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If there's one thing that gets my beef

Published 4 March 2007
News Review
711th article

Geraldine and Dinah await Michael's order at the Selfridges Brass Rail salt beef bar (Jim Sharkey)

It was my neighbour, the lyricist Don Black (Diamonds Are Forever and Born Free among his many hits), who, some years ago, offered me serious advice.

"The best salt beef in London is at Selfridges," he said. This was of no interest because (a) I seldom eat salt beef and (b) I never go to Selfridges.

Then something happened last week that changed everything. I was sitting in my room at the London Clinic when the chauffeur brought in a carton of mixed chicken soup from Harry Morgan.

"This is much less than usual!" exclaimed Geraldine. It hardly filled a clinic teacup.

I phoned the St John's Wood branch from whence it came. The manager, Michael White, who was obviously bottom of the class at charm school, said dismissively, "You must have asked for the small portion."

I checked with my chauffeur. "I just asked for mixed chicken soup as always," he said.

I rang Mr White back. "My chauffeur confirms he just said mixed chicken soup. Anyway your menu says absolutely nothing about there being two different amounts available, it just says 'mixed chicken soup £3.50'. So how is anyone meant to know there are two sizes?"

"You can see when you come in," said Mr White. "We have small and large cartons." This was getting beyond belief.

"Let me get this right," I said, miraculously keeping calm, "because I'll be writing about it in The Sunday Times . . ."

Mr White became agitated. "If you write anything about us we shall sue you for libel!" he announced.

"I'm terrified, we're running for the trenches," I said and put the phone down. Poor fellow obviously doesn't know there are things called critics. They review films, plays, clothing, dogs, cats, hedgehogs - it's all part of the wonders of democracy.

The next day I spoke to Mitchell Tillman, who owns Harry Morgan and seven other restaurants. He's ever charming. A great professional. He was appalled at the conversation with Michael White. "Of course we don't offer two sizes of chicken soup," he explained. "We have some larger cartons ready in case someone comes in and wants more for the family. What can I do to make amends?"

"I never take freebies, Mitchell," I said. "You've been very gracious. Let's just leave it." Nevertheless that evening two cartons of mixed chicken soup appeared. And very good they were.

A few days later I decided to try out The Brass Rail Salt Beef Bar at Selfridges. Geraldine and Dinah set off, returning with a salt beef bagel and tongue in a foccacia bun.

Selfridges announces on the menu "all the cattle used to make our salt beef are hand and grass reared in southern Ireland and supplied from a sustainable source". The girls also brought a very good carton of Oddono's vanilla ice cream. No statement was made as to where that was reared.

Unlike at Harry Morgan's the salt beef was served hot. My neighbour Don Black was absolutely right. It was superb. A generous portion, it came with some marvellous pickled cucumbers which were bought separately.

Later I had from Square Pie in Selfridges food hall, a hot steak and kidney pie that was indeed square. It came with mushy peas, mashed potato and gravy. That was also excellent. This time I tried the chocolate Oddono's ice cream. Delicious.

I doubt I'll ever eat this sort of food when I'm back in Holland Park. But I don't mind wallowing in it now! It takes me back to the 1950s when there was a really posh restaurant in Brewer Street, Soho, called Isow's, after the owner, Jack Isow, a fat, fairly repugnant-looking man.

His massive leather chairs housed the film people of London and Hollywood. Their names were painted on the red leather in gold script. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Ava Gardner, Sophie Tucker and other luminaries met and dined there. So did the British film distributors and producers in their grey two-piece suits. They nearly all worked round the corner in Wardour Street.

Jack was "interviewed" by the police. Secretly he hid an early tape recorder in his fireplace. When he came to court, the tape, with the police making violently anti-semitic remarks, was played. They lost their case. The police continued to pursue Jack Isow, eventually getting a conviction on some business gerrymandering.

I'll always remember Jack, standing at the front of Isow's. He was staring dolefully at a newspaper placard opposite which read: "Riot in Wormwood Scrubs". Jack noticed me reading the sign. "They've heard I'm coming in to do the catering," he said.

  • PS Mixed chicken soup continues to arrive at the clinic from Harry Morgan. It's very nice of you, Mitchell. But please, no more. Otherwise I'll have to open up as Winner's Deli!

    Winner's letters

    Michael usually enlightens us as to the cost of his eating out and his stays on his holidays. I am eagerly waiting to hear the price of his ambulance plane from Barbados to the London Clinic and any other costs.
    Syd Bretts, Edgware

    Had a delicious "tasting menu" at the French Laundry recently. When I asked the waiter why the dreaded Hildon water was being served, his reply was, "We endeavour always to serve seasonal items here!"
    Davis Hawke, Dartmouth

    Sorry you're laid up. But is the insect all right? Get well soon. Best wishes.
    Johnnie Hok, Hampshire

    Anyway, how's the diet going?
    Pablo Roberstart, East Sussex

    Having just returned from my own extended holiday in New Zealand, where the news consists mainly of stories about kiwi fruit, I was distressed to read you'd been struck down by a mysterious illness whilst holidaying in Barbados. Although we've never met, my companion and I sat at an adjacent table at Le Caprice and you acknowledged us with a "winning smile"! I've also spent time in the London Clinic. I'm sure you're being well taken care of despite the food being a little below par!
    Brian Hishon, Staffordshire