Published 9 October 1994 Style Magazine 67th article
Grey areas: Restaurant 101 (Simon Townsley)
I ran my finger along the leather-topped Regency table in the lobby of the Sheraton Park Tower. It was black with dust. I tried the desk top in a nearby alcove-room. Black again. I wandered toward the restaurant occasionally fingering surfaces; all were grubby. But in their Restaurant 101, although it's a strange and dowdy room, no dust at all! Not even on the mouldings on the wall panels. This is potentially one of the great spaces in London. It looks directly at pavement level on to Knightsbridge. It's large, it's light and at the moment it's awful.
Tacky-looking carpets, a large stain near my chair, the diamonds on them laid unevenly at the seams, curtains in a different mix of colour and design, and old, soiled chairs, marvellously comfortable, but in a faded blue pattern that doesn't match anything else. This could be used as a lesson in how not to decorate. I surveyed the menu. Mine was clean. Vanessa's was dirty. "We're ready to order," I told the waiter. He had no pad. "I usually do it by memory," he said. I've had many messed-up meals that way, so I asked him to write it down. "The pommes frites," I asked, "are they made here?" "Oh yes," said the waiter. "You mean they come into your kitchen as potatoes, a member of the staff takes them, cuts them up by hand and then they're fried and served as chips?" "Absolutely," said the waiter.
Three types of bread appeared, not very good but with olive oil served too, so good marks for that. My starter was a salad nicoise, unlike any I'd ever seen. Eight full potatoes stared at me, enough to make anybody queazy, then some large slabs of tuna, which were good, some lettuce, a couple of beans, some small eggs and olives. Anchovies and a large number of other key ingredients were missing. I asked the restaurant manager, Frank Tyler, what he had against anchovies. "We slightly change most of the dishes," he volunteered. "For the worse," I thought. My main course, duck, was okay but meaningless; the square, cut-up potatoes served with it were very underdone; the rest of the veg well cooked but with no taste. The "home-made" chips looked odd to me. I called Mr Tyler over. "Are those chips cut and made in your kitchen?" I asked. "I don't know," he replied. "Please, find out," I said. Mr Tyler came back sheepish. "They're frozen," he admitted. "Then why did your waiter assure me they were hand-done on the premises?" Mr Tyler looked uncomfortable. They featured on my bill even though I left them uneaten, £2.19 including service and Vat. Vanessa's fish cakes were good, but the whole thing, as she rightly observed, tasted of hotel food. No style or shape, just grey. No wonder the elderly couple nearby said the place had gone downhill for the last six years. "Why are you here then?" I asked. "We're local, it's convenient," was the answer. Mr Tyler has been brought in "to lift things from the embers", he explained. He'll have to be an Olympic gold medal weight-lifter for that. He recommended the orange sponge pudding, it had no excitement, the sauce was indifferent.
They should bring in an outsider, like Forte brought in Nico and Marco to liven up hotel spaces that were sitting dull and placid. With the management of this place they'll never get it right on their own. Back in the lobby I wetted my hankie a bit and ran it along the same desk top. I showed the blackened area to the receptionist. "Can I keep the handkerchief?" she said. A manager-type came over. "Did you have a good lunch, Mr Winner?" he asked. "Come here," I said, leading him to the centre table. I rubbed my hankie over a bit and showed him the black. "It's the flowers," he explained with a straight face. Obviously the Sheraton's small bowl of flowers came from a planet where dust-ridden plants scatter everywhere. I wiped the other end of the table, also black. The general manager of all this is Mr Derek Picot. No wonder with a Sheraton like this, nearby, new, boutique-hotels such as the Halkin rise and succeed. At the Halkin the rooms are cheaper, the place is fresh and clean, and the food is excellent. Mr Picot should take note.
I was fascinated to read Michael Winner's account of his visit to the Peat Spade Inn at Longstock. My wife and I lived in the village in the late 1980s and the pub was then run by a delightful couple, Mark and Ding Owen, who made every visit a fun-filled occasion and combined looking after the locals with providing first-class, gourmet standard food at lunch or dinner. We made the mistake of returning once, following the Owens' departure, for dinner on my birthday. Apart from our own jolly party, the atmosphere was chilly and after our rather elaborate dinner, we made a hasty departure. I don't expect that Mr Winner will be keen to return to this corner of rural Hampshire in a hurry, but if he is brave enough to do so, I heartily recommend the White Lion at Wherwell, where the food is plain but good and the atmosphere first class.
David Gaynoll, Winchester
With regard to Mr Winner's article about the Peat Spade Inn, Longstock, my husband and I regularly lunch there when travelling between the Home Counties and Dorset and reckon our discovery of this remote and very attractive establishment to be one of our luckier finds. We often eat in more elegant establishments, restaurants with far slicker service, but with less enjoyment. The Peat Spade has for us an eccentric charm and we feel the landlady is to be congratulated in managing to produce excellent food single-handedly whilst acting as barmaid and chef as well as gardener. Waiting is inevitable in these circumstances but the end result is worth it, and Mr Winner would, I am sure, have enjoyed a most delicious lunch if he accepted the necessary restrictions with equanimity. Perhaps he should return when he has more time to spare.
Mary Webber, Amersham, Bucks
I am sorry that Michael Winner had such a disappointing time at the Peat Spade Inn at Longstock. He was certainly very unlucky. The administration can seem somewhat chaotic, and Mrs Tuckett appears to run the whole business without any regular help, other than that of two huge and friendly poodles. However, we have been there many times, have never had to wait unduly long, and have had freshly and imaginatively cooked food at bargain prices every time. It is one of our favourite restaurants. I don't suppose Mr Winner will ever pass that way again, but I hope that others will (phoning first!), and that they enjoy themselves as much as we always do.
Caroline Hayes, Winchester
I was somewhat bemused by Mr Winner's attention to the Peat Spade Inn in his column of September 25. Thank you so much for such wide coverage of the inn in a paper read by so large an audience.
Julie T Tuckett, The Peat Spade Inn, Longstock
I wish to recommend the small, friendly Haxted Mill Restaurant near Edenbridge, Kent. Five of us had an excellent lunch in the garden last August. In delightful surroundings we enjoyed well-cooked food from a varied, imaginative menu, reasonably priced, and served with attention to detail by pleasant, efficient staff.
Joy Morgan, South Croydon
I have to pass on a recommendation that Mr Winner seems to have missed out of his French Riviera guide. Probably the finest and most perfectly sold food is at the Plage l'Ondine on the Croisette at Cannes a place I find it very difficult to criticise or, indeed, to find any fault with. Also worth a try for lunch is the Auberge des Adrets at Frejus.
Corinne Coleman, London NW6