum-faced council officer, concerned me. "Point of order, Mr Chairman. I believe a reporter is present," he barked, giving me a basilisk glance. "I wish to protest since local elections are only seven weeks off." With some hauteur, I responded that I was, in fact, a local resident - could hardly be more so, since my front door was less than 20 yards away - and the meeting proceeded.

I didn't intend writing a word about this profoundly narcotic occasion - but I shall now reveal all. The pavement outside WH Smith is a bit dicey following inadequate restoration by a cable company. The town's toilets have been closed, either because of flooding or vandalism, no one is sure. The installation of closed-circuit cameras in the high street is taking longer than expected. Finally - let joy be unconfined - the delights of the town are to be celebrated in a brochure. Now you know everything. The press will not be muffled!

It's a rum thing, but no sooner had I written about the incongruity of the Venice Carnival being sponsored by Volkswagen than I kept seeing TV adverts in which the latest model of Lancia demonstrated its paces on the frozen canals of Venice. Since I spotted few ice-floes on the Adriatic, I presume these acrobatic manoeuvres, in which the car zipped under the Bridge of Sighs and sped over the lagoon to the Lido, were the result of some computerised jiggery-pokery. But what's really odd is not the surreal setting but the prowess with which the vehicle was driven. For obvious reasons, the Venetians are regarded as terrible motorists even by Italian standards

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