Published 15 October 1995 Style Magazine 119th article
Michael Winner at Bibendum (John Gordon)
I have recently had the worst meal I've ever eaten. Not by a small margin. Not "This is terrible but another one somewhere else was nearly as bad." I mean the worst! The most disastrous. The most unbelievably awful! It happened at a restaurant I have previously admired, Bibendum in the Fulham Road, London. Even though Simon Hopkinson, its founder-chef, left, I have been in since and under his successor, Matthew Harris, it was just as good. I did have a nasty moment when they served Joan Collins some off caviar. But that was, up to now, my only complaint. I've been going to Bibendum since it first opened. I took Burt Lancaster, Lord Glenconner and, more recently, Joanna Lumley, Oliver Stone and Brian DePalma (not all at once)! It's the place I normally recommend to visitors. So when I strolled in one recent Sunday evening with a film producer from Los Angeles and one of his workmates, I thought: "This'll be fine." Boy, was I wrong!
The first course passed uneventfully. Mind you, how eventful can three green salads and scrambled eggs with tuna be? When we got to the main course, things plummeted. The two Americans had asked for medium to well done steaks. Not difficult, is it? I could - and frequently do - knock that up in my kitchen. I mean, you don't need to be an atom physicist to grill steaks, do you? They arrived so raw you could have drowned swimming in the blood. They had to be taken back, leaving chaos. Vegetables going off, a delay that was not short, some people ready to eat, some not. Eventually they returned. One okay, one still far short of medium to well done. We groaned and carried on.
Vanessa had started eating her sea bass as soon as it arrived. It was, she pronounced, cold. I tried it, it was. The boiled potatoes with it were grossly undercooked. Horrid.
But the piece de resistance was my persillade of tongue. Leathery, so hard it was difficult to cut and, as far as I could tell, not fresh. To put it very mildly, I picked away at it. Now why did I do that? Why did I not take it straight into the kitchen and say to the chef: "Taste this, it's totally revolting, isn't it?" Instead, like at wimp, I ate about a third of it, moaning internally as I did. What I should have done was tell everyone, then and there, very icily, that it was a disgrace. But that dreadful desire to keep the evening moving along, not to make a scene (yes, even for Winner), prevented me letting my feelings be known.
After this horrible main course was cleared away, the desserts were fine. Except for my American producer's. He ordered cheese and biscuits. Now, to serve cheese and biscuits you do not need an advanced degree in culinary art. All you need is some cheese and some biscuits and the strength to bring them to the table at more or less the same time. This was too much for the Bibendum waiter. He managed the cheese all right. Then he went and stood next to the biscuits sitting on a serving area nearby. He stood, and stood. My American friend, after a long wait because he was one of those quiet, far too polite Americans, said: "I did ask for biscuits." At that point my frustration boiled over. I gave the waiter speech 24A. "My guest asked for biscuits," I said. "They're fairly normal with cheese. Why is it difficult for you to bring them? I will be here for about another 40 minutes. Will you please shape up and he professional during that time. What I mean is, take your finger out." Biscuits then appeared with total regularity.
What is going on at Bibendum? I understand nowhere's perfect, they did once give Michael Caine partridge when he asked for grouse but, on the whole, they've dove pretty well. It makes me recall those people who say to me: "It's no good you writing about food, you don't get the treatment everyone else does, you get special attention." Oh yes! Cold fish, uncooked potatoes, steaks all wrong, tongue that was to any sane person inedible and cheese served with no biscuits! That's special! I checked the next day. The normal chap, Matthew Harris, was off. A sous chef named Athene O'Neill was in charge. I have nothing else to say.
PS: Bibendum, being nice people, apologised profusely for all this, knocked off the charge for the meal, and offered my guests a free meal when they come back to England.
I write in a mood of mild amusement and disbelief after dining out at the Atlantic Bar and Grill, London W1. The meal was fine, if unspectacular £90 for three, for two courses, one bottle of Australian shiraz, water, cover charge and a discretionary service charge. Having paid the bill, I waited unobtrusively at the reception while my wife and our friend popped into the ladies. A large doorman then asked me not to stand in the reception and notwithstanding my explanation that I was simply awaiting my companions and it was raining outside, demanded I either return downstairs or go outside. I politely declined and the next thing the burly chap was grappling with my shoulder and marching me outside. My request to see the manager was denied as he was busy and my protestations ridiculed as this brute reassumed his guard over the door. I would urge readers braving this war-zone eaterie either to wear protective clothing or, better still, seek out a restaurant where, rather than booting its patrons on to the street, one might exchange polite goodnights and head home unassaulted.
Mr A Cummins, London, NW5
I must take Mr Winner to task over Sticky Fingers (October 8). Having read his brief report, my wife and I and our four-year-old daughter decided to go. The burgers are definitely not "superb", they are incredibly ordinary, but before we were to discover this, we had to send back two of our starters: dried-out ribs and chicken wings that were pink inside. Then to cap it all, our daughter's burger, from the children's menu, which we had asked to be well done, came up pink with red spots inside. Although, when summoned, the manager agreed to waive the whole bill, drinks and all, we still left feeling extremely let down. Walking back down Kensington High Street, we passed McDonald's and our daughter observed: "That's the place that serves proper burgers." We just couldn't argue with her.
R A M Borley, Loughton, Essex
I have been fascinated by the growth of restaurant culture over the past 30 years. My interest is a result of my former career as a pest-control operator during the 1950s and 1960s, since when I have only entered a restaurant in an emergency, under duress or when exceedingly hungry.
Jack Crossley, Cheetham, Manchester